Category Archives: Languaж

Words from my diaspora childhood which haven’t quite worked in Ukraine

Ukraine is a philologists dream. I can think of no other place where language issues play such a prominent role in political debate, personal identity, and culture. Although it isn’t my primary focus here, I can’t stop noticing. (See here, here.)

Here is a list of words which were a normal part of my childhood lexicon as I grew up in New York’s Ukrainian community. Unlike other immigrant communities, the Ukrainian one was separated from its origins by an iron curtain. This provided the language with a greater opportunity to evolve on its own.

None of these words worked as consistently or with the meaning I intended. I’ve gotten different and conflicting explanations for these words — some are attributed to regional dialect, some to antiquated language, and some were completely unknown to my Ukrainian acquaintances.

No doubt some of them are true Ukrainian words and my nationalistic friends will encourage me to continue speaking them until they are restored. Others, rukhanka, koshikivka, probably arose in the diaspora and never had much usage in Ukraine.

Comments are welcome, as I readily admit my lack of expertise for the explanation I give.

зимно – zymno – Cold. Probably regional and/or antiquated. Kholodno seems more common.

горнятко – horniatko – Cup.

грубий – hrubii – I posted about this one before. I thought it meant fat, and it does, but a much more common usage is crude.

кошиківка – koshikivka – The ridiculous term we used for basketball. Polish origin?

копаній мяч / копаного – kopani miach / kopanoho – Ditto for soccer.

зупа – zupa – soup. Commonly used in the west.

руханка – rukhanka – exercise. Literally, the word means movement. Mostly, I’ve been told it’s a ridiculous word. Others have told me it comes from Ternopil or Poland.

вуйко – vuiko – uncle. Slightly antiquated. In eastern Ukraine it seems to be a derogatory term for villagers from the Carpathian Mountains.

курить – kuryt’ – smokes. Not unheard of, but most people say “palyt'” which literally means burns.

папіроси – papyrosy – cigarettes. Most people just pronounce a Ukrainian version of the word cigarette.


Also, torba for bag. Paket is more common, though I think it’s Russian.

Edit 2:

Also, rover for bicycle. Velosoped is much more common.

Edit 3:

Also, Laznychka for bathroom. Toilet is common. One person told me that Laznychka refers to a shower room.

Edit 4:

Also, Naplechnyk for backpack. Ruksak is common.

Also Valiska for suitcase. Sumka is common.

Edit 5:

Words for strawberries and wild strawberries. Trewskavky / Polunytsi / Sunytsi

Edit 6:

Kuzin for cousin. Most people say dvoiu-ridni brat (second-related brother), or dvoiu-ridna sestra (second-related sister).

Sklep or Kramnytsia for store. Most people said Mahazyn.

Edit 7:

Maitsi for underpants. The world makes people laugh — especially after I tell them what it means.

Kupilevi Strij for bathing suit. Again, people have no idea.

Edit 8:

As mentioned in a previous post:
koshykivka” instead of “basketball”
kanapka” instead of “sandvich”
the arcane “lyshcheta” for skies instead of “lyji”


Edit 9: I am relieved to have discovered this comprehensive list on the wonder blog Shadows of a Forgotten World. The burden to capture this anomaly isn’t mine alone. :)


Edit 10: Oh, how could I forget, for “car,” we said “avto” instead of “mashyna.”


Edit 11: For “dishes” or “dinnerware,” we said “nachynnia” instead of the now-popular “posud.”

Also, “vuiko” and “teta” instead of “diad’ko” and “titka.”

More on the Ukrainian Language

My world was turned upside down recently when someone told me the word грубий (hrubi) meant crude. For all my childhood, the word meant fat. Online translators confirmed my error.

Was the entire Ukrainian diaspora using the word incorrectly?

I seems we diaspora Ukrainians are not alone. Our habits came from somewhere. I took great comfort in this reference to the arcane definition which seemed popular in my American Ukrainian community as a child:

Те саме можна сказати й про слова грубий — товстий. Мені більше подобається «груба книжка», а не товста. Чому? А тому, що так казали мої баби в Ромні й Недригайлові (цебто на Лівобережжі), та ще й досі так кажуть у народі навіть діти

Other diaspora peculiarities (I’ll use transliterations):

“koshykivka” instead of “basketball”
“kanapka” instead of “sandvich”
the arcane “lyshcheta” for skies instead of “lyji”

See also:
(my original post about the Ukrainian language)
(Ukrainian words from my diaspora childhood which haven’t quite worked in Ukraine)

Tos’ka means two Romans

“When there are two Romans, you call it a Tos’ka,” my relative’s neighbor, Roman, told me as we drank in his mother’s kitchen.

“Does the word Tos’ka mean anything?” I asked.

They looked at me with the same expressions of polite impatience they use when my language skills grind the conversation to a halt, then spoke in a slow, loud voice: “It means two Romans.”

The Ukrainian Language

I took Ukrainian lessons while in Kyiv. I’m still on the fence as to whether or not to resume them here in L’viv. I need to manage my time better.

In one sense (and only one sense) Ukrainian is easier than English. Unlike letters in English words, letters in Ukrainian always make the same sounds, regardless of how they’re arranged. On the other hand, word endings are a nightmare.

Ukrainian nouns have cases. They change depending on how they are referenced — subject, direct object, possessor. Latin has six cases; German has four; Finnish apparently has sixteen; Russian also has six cases. Ukrainian has the six cases of Russian plus an additional vocative case for when you’re calling someone or something, for example, “Ukraine, my darling” would begin “oo-kra-ee-nu . . .”

I’m completely charmed by seemingly endless gradient of diminutives in Ukrainian. For English speakers, think of how the name Michael can be reduced to Mikey. This is a diminutive. Ukrainian has one or more for every noun. I recently learned there is also the opposite of a diminutive. A noun can be a bigger, scarier version of itself by changing the ending.

Changing a word from noun to verb to adjective is also a simple matter of various twists and turns on the word’s endings.

The more I study, the more fascinated I become. Take the language’s tortured history.

According to one journalist friend of mine, there have been over 100 separate laws outlawing the Ukrainian in whole or in part. Stalin banished the letter ‘ґ’ — pronounced like the ‘g’ in gulag. The letter has returned from the archipelago, but you won’t see it very often. It doesn’t appear on my keyboard simulator. We can only guess what depravities it endured. The letter may never be the same again. Several phonetic combination were also banished.

Ukrainian has been Polinized in the West, Russified in much of the rest of the country — both coercive and voluntary forces have been at work.

There’s an emerging slang which mixes Ukrainian and Russian called суржик or “surzhyk.” The word surzhyk itself means a mixture of wheat and rye. Surzhyk varies greatly from town to town and even person to person.

In the diaspora, entirely new words emerged. I think my parents’ immigrant generation were so accustomed to protecting and preserving Ukrainian at all costs, they continued shielding the language after arriving in the US. We were scolded for transliterating “basketball” and instead were taught to say “koshekivka” — кошиківка — from the word кошик, or basket. In Ukraine, everybody says “basketball.”

Our word for exercise was руханка or “rukhanka” which means, simply, movement. I thought this was also a peculiarity of the diaspora, but I’ve since heard of it being used in parts of Western Ukraine, which makes sense. All WWII era refugees are from Western Ukraine — what had been Poland at the start of the war. (See Operation Keelhaul to learn how Allied forces forcibly returning millions of Soviet refugees to the loving embrace of Joseph Stalin.)

The Ukrainian term for exercise, meaning physical exercise, is фізичні вправи or “fizichni vpravy,” i.e. physical exercises.

Potato = картопля “kartoplia”, бараболя “barabolia” (which I grew up saying), or бульба “bul’ba”. Each betrays a regional identity.

My Ukrainian teacher laughed out loud when I said “zupa” for soup. In central Ukraine, they say it exactly as English speakers do — soup. Here in the west, “zupa” and soup seem equally common. I only knew “zupa” growing up, and suspect the more ardent preservers of the Ukrainian language would have seen “soup” as a betrayal of everything they stood for.

There is a very literary future tense by which you can bypass verbs like “going to” or “will.”

“Ia budu chytate” = I will read.

“Ia chytatemu” = I [will] read. (in the literary future tense)

The word for man is чоловік or “cholovik.” чоло means forehead. вік means age, mostly, but also wisdom. One lady, a very proud Ukrainian, used this example to tell me that Ukrainian teaches love and respect, even to those who don’t realize the roots of words.

Language is a hot issue here. Political careers live an die on emotions, not ideas. Hence, all over the world, politics is mostly identity politics. Here in Ukraine, this puts language issues center stage.

I wouldn’t tell anyone what language to learn, and I wouldn’t want anyone telling me. No doubt some ardent defenders of Ukrainian identity would feel threatened by this libertarian philosophy, but if you want to protect a language (or anything else) government should have as little to do with it as possible.

Much of the Ukrainian ethos swirls around the rather humiliating task of proving that we exist. In one of his poems, national figure Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) repeatedly asks, what are the Muskovites looking for in our torn-open graves? Former Russian president Putin has said on more than one occasion “Ukraine is not even a nation.” It is usually followed by a deafening silence from Ukraine’s government.

When I was a grade school student in New York City, I remember my teacher telling me on heritage day that I wasn’t Ukrainian because there is no such country. At the time, my priority was getting along and I was happy to bow to her authority as ultimate arbiter of truth — relieved even. After all, what descendant of a former Soviet state doesn’t seek the approval of appointed authorities? I mean, there would be *anarchy* if we didn’t revere our leaders, genuflect before them, gloriously sacrifice ourselves for the privilege of inclusion in their genius visions for society’s future.

I’ve since felt the pressure of my inherited three-hundred year old longing. So I offer these bits of history as evidence that I am not a Russian with an identity crisis:

Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s epic poem Eneyida, 1798, is considered the first literary work in modern Ukrainian (

Prior to him was the author Hryhorii Skovoroda whose language is apparently the subject of much debate. From wikipedia: “After an in depth study of Skovoroda’s written works the Slavic linguist George Shevelov was able to deduce that apart from Ukrainian it contained 7.8% Russian, 7.7% non-slavic, and 27.6% Church Slavonic vocabulary.” (

Looking back even earlier, we have hints about the language of the Zaporozhian Host and their divergence from Russian: “This linguistic divergence is confirmed by the need for translators during the mid 17th century negotiations for the Treaty of Pereyaslav, between Bohdan Khmelnytsky, ruler of the Zaporozhian Host, and the Russian state.” (

From the same article: “Ruthenian can be seen as a predecessor of modern Belarusian, Rusyn and Ukrainian. Indeed all these languages, from Old East Slavic to Rusyn, have been labeled as Ruthenian.”


As the Austrian School economists repeatedly point out, commerce makes people peaceful. If we trade with one another, meaning, if we are allowed to trade with one another, we will be peaceful regardless of conflicting interpretations of history. Once we grow up and renounce the idea of an ultimate arbiter of truth, who uses force (taxes, public education, truancy laws, government museums, government historians) conflicting perspectives can co-exist. In a non coercive society, we would no longer need to obliterate rival perspectives for our own to survive. Such society is richer not only in material wealth, but in cultural diversity, intellectual rigor, and scope of possibility for every human being.


EDIT: Some transliterated diminutives, and giant-inutive.

Roman -> Romko, Romchik (what my aunt still calls me), Romanchik, Romeniatko, Romanochko.

Dog = “pes” -> pesyk, peseniatko, pesyshche (giant-inutive)

Granny = “baba” -> babucia, babtsia, babul’ku, babyshche (giant-intuive)

Girl = ‘divchena’ -> divchenka, divchenochka, divka (rude), divul’ia (sarcastic, scary)

The Ukrainian word for diminutive is пестливі (“pestlyvi”), which means endearment.

See also:
(follow up post about language among diaspora Ukrainians)
(Ukrainian words from my diaspora childhood which haven’t quite worked in Ukraine)