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The Russian Tongue: What drives Russians round the bend

Sara Buzadzhi
Sara Buzadzhi - Sputnik International
We recently had to get some repairs done to our bathroom, and I realized that I’d run into another big gap in my vocabulary, seeing as how it’s not really an area that comes up much in conversation.

We recently had to get some repairs done to our bathroom, and I realized that I’d run into another big gap in my vocabulary, seeing as how it’s not really an area that comes up much in conversation.

First and foremost, what do we call this place? In Russian, it’s pretty much just туалет. Older (and/or simpler) folks might refer to it as уборная. The most widespread vulgar version, similar to “john” would be сортир, which can also be used to describe outhouses.

You might remember Putin’s famous threat: “Мы будем преследовать террористов везде… вы уж меня извините, в туалете поймаем – мы и в сортире их замочим...” (We will track down the terrorists wherever they are… well, if you’ll excuse the phrase, catch them in the toilet, take them out when they’re in the john/in the outhouse.)

And for those of you who like to get technical with their bathrooms, a lavatory (head) on a ship is known as гальюн.

English seems to be more generous with its bathroom terms. First, there’s “bathroom” – a typical all purpose word for туалет in American English. Obviously euphemistic, it is sometimes a source of confusion for learners of English. A Russian friend of mine, who in his student days was a volunteer at a swimming championship in Moscow, was perplexed when an Australian swimmer asked whether there was a bathroom on the ground floor of the hotel. Luckily, he remembered the underlying meaning just before he was going to ask why the guy couldn’t take a shower in his own room.

The Brits prefer “the loo,” allowing “bathroom” to denote only the place where actual bathing takes place. “Restroom” seems to be mostly used in official contexts (e.g. “Business establishments are not specifically required by any federal law to provide public restrooms” – «Ни один федеральный закон не содержит требования к коммерческим заведениям иметь на своей территории общественные туалеты»), while “lavatory” seems only to come up on the doors of bathrooms in commercial aircraft.

And what about the good old “toilet?” While it can be used the same way as туалет in British English, Americans only apply this word to the plumbing fixture (as an aside, collectively plumbing/bathroom fixtures are referred to in Russian as сантехника) where all the unsavory liquids and solids go, which in Russian is унитаз.

Let’s now look at some plumbing fixtures of a bathroom. Inseparable from a toilet is the cistern – (сливной/смывной) бачок. When you press a lever or push a button (or even pull a chain) you flush a toilet, which in Russian would be… that depends. Just the action of flushing can be described by спустить воду (в туалете), as in «Иван затолкал кофту в унитаз, долго искал, где спустить воду, нашёл, спустил…» – “Ivan stuffed the sweater down the toilet, looked for the lever, couldn’t find it for a long time, then finally flushed…” However, the phrase спустить за собой (воду) can also be used, especially if the idea of cleaning up after yourself is emphasized. A teacher writes about preparing young children for the challenges of the first year at school: «Но ведь этим общественным туалетом надо уметь пользоваться! Надо, между прочим, уметь справляться со штанами, спускать за собой, пользоваться туалетной бумагой, мыть руки» – “But they have to be able to use this public toilet properly. They should, by the way, be able to manage their pants, flush after themselves, use toilet paper and wash their hands.”

Of course, the trouble doesn’t end after elementary school – the toilet seat, стульчак, is often a point of argument in the gender wars: Почему мужчины никогда не опускают стульчак?! (Why do men always leave the toilet seat up?!) This word doesn’t seem to be colloquial, but there’s also another, more official sounding phrase: сиденье унитаза.

Another thing that’s likely to be found next to a toilet is a toilet brush – ёрш/ёршик (ёрш is a pesky, prickly and bony fish, of course, but also a variety of brushes for bottles, toilets, etc. This shouldn’t be confused with ёж/ёжик, the hedgehog or meatball dish, although the latter is occasionally used to describe cleaning brushes. Ёршики are used for cleaning the inside of a toilet but if it clogs (Russians would say туалет засоряется/забивается or вода не спускается/не проходит) you might have to call a plumber (сантехник), who should be able to fix the all-important fixture.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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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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