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List of Untranslatable Russian Words: Top 10 Idioms 2019

What’s Russia well-known for? Right, drinking. The rich history of Russian alcohol gave birth to a lot of related words that can’t be translated directly into other languages and require explanation. The same goes for words that appeared during the First and Second World Wars and throughout Russia’s history.

In order to understand the Russian language fully and to know more about Russian culture, it’s essential to learn the most-used untranslatable Russian words. That’s why we here at RussianPod101.com have prepared for you a list of the top-ten modern untranslatable Russian idioms that you can easily study and start using. Please, go ahead!

Table of Contents

  1. Опохмелиться (Opokhmelit’sya)
  2. Запой (Zapoy)
  3. Сушняк (Sushnyak)
  4. Халява (Khalyava)
  5. Хамить (Khamit’)
  6. Брезговать (Brezgovat’)
  7. Подвиг (Podvig)
  8. Однолюб (Odnolyub)
  9. Воля (Volya)
  10. Тоска (Toska)
  11. Conclusion

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1. Опохмелиться (Opokhmelit’sya)

Man Drinking Too Much Alcohol

Literal Translation: “Drink some more alcohol.”

Meaning: To drink more alcohol in order to remove the negative effects of a hangover.

Example Situation: It’s possible that after a wild night with Russian friends in a cottage outside of the city, that in the morning someone will recommend that you drink some more alcohol to overcome a hangover.

Usage in a Sentence:

Пора опохмелиться.
Pora opokhmelit’sya.
“It’s time to drink some more alcohol for hangover.”

Interesting Fact:

This is one of the more fascinating untranslatable words in the Russian language. In Russia, it’s considered a folk remedy for a hangover. However, modern medicine has proved that it works only for alcoholics who experience addiction to the ethanol.


2. Запой (Zapoy)

Literal Translation: “Several days drinking.”

Meaning: This word means drinking alcohol for several days or even weeks in a row, not letting the body remove the alcohol from your blood.

Example Situation: If you’ve ever gone out for a weekend vacation and drank alcohol for two or more days in a row, congrats! You’ve experienced one of the most common Russian untranslatable words, запой (zapoy).

Usage in a Sentence:

Уйти в запой.
Uyti v zapoy.
“To start the several-days drinking session.”

Паша сдал проект и ушел в запой.
Pasha sdal proekt i ushol v zapoy.
“Pasha has finished the project and started zapoy.”

Interesting Fact:

It’s fun to know that several centuries ago, Russian merchants were allowed to take a vacation for a zapoy period. It was stated in the statute of the merchant guild, signed by the emperor Alexander I in 1807. Every Russian merchant could have the annual vacation for болезнь души (bolezn’ dushi)—“the sickness of the soul.” That was what zapoy was called back then. Merchants could go for a small zapoy—for two weeks—or for a big one lasting a month.


3. Сушняк (Sushnyak)

Someone Pouring a Glass of Water

Literal Translation: “Dry mouth.”

Meaning: The feeling of a dry mouth during a hangover.

Example Situation: You may hear this word in an explanation when somebody asks you to bring him some water in the morning. Or if you’re experiencing a hangover and drink a lot of water, your Russian colleague or a friend will ask empathetically if you’re having sushnyak.

If that’s the case, he’ll probably recommend folk treatments against it. No, this won’t be as radical as опохмелиться (opokhmelit’sya)—”to drink more alcohol.” But rather something like кефир (kefir)—“kefir, cultured buttermilk” or рассол (rassol)—“pickle brine.”

Usage in a Sentence:

У меня сушняк, принеси, пожалуйста, водички.
U menya sushnyak, prinesi, pozhaluysta, vodichki.
“I’m having sushnyak, please, bring me some water.”

Что, сушняк замучил?
Chto, sushnyak zamuchil?
“Well, torturing from sushnyak?”


4. Халява (Khalyava)

Literal Translation: “Freebie.”

Meaning: The word applies to different kinds of situations when you get something so easy that it’s unfair.

Example Situation: If you get some valuable things from the company you work for as a present—and you didn’t do anything to deserve it—then you получил это на халяву (poluchil eto na khalyavu) or got it as khalyava. Or, if you suddenly got really good grades at school but didn’t do anything to deserve them, then that’s khalyava as well.

Usage in a Sentence:

Начальник получил повышение и сегодня проставляется. Сходим, выпьем на халяву?
Nachal’nik poluchil povysheniye i segodnya prostavlyayetsya. Skhodim, vyp’yem na khalyavu?
“The boss got promoted and will buy everyone a drink today. Let’s go for a free drink.”

Interesting Fact:

This is actually one of the really funny untranslatable Russian words. There’s a university tradition for students at midnight before an exam to open a gradebook on the page for a future exam, hold it out the window, and shout three times Халява, приди! (Khalyava, pridi!)—”Khalyava, come!” By doing that, students believe that they’ll get lucky on the exam.


5. Хамить (Khamit’)

Literal Translation: “To behave in a rude way.”

Meaning: Rude, impudent, and insolent way of behavior with impunity.

Example Situation: Usually, this word characterizes the way Russians can act to unknown people on the street when someone wants to show their superiority and higher social status by being confident of impunity. Usually, people use this word to point out this bad behavior and stop it.

Related Words:

Хам (kham)—“The male who is behaving in a rude way.”
Хамка (khamka)—“The female who is behaving in a rude way.”

Usage in a Sentence:

Прекратите хамить.
Prekratite khamit’.
“Stop being rude.”

Interesting Fact:

In a very popular Russian novel “The Twelve Chairs” written by Ilf and Petrov, there’s a famous character named Ellochka whose spoken vocabulary consisted of only 30 words. One of these words was Хамите (Khamite)—“You are being rude.”


6. Брезговать (Brezgovat’)

Literal Translation: “To feel disgusted by something.”

Meaning: The word “disgusted” doesn’t show the full meaning of the word брезговать (brezgovat’). It also means that the person treats something or someone with disdain, or feels a bit superior.

Example Situation: The word isn’t used in spoken language that much. But you can hear it in context of talking about someone. For example, when one person achieved a success and feels ashamed to talk to his less successful friends, you can say that he брезгует (brezguyet’).

Related Words:

Брезгливо (brezglivo)—“with disgust”
Брезгливый (brezglivyy)—“fastidious/disgust”

Usage in a Sentence:

Маша выбилась в люди и теперь брезгует общаться с нами.
Masha vybilas’ v lyudi i teper’ brezguyet obshchat’sya s nami.
“Masha became successful and now feels ashamed to talk to us.”


7. Подвиг (Podvig)

One Person Carrying Another

Literal Translation: “Brave and heroic feat.”

Meaning: A really significant and meaningful heroic act. This act is usually made in very difficult and dangerous circumstances. The person who’s doing this act usually does it selflessly.

Example Situation: All brave and heroic acts that were selflessly made during the wars are called подвиг (podvig). But of course, now this word can be applied even to civilian matters; for example, when a person does an impossible amount of valuable work in the office in a short time, people can say that he made трудовой подвиг (trudovoy podvig)—“labor podvig.”

Usage in a Sentence:

Совершить подвиг.
Sovershit’ podvig.
“To make podvig.”

За героические подвиги во Второй мировой войне звания Героя Советского Союза были удостоены более 11 000 человек, из которых многие - посмертно.
Za geroicheskiye podvigi vo Vtoroy mirovoy voyne zvaniya Geroya Sovetskogo soyuza byli udostoyeny boleye odinnadtsati tysyach chelovek, iz kotorykh mnogiye - posmertno.
“For heroic acts during the Second World War more than 11,000 people were given honorary distinction as The Hero of the Soviet Union. Some of them were given it posthumously.”

Additional Notes:
If you want to understand Russian подвиг (podvig) better, check out the military film В бой идут одни старики (V boy idut odni stariki) that we recommend in our article “Top 10 Russian Movies: With Links and Famous Quotes (2018 Update).”


8. Однолюб (Odnolyub)

Couple Hugging Each Other

Literal Translation: “A person who loves only one person.”

Meaning: This is one of the most beautiful untranslatable Russian words. It means a person who can love only one person in a lifetime. The word comes from combining two parts. The first one is одно- (odno-)—the form of the word один (odin)—”one.” The second one is -люб (-lyub)—the abbreviation of the word любить (lyubit’)—”to love.”

Example Situation: This word sounds a bit old-school, so it doesn’t come up in conversations often. Though, if the topic allows, using it regarding a really devoted person will be great. For example, if a guy marries and lives with his first love till his death he can be called однолюб (odnolyub).

Usage in a Sentence:

Её мужчина - однолюб, ей с ним очень повезло.
Yeyo muzhchina - odnolyub, yey s nim ochen’ povezlo.
“Her man is odnolyub, she is so lucky.”


9. Воля (Volya)

Literal Translation: “Freedom.”

Meaning: This word has plenty of meanings. The most used meanings are 1.) self-control, 2.) desire, and 3.) freedom. The most controversial is the third one as it doesn’t mean something positive, but means the absence of неволя (nevolya)—“captivity.” It has the global meaning of freedom, meaning no authority or obligations.

As the famous Russian poet Bulat Okudzhava said about the Russian: “What usual Russian person tends to do in his spare time? Who knows. To think, to talk, to drink alcohol. Alcohol not as the goal itself, but as the mean of communication, fun, forgetfulness. To volya - the Russian doesn’t care about freedom, he loves volya. It means - to be without restrictions. And when he is told that here is your freedom, he doesn’t understand that.”

Example Situation: This word isn’t used in spoken language often—of course, that doesn’t mean you won’t hear it during philosophical conversations at night in the kitchen with alcohol that Russians love so much. But you’ll meet a lot of this word in books, newspapers, news, films, series, etc. For example, when a person goes out of prison, you can hear in the news Он вышел на волю. (On vyshel na volyu.) meaning, “He came out of prison.”

Related Words:

Вольный (vol’nyy)—“Free.”

Usage in a Sentence:

Сила воли.
Sila voli.
“Willpower.”

Вадим начал развивать силу воли, принимая контрастный душ каждое утро.
Vadim nachal razvivat’ silu voli, prinimaya kontrastnyy dush kazhdoye utro.
“Vadim has started to develop his willpower by taking contrast showers every morning.”


10. Тоска (Toska)

Literal Translation: “Feeling of boredom and depression.”

Meaning: Strong soul languor; soul anxiety combined with sadness and boredom; painful gloom.

Example Situation: You’re studying abroad. It’s raining. You’re sitting all alone in your room near the window and watching the gray and depressing scenery. You miss your home a little bit, sad from the weather and loneliness, and feel a little bit of self-pity and boredom. Here we are. You’re feeling Russian тоска (toska).

Another example is when your colleague visits a conference and you ask him how it went. He can say Тоска (Toska), meaning that it was really boring and depressing.

Related words:

Тосковать (toskovat`)—“to feel toska.”
Тоскливо (tosklivo)—“with toska.”

Usage in a Sentence:

- Ты что такая унылая сидишь? (Ty chto takaya unylaya sidish’?)
- Да тоскливо как-то. (Da tosklivo kak-to).

- “Why are you looking so gloomy (while sitting)?”
- “Well, I feel soul anxiety.”

Эта книга - полная тоска.
(Eta kniga - polnaya toska).
“This book is super boring and depressing.”


11. Conclusion

Now you know the top ten untranslatable words Russian people use really often. Write them down and try to use them while talking with your Russian friends or colleagues. It’ll be a great conversation opener, but remember that Russian people really enjoy getting philosophical.

So, you’ll probably hear a lot more explanations to the Russian words with no English equivalent than we studied above. And some of these explanations will be true only to that one person you’re talking to. :) That’s fine. Try asking what love is to several different people and you’ll get different answers.

So, don’t be afraid. Go. Communicate. Improve your language skills and get to know the mysterious Russian soul.

Of course, knowing just ten Russian words with no English translation might be less than enough to speak Russian freely. There are plenty of Russian words with no translation; some words appear only in the spoken language and some idioms get old and remain only in books. This makes it especially important to understand untranslatable words to learn Russian.

Consider taking some lessons in our MyTeacher program for Russian-learners to learn the untranslatable terms in Russian that will help you to reach your language goal. Our professional teachers will not only expand your active vocabulary, but will help you sound like a real Russian pretty soon. RussianPod101.com is here to guide you through every step of your language-learning journey!

Start with a bonus, and download the Must-Know Beginner Vocabulary PDF for FREE! (Logged-In Member Only)

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