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In an interview with the last president of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev, which was motivated by the anniversary of the attempted coup in 1991 (and in which the interviewer tries to elicit some comments on the situation in Belarus), Gorbachev is quoted:

Я думаю, во всем предстоит разобраться и поставить точки на «i».

The usage of the saying surprised me as there is no letter «i» in Russian - apart from books or inscriptions from before the orthography reform of 1918. Thus, I would have expected such a saying to quickly fall in disuse. It doesn't look like it's indispensable.

Gorbachev is almost 90 years old. The reform had already been in place for twenty years, when he was old enough for school. By now, it's more than 100 years that the letter was abolished in Russian.
(BTW, the Belarusian alphabet - among others - still has the letter «i».)

Are there any factors that keep this saying alive? Are younger people still using it?

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This is a calque from French "mettre les points sur les “i”" and it sounds - and always sounded actually - quite bookish, it's not like somewhere in the middle of the 19th century one peasant was telling another one, "Семён Семёныч, давай расставим все точки на i - будем мы сегодня пахать или нет". This is a part of Russian cultural context approximately as much as popular Latin idioms are. For instance, you can find that some journalists (like, for instance, Максим Соколов) like to use from time to time phrase like sic! or sapienti sat. Russian writers, the Strugatsky brothers, liked to use "quantum satis".

Someone who reads a lot won't be surprised to find such phrases. A teenager, however, would hardly say "давай расставим точки над i", while some professor actually can. It's recognisable though.

Also, there's a Russian counterpart which sounds like "расставить/поставить все точки над ё" - but it has slightly humorous connotations, so "serious" people would rather use "i".

The other thing to mention - you are sort of assuming that if something does not belong to modern context it automatically ceases from existence. It's not true in any case. In Russian, for instance, we say "ничтоже сумняшеся" - it's a relic of Church Slavonic, nobody talks like that for hundreds of years, still this phrase is in active usage.

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  • @Ainar-G this is something that author mentioned themselves ;) – shabunc Aug 19 at 14:37
  • Gah, missed it. Thanks. – Ainar-G Aug 19 at 14:38
  • @shabunc: Thanks. I actually thought of remarking that this saying is probably not biblical, nor from fairy tales, Pushkin's poems (as far as I can guess),... – Frank from Frankfurt Aug 19 at 14:55
  • I want to add that before 1918 Russian had an i too ( originally with two dots like the diaeresis above i in English). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dotted_I_(Cyrillic) and this phrase can be found in literature. So, before reform the expression was understandable by anyone with literacy. – Swift Aug 20 at 6:47
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    @Swift the author themselves mentioned that fact – shabunc Aug 20 at 9:11
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It can explained by historical background: the Russian alphabet had a Cyrillic i until 19th - early 20th century. It was slowly phasing out of usage and removed during the reformation period in 1917-1918. It was replaced by letter "И" in all instances. The letter was called "iod" as Ї ї, then became " И десятиричное" ( Decimal i) when though, similar to the Greek "iota" which was 10th letter (with digamma being 6th).

The origin is indeed French. There was a historical tendency of using French phrases and savoir-faire among aristocracy, which was reflected in literature and was one of those "signal flags" to demonstrate education.

These familiar with classic literature may use this in written text, sometimes in speech. It's understandable by anyone who is familiar with the Latin alphabet. It's more common now than forty years ago.

There is no analog for the 'crossed t' phrase, but there is a near-calque for the English expression "down to a tee" (sometimes incorrectly spelled as "down to a T") - "До последней черточки", which got a related use and meaning and with some changes to a phrase can be used instead of "dots above i".

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    Any reference for the letter being called ”iod” in Russian? I only read and heard it referred as «и десятеричное», while «йот» has been an alternative name for ”Й“ (normally called «и краткое»). – J-mster Aug 20 at 9:00
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    Before the 1918 orthography reform, the letter <и> was called “и́же” or “и восьмери́чное” and the letter <i> was called “i” or “і десятери́чное”. – Yellow Sky Aug 20 at 18:19
  • @J-mster Probably more correct to say that iod was name for Ї ї, which in Russian was displaced by use of glyph I i. Name you mentioned derived from numerical value of letter in alphabet, it's 10th both in Cyrillic (note, Cyrillic, not just Russian) and in Greek alphabet, while И is 8th and was called "И восьмеричное" Й й is related to Ї ї, is also known as j or ĭ in western slavic languages and not only (j is known as "hota" in Spanish) represents phonetical distinction of diaeresis. – Swift Aug 20 at 18:24
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    In the original Cyrillic alphabet <ї> was a graphic variant of <i>, <ї> had no special phonetic value apart from [i], it is not connected with <й>, and surely it had no name of its own. Could you get any reference for a Cyrillic / Russian letter with the name “iod” before 1918? – Yellow Sky Aug 20 at 20:35
  • @YellowSky Before 1918? Aim before 1700s. At 1800 is was letter for normal и sound, so it couldn't be called that, и was used to yodise. Sadly none online that can be checked aside from article on Сyrilic alphabet and following links to the ї. Curios that German, English and Russian articles differ in detail. But there is also no sign that Й was called that even, but it seems a logical name as it may cause yodisation (yodification) of following sound. Have to go to a physical library and dig into find proper sources, I was speaking from was we were told 30 ago in lectures. – Swift Aug 21 at 7:42
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This is only tangentially related to your question, but I think the meanings of the expressions are different in English and Russian.

In English, dotting your i's and crossing your t's means putting the finishing touches on something, finalizing some small details. These finishing touches might not be truly essential, and the result might be still be satisfactory enough without them. Maybe you're a lawyer preparing to argue a case, and you want to make sure that your reasoning is rock solid. You want to make sure you didn't miss or overlook anything.

On the other hand, it seems to me that in Russian, putting the dots above the i's often refers to figuring out some very important missing details, as in the final piece of a puzzle falling into place, maybe pursuing an investigation to its final conclusion and getting to the bottom of a mystery. Establishing the full truth and achieving closure. For instance, an important new archaeological discovery might help historians "put the dots above the i's" regarding our knowledge about some ancient civilization.

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