There's a slang word in Russian, халява (pronounced halyava), meaning something that you get for free and without any effort despite its obvious monetary or effortful value. This something isn't either a present or reward; nor is it anything obtained illegally, say, by a theft or fraud.

Since some people (maybe too many) wouldn't mind getting something (even if they don't really need it) without paying for it, there appeared a saying "На халяву и уксус сладкий". Literally, it means somewhat like "Even vinegar, once you've gotten it for free, tastes sweet".

I'm wondering what would be the English slang or just colloquial equivalent of the Russian халява. "A steal", which came to my mind, suggests a bargain, so I don't think it matches the original meaning.

Also, I'd very much like to know if there are any English sayings or proverbs referring to getting something (unduly) for free and to a possible aftermath of such "lucky" events.

A small addition:

Also, I've been thinking of "on the house" idiom and wondering if "without the expense of buying", or "without any expense", or "gotten for free" could be acceptable.

  • I'm having trouble thinking of specific sayings, but I would start by looking at the phrase "something for nothing", although these sayings are usually a warning that "there's no such thing as a free lunch" and that you end up paying some cost, even if it isn't in money.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 14:25
  • 2
    Not quite an answer, and you probably know it: "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth" (because its bad teeth may indicate old age or other bad condition) means if you get something for free do not expect it to be perfect, and do not complain about defects. A bit like with the vinegar. Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 14:42
  • 4
    I don't know of a common phrase that is repeated verbatim for this concept, but in American English people talk about this kind of thing all the time. Like: "How is that pizza?" "Well, normally I would hate it, but since it was free, that makes it the best pizza I've had all month!" or: "Which coffee are you going to get?" "Starbucks is good coffee, but the machine at the office is free, and you can't beat that free flavor!" We make up a new phrase every time, but the idea is still that free things have an edge over things you pay for. Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 16:22
  • 2
    I finally thought of the expression I would use - "Everything's better when it's free!"
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 21:18
  • 4
    There is a proverb in Turkish, meaning "Free vinegar is sweeter than honey." Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 13:04

9 Answers 9


The closest I can think of is

a gift horse

which references the saying

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Though it is not a precise match.

A horse’s teeth are often a good indication of the horse’s overall health, so when purchasing a horse it was important to look in its mouth to ensure the teeth looked healthy. But the proverb tells you not to do this with a gift horse: since it was freely given, it does not matter what its condition is. Even an unhealthy horse is fine when it’s free. (The proverb is also given as a rule of etiquette, since it would be rude to question the value of a gift freely given.)

But if this is similar enough, then you could use a gift horse to refer to something you got for free, and therefore did not care how useful or valuable it was since it cost you nothing. It should be noted that while don’t look a gift horse in the mouth is a common, well-known saying, the phrase a gift horse referencing it is not common. I think most readers familiar with the saying will get it, but some might not get it immediately and react with “what horse?” You could give them a nudge in the right direction by saying something like a proverbial gift horse to indicate that you’re talking about the proverb, that this is a horse you shouldn’t look in the mouth.

As an aside, a term very different in meaning is a Trojan horse, which was a gifted horse that very much should have been inspected. It was, of course, a large wooden horse rather than a real horse, but it was famously left outside Troy by the Greek armies that had beseiged it. It appeared to have been left as a sign of respect for their bravery in defending the city, and it was taken into Troy. Of course, it was actually a trick: Greek soldiers had hid inside it, and that night they snuck out of it, now inside the walls, and the sneak attack took Troy. Hence the phrase beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

The fact that this trick took the form of a gifted horse while the proverb about not inspecting gifts also refers to a gifted horse is a historical coincidence, but one that is sometimes used to make a point (for example, about the limits of etiquette, or about the hidden costs of what might appear to be free).

  • 1
    I think you mean Greek soldiers hid inside the horse, not Trojan ones. Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 14:07

There is a word used in English for (often cheap) giveaways: swag. It overlaps with Russian "khalyava" in meaning. Quoting from Wiktionary,

swag: (uncountable) Handouts, freebies, or giveaways, such as those handed out at conventions.

I'll not go far to fetch a usage example:

English Language Learners Stack Exchange - Top User Swag!

enter image description here

I'll be reaching out to you shortly with a link to a form: be sure to fill out the form as soon as you're able to do so! You'll have two weeks to do it, after which I'll close the form and take care of sending all of the swag your way!

Although you say that "khalyava" is not something obtained as a present, we Russians do use the word to refer to similar giveaways: "I've got a t-shirt from StackExchange na khalyavu" (I got it "in a khalyava way").

I don't know how much the meaning of English swag overlaps with khalyava - judging by Colleen's comment below, not very much.

My friend, when he was a technical college student, once got a summer working practice assignment in a factory producing alcoholic beverages, and there he could sample beverages for free, "na khalyavu". He said, "Just imagine, unlimited khalyava beer!"

I'm not sure whether an English person would call such free beer sampling "swag".

  • 7
    Swag isn't always cheap - there is a tradition at certain events where very expensive things are given to celebrities in "swag bags" in hopes that the celebrity might be seen using or wearing the gift. Swag has a definite sense of marketing to me - usually inexpensive things, but always associated with a brand and given away to promote recognition or the image of that company or product.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 14:10
  • 1
    I think swag is on the right track though, because when colleagues go to a trade show or conference, we're all interested in what "swag" they bring back. The fact that is was free does make the items more interesting than they would be if we bought them for some small amount.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 14:15
  • 1
    Thanks for the tip, but I don't think it's a khalyavish way to get a stylish thing (a swag) to wear. To find one's name among the top 72 users, one has to do a great deal of work asking and answering. Too effortful to be called so.
    – Victor B.
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 14:21
  • 1
    @CowperKettle: I'd call it "kind of" (типа на халяву). I'm very glad to have drawn your interest. Thanks a million for the answer.
    – Victor B.
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 14:47
  • 2
    The original meaning of swag was proceeds from a robbery, usually carried away in a big sack. You can still find this usage in cartoons in the 'funnies' sections of Daily and Sunday newspapers. It didn't originally mean a freebie, and I'm not really certain that the term means that even now.
    – Ed999
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 18:29
  1. One word for advantages (including stuff) you get as a side effect of some situation (like a job, typically) is a perk.

    For example, if you get something for free (or heavily discounted) as a side effect of your job, that would be a perk. This is not the normal pay and conditions, but something extra.

    It doesn't have to be a job, but for something to be a perk would generally involve some obligation on your part, where the perk is not normally seen as part of the benefit of that. For example, if you were a volunteer doing something who happened (for some reason) to get use of a car on weekends out of it, that would be a perk, even though it's not a "job" you get paid for.

  2. A word for an unexpected benefit is windfall - originally wood that fell in a forest (where the forest was the property of some king or noble, whose trees could not be cut without permission, but the fallen branches could be gathered). In more recent centuries it refers to fruit that falls to the ground that you would be able to pick up (apples, say), and often these days to unexpected money.

    This could be an unexpected inheritance for example. If a company gets sudden substantial profits not through its own business activity but effectively "by accident", or as a side effect (like a change in operating conditions or governing legislation for example) that could be called "windfall profits".

  3. An idiom for unexpected benefits which perhaps comes a little closer is "pennies from heaven".

  • This answer deserves upvoting, There is some mood of "khalyava" in "perk", even if the two words do not map precisely upon each other. Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 17:25
  • @CowperKettle: It certainly does, and I upvoted it the moment I read it. There's a very interesting word "lagniappe" in TRomano's answer. Isn't its meaning a striking example of the Russin term, provided the answer to the question in my comment is "no"?
    – Victor B.
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 18:49

Better than nothing



"This company lunch isn't very good"

"Well it's better than nothing"

  • "Better than nothing" is essentially an abbreviation for "better than having nothing"; it has a strong negative connotation, as it implies that it's only a little bit better than having nothing.
    – user27353
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 21:10
  • @duskwuff - The original translated Russian proverb has a negative connotation as well, centered around the (bad) taste of vinegar. "Even [free] vinegar...tastes sweet".
    – Robotnik
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 3:38
  • 1
    "Better than nothing" doesn't imply that what you're having is free. Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 11:24

English speakers will often say, "Hey, it's free." with an inflection that implies one should be more receptive to trying it, even if it's something one wouldn't normally enjoy.

  • 1
    Having said that to a Russian who doesn't seem to understand you, add "Khalyava!" and you'll see his broad, appreciating smile. LOL!
    – Victor B.
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 18:55

There is also the idiom

Better than a poke in the eye [with a sharp stick]

Here's the source.

This is used to express that you received something that wasn't bad, but also wasn't great either.

  • Thank you very much. “Half a loaf of bread is better than none” is yet another one. Is the "poke in the eye" idiom really in use in Blighty? Is "with a burnt stick" variant used too, like it is in Australia as they say here?
    – Victor B.
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 9:15
  • I hear both Better than a poke in the eye and the full sentence here in England. I've not heard the bread one or the burnt stick one though.
    – NibblyPig
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 9:52
  • This doesn't have much to do with free stuff being judged differently because you didn't have to pay for it.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 17:03
  • It's not specifically to do with free stuff, although is often applies to such. We're all trying to get as close as possible, as it's rare for a perfect translation of idioms to exist from any language.
    – NibblyPig
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 15:26

I can't comment on whether the collocation is an apt translation for the Russian халява, but there is also the seeming pleonasm free gift.

It is an old phrase, originally meaning "freely given", and appeared in contexts describing divine grace and pious charity, but nowadays it is used extensively in marketing and fundraising.

I got this umbrella as a free gift when I made a donation to PBS during the spring fund drive.

If you sit through a four-hour presentation on timeshare condos, you and your spouse will receive a fabulous free gift.

  • The only issue I have with your first example is that it's not technically free... You give PBS money, they give you a thing...
    – Catija
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 17:27
  • Technically, the money given goes towards the programming.
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 17:30
  • This is one of those things that I don't really think about until someone points it out. A free gift is inexplicably different from just a gift. Thanks marketing. @Catija I think you couldn't consider it a gift if you're paying for it. A free gift is different. I'm on my mobile, I may revisit when I don't have autocorrect making it hard to type.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 17:30
  • But if you accept the "free gift" you have to deduct the value of that free gift from your charitable giving tax deduction... so even the government doesn't consider the gift "free".
    – Catija
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 17:33
  • You're ruining PBS for me. How can I watch another episode of The Great British Baking Show now that I know PBS are scam-artists?
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 17:38

Another possibility is the US southernism lagniappe, a little something extra which one receives from a retail shop when purchasing a more expensive item.

  • Provided that the customer doesn't have to buy anything but what's on his shopping list and at its usual price, it's a real khalyava. Or does he have to? Thanks for a new, interesting word.
    – Victor B.
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 17:45
  • @Rompey Unlike a "free gift" a lagniappe is usually a small, pleasant surprise. For example I ordered some flavored syrups from a shop, and when the box came there were a two sample-sized bottles of other flavors, and a pouring spout that I wasn't expecting. There's an article on Forbes with a few more examples: forbes.com/sites/paigearnoffenn/2012/10/01/…
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 22:28

Perhaps you are thinking of Shakespeare.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet. This is one of many quotations from his plays which has become a proverb.

It is not exclusively applied to commerce, but can be used in any context.

Mentioned already, the expression never look a gift horse in the mouth is another proverb: meaning if you get something for free, as a result of chance or even as an actual gift, you do not need to examine its teeth (a traditional way of valuing a horse, at auction, to determin the animal's age), before bidding on it. Because you are not paying for the item, you don't need to show the normal degree of prudence, as the maxim 'buyer beware' doesn't apply if no money is changing hands. The phrase is nowadays applied widely, not merely at livestock sales.

  • 5
    Thanks a lot for trying to help. I'm sorry but hard as I try I still can't overlap the quote with my question. At the same time, in the comment on a previous answer you mentioned the word "freebie" which I think has some relevance to the word "khalyava" despite the expenses you're meeting buying the main thing. I'm adding a new word to my active vocabulary. As for the proverb, as was said, khalyava is not a gift. Again, thanks and welcome to ELL.
    – Victor B.
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 19:29

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .