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The Russian Tongue: Down ‘n’ dirty in the springtime

Sara Buzadzhi
Sara Buzadzhi - Sputnik International
It’s almost beginning to look like spring, which means that it’s almost time to start thinking about spring cleaning (весенняя уборка).

It’s almost beginning to look like spring, which means that it’s almost time to start thinking about spring cleaning (весенняя уборка).

If your house is in disarray, you might start complaining about беспорядок. The literal meaning is disorder, but it should often be translated as “mess”. Here’s how Viktor Pelevin described a train compartment in Желтая стрела (The Yellow Arrow), a 1993 novella about a nightmarish train that no one can leave: В купе был неправдоподобный беспорядок – такой, какой возникает только при похоронах, родах и переездах.

(The compartment was an unbelievable mess – the kind of mess you only see when someone is being buried, giving birth, or moving.)

A ruder word for mess is бардак: В комнате полный бардак! (This room is a total mess!) The diminutive бардачок is also sometimes used, but means “glove compartment” as well, which could lead to some confusion. (No, I do not have a glove compartment in my room.) This word also used to mean “brothel”, but I don’t know why houses of ill repute should necessarily have an association with messiness.

As with “mess” in English, both of these words are often also used to describe a variety of situations beyond physical order: Если же каждый будет выдумывать свои законы – то будет бардак. (If each person makes up his own laws, the result will be chaos.)

Any cleaning you do can be referred to as работа по дому. I often want to call it домашняя работа, my automatic translation for housework, but this Russian phrase actually means homework that teachers give students.

Ever since I started thinking about cleaning, I’ve had The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak” stuck in my head: “Take out the papers and the trash/ Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash.” To take out the trash is to выбросить мусор. If you’re just talking about unwanted junk, you can refer to it as хлам: Сколько всего накопилось! Хлам, хлам! Выкинуть всё! (Look how much stuff has piled up! Junk! Get rid of it all!)

The song goes on: “And you ain’t gonna rock and roll no more/ If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor.” We talk about mopping floors, but Russians “wash” theirs: Мыть пол на кухне. If you’re trying to scrub out a stain, you can use the verb оттирать, which has the same root as some other cleaning words, like стирать (do laundry).

“Just finish cleanin’ up your room/ Let’s see that dust fly with that broom.” You can either убирать комнату or убираться в комнате. When you sweep, you use the verb подметать, and the dust flying is пыль. One advertisement for a cleaning company tried to frighten its readers into spending more to get rid of dust: Пыль – не только не украшает ваш дом, но еще и подрывает ваше здоровье. Протирать пыль нужно ежедневно. (Dust is a danger to your health as well as making your house unattractive. You should dust every day.) Note the same root again. You may also hear people use the verbs вытирать or стирать with пыль.

If you are doing this, you’re likely to be using a rag (тряпка). Interestingly, this word is also used colloquially to call someone spineless. Here’s one of the characters in Mikhail Bulgakov’s «Кабала святош» : «Вы, учитель, не человек, не человек. Вы – тряпка, которой моют полы!» (Literally: You, my teacher, are not a man – you’re a rag, the kind people use to wipe the floor with!)

“You just put on your coat and hat/ And walk yourself to the laundromat.” Not something that too many of us can do in Moscow, alas. When you have a pile of clothes to wash, you can refer to them with the collective noun бельё: Надо что-то делать с бельём – у меня закончились носки. (We’ve got to do something about the laundry – I’m all out of socks.)

On a side note, another collective noun to keep in mind in this context is посуда (dishes): Стелить кровать, подметать пол, мыть посуду – и так каждый день! (Make the bed, sweep the floor, wash the dishes – and it’s like that every day!)

If you’re lucky, you have a стиральная машина (washing machine) at home, or there’s always washing things by hand (стирать вручную). People sometimes use the phrase стирать в тазу informally to mean the same thing, таза being a basin you might do your washing in: Стиральная машина сломалась, уже месяц стираю в тазу. (My washing machine broke, and I’ve been washing all my clothes by hand for a month now.)

Happily there’s always the dry cleaner’s, химчистка. This is a compound we could reproduce as ‘chemcleaner’s.’ A store just offering laundry services is a прачечная, the feminine adjective here used as a noun. And if you ever do find a Russian laundromat (about as elusive as the unicorn), it will be known as прачечная самообслуживания (self- service laundry).

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Learning Russian but finding the lessons too formal? In her entertaining column The Russian Tongue, Sara Buzadzhi gives practical informal tips on everything from dealing with traffic cops to flirting in the grocery store. Sara’s columns are published with permission of, where they appear every two weeks.

Sara Buzadzhi is an English teacher and translator in Moscow.


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