What is so untranslatable about the Russian word kipyatok—in Cyrillic script, кипяток—(pronounced, roughly, kippi-TOCK)? It means “boiling water,” or at any rate very hot water that has recently come to a boil. And, by extension, it’s a colorful name for a hotheaded, short-tempered person, someone who loses it easily. Of course, in Russia, like many other places where tap water is (or at any rate was) often suspect, water that’s been boiled is frequently used for drinking and cooking (as well as for defrosting frozen locks in winter!). But there’s more to this modest word than meets the eye. Thinking about it reminded me of the wonderful specificity of many Russian verbs—here, for instance, the kip root of kipyatok-related words implies the bubbling, effervescent aspect of boil, and again by extension can mean to get excited or in a rage—the exact equivalent of “seethe” in English. Ordinary hot water is not kipyatok—it’s goryachaya voda, with the adjective derived from the verb goret’, to burn.
Russian, Soviet or both?
In Russia, kipyatok isn’t just what happens when you put the kettle on. It’s a kind of symbol of hominess—almost literally of keeping the home fires burning. Anyone who has been in a Russian flat knows that the hospitality proffered is often almost embarrassingly generous, with every kind of food and drink usually pressed upon visitors till they cry for mercy. This can be genuinely worrying sometimes if you know that your hosts aren’t well off. Thinking about that made me realize that Russian attitudes to this kind of thing are no doubt changing along with all the other changes in today’s world, and that my own are irrevocably colored by the fact that they were formed when Russia was the Soviet Union. If your knowledge of the country began within the last 20 years, it’s hard to grasp the extent to which “Soviet Union” meant “shortages” (defitsity in Russian) and general poverty. Frequently there was nothing to buy even if you had any money. Grocery stores routinely displayed nothing but, say, rows of jars of gherkins and constantly ran out of the most basic products, such as milk. And this was the case when I lived in Moscow in the mid-1970s, the Brezhnev era, when it was government policy to funnel the lion’s share of resources and commodities to the capital.
So when people came over, providing the customary hospitality was often a struggle, either because you couldn’t afford it or because there was nothing in the shops, or both. Sometimes all you had was slices of bread and pickles. And, of course, tea. Chai is as central to Russian life as vodka. If there’s one thing you can probably come up with when the cupboard is bare, it’s a few tea leaves—and the water to steep them in. In her great little book 93 Untranslatable Russian Words, Natalia Golitsyna quotes from a story by the revolutionary-era writer Maxim Gorky: “She is dying a slow and certain death, with no one, not one person, to bring her hot water (kipyatok) or a piece of bread.” In other words, if you don’t even have the means for a cup of tea, you are indeed destitute.
Getting into hot water
The classic Russian method for making tea is a very efficient one: you put a lot of leaves in a small teapot, add your kipyatok and brew a strong base. Then you pour a little into your cup (or glass, held in a beautifully decorated silver holder, if you’re lucky) and dilute it to drinkability with more kipyatok. This is what that great Russian symbol the samovar is all about. The word means “heats itself,” and in the days before electric kettles, when you didn’t want to trek to the kitchen and build a fire every time you had to refill your tea, the samovar sat over its flame (you can get electric ones now), keeping your kipyatok kipuchii, with the little resting place at the top where you perched that small teapot and occasionally topped it up. If guests came over, giving them a cup of tea was a snap, and, if you were the sort of Chekhovian household with decrepit ancient retainers, you didn’t have to make the servants do the work.
One of the things I learned as a teenager on my very first visit to the Soviet Union, a school trip, was that kipyatok was everywhere: we traveled from England by rail, and when we got off at the border with Czechoslovakia (at a town oddly named Chop) and changed onto the Russian train, there was an old lady at the end of the carriage with a steaming urn and glasses of tea with endless refills. However awful the food or the toilets were, the tea was always there. And the old ladies; in those days of Soviet full employment, you saw them wherever you turned—sitting in the hotel hallway (often with another urn of kipyatok), looking disapproving if you came back late or tipsy, sweeping the streets, or mysteriously guarding doorways for no apparent reason. They frequently commented uninvited on one’s behavior or appearance—in winter, I was always getting told off for not wearing a hat! In my mind they’re forever associated with a glass of hot tea.
The untranslatability of home
Untranslatable was one of the first sections we came up with when we were preparing to launch wwword, and we collected candidates for it in a lot of different languages early on. They came in sporadically and from disparate sources, so we didn’t really consider them collectively until the site launched and we were posting new articles regularly. At that point we discovered an odd (or perhaps not so odd) thing: a disproportionate number of the words that people had given us had to do with togetherness with friends and family, coziness, or sharing comfort or jollity, whether literally (such as matear, Argentinian Spanish for drinking maté tea together) or more figuratively (such as gezellig, the all-purpose Dutch adjective for good times). It is also true that a lot of the people we talked to are or were living as expats, and so, consciously or not, the words that came to them most vividly may have been ones that correspond to their nostalgia or homesickness or longing for familiarity and the simplicity of being understood without having to explain oneself. But it was only after I began writing about kipyatok that I realized that in some ways my feelings about it were also part of that nostalgia.