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.”

7 thoughts on “Words from my diaspora childhood which haven’t quite worked in Ukraine

  1. Oksana Kuzyszyn

    It was interesting to read your observations about certain Ukrainian words used in diaspora and not in Ukraine.
    руханка (rukhanka) comes from the root word “rukh” (motion) and is common Ukrainian word* **;
    зимно (zymno) – probably comes from “zyma” and is also common, “cholodno” is just another word which means the same thing;
    горнятко (horniatko) is a good Ukrainian word used all the time*
    грубий (hrubyj) could mean fat, but also it could mean “nekulturnyj”**
    кошиківка (koshykivka) is derived from koshyk (basket) which makes sense – why use the English word basketball, when you can have a Ukrainian word with the same meaning
    копаний мяч – meaning “kopaty” – again, in my opinion another word from a Ukrainian root, instead of the typical football;
    зупа – this is not a Ukrainian word, it probably comes from German zuppe, or Russian “sup”. A good Ukrainian word is юшка* **;
    вуйко (vujko) – according to S. Karavanskyj’s dictionary – uncle, mother’s brother, wife’s brother**; it is not a derogatory word
    курити (kuryty) – to smoke a cigarette, “palyty” is appropriate when burning a campfire, or “vypaliuvaty travu” – to burn grass;* **
    папіроси (papirosy) – is correct – in Ukraine they prefer to say “cyharety” which is just a Ukrainian version of an English word cigarettes.*

    I checked my Ukrainian dictionary by H.Holoskevych* – approved by academic institutions in Ukraine in 1929 and by diaspora institutions such as UVAN and NTSh, republished in N.Y. in 1962 and
    Ukrainian dictionary by S. Karavanskyj** published in Kyiv in 1993.

  2. Andriy Drozda

    I usually use most of these words (except кошиківка, лазничка, копаний м’яч (but it’s understood). But everywhere beyond the Western regions is the big linguistics difference.

    1. Roman

      That’s encouraging. It isn’t as far off as I thought. Perhaps was shocked by beginning this visit to Ukraine with four months in Kyiv.

  3. Steve Browne

    In Polish…
    zimno = cold, chlodno = cool, grubi = fat, koszykówka = basketball, zupa = soup, vujek = uncle, papierosi = cigarettes, torba = bag, sklep = store, magazyn = storage place.

    Anthony Burgess said if you’ve learned one Slavic language, you half-learned all the others.

    I moved from Poland to Bulgaria for a while in the late ’90s, and then to Serbia where a libertarian friend (Tomas Krsmanovic) was getting leaned on by the authorities. I’d learned fair Polish, picked up some Bulgarian (and learned to read Cyrillic, slowly and painfully) and started to pick up some Serbian.

    One day in a store the lady behind the cash register burst out in perfect English, “Excuse me, but where are you FROM?”

    Some Serbian did me some good at a time they didn’t much like Americans. I was a couple hours (hours!) late getting out of the country. Border guards were going to make me unpack everything when I was able to answer a question in two coherent sentences of Serbian.

    Lady guard beamed, “Oh you speak Serbian!” and waved me through.

    Good thing too, I’d shot my wad with those two sentences.

    1. Roman

      I was surprised how much Czech I could understand. Couldn’t speak a word though, but comprehension was there.

  4. caap02

    I grew up in the diaspora as well, but my mother was from eastern Ukraine, so I learned most of those words on your list only at age 6-7 when we started going to Ukie school etc and had to deal with all the western Ukrainian diaspora types. Some of the words on your list were however used even by my east-ukrainian mother: e.g. valiska, kuryty (for smoking), torba. “Mahazyn”, “sup” (for soup), podushka with the accent on the second syllable, we always used.


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