Playing Russian roulette

  • Playing Russian roulette is an idiom that was first seen in English in the 1930s. An idiom is a word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases and popular expressions that are used figuratively or idiomatically. 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)

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