Playing Russian roulette

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Playing Russian roulette is an idiom that was first seen in English in the 1930s. We will examine the meaning of the idiom playing Russian roulette, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

Playing Russian roulette means to take a gamble that has the potential to end in disaster. For instance, if you cross a busy street without looking at the traffic you may be said to be playing Russian roulette. If you eat from a dish of nuts that has one poison nut in the mix, you may be said to be playing Russian roulette. You are trusting that the odds will be in your favor that you will not be harmed. The idiom playing Russian roulette was first mentioned in the short story, Russian Roulette, written by Georges Surdez in 1937. The practice is said to have originated in Tsarist Russia. Originally, playing Russian roulette referred to taking one bullet from the cylinder of a pistol, spinning the cylinder, and putting the pistol to one’s head and pulling the trigger. Later, the practice was to put only one bullet in the cylinder, spin the cylinder, and put the pistol to one’s head and pull the trigger. The phrase playing Russian roulette soon came to mean taking any gamble with as much at stake as a bullet in the chamber of a pistol. Related phrases are play Russian roulette, plays Russian roulette, played Russian roulette. Note that Russia is capitalized, because it is a proper noun.


At the risk of mentioning a country about which President Trump is sensitive, we really are playing Russian roulette with our democracy. (The Washington Post)

Acknowledging that some risk is involved, Shipley said: “Hope I’m not playing Russian roulette here and my epitaph doesn’t read: Because of a haircut. R.I.P.” (Santa Rosa Press Democrat)

“It’s playing Russian roulette with an international natural landmark and the source of the Suwannee and St. Marys rivers.” (The Brunswick News)