There’s no way to make sense of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or of the atrocities its soldiers are committing there – this isn’t that type of column, anyway. What I can do is to take a closer look at some of the words that have been used and heard in relation to Ukraine, Russia and this current horrible situation.

Let’s start with these three terms used by U.S. Sen. John McCain in a CNN interview in 2015:

“Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country. It’s a kleptocracy” (a government whose leaders use political power to appropriate wealth). In recent years, the country’s oligarchs (very rich business leaders with a great deal of political influence) have been replaced by a group known as “siloviki.” The most powerful of these silovarchs (Vladimir Putin’s former KGB buddies) is Igor Sechin, who’s seen as the dictator’s second in command.

A word that’s given the media a little trouble more recently is Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s last name. The Associated Press and NBC spell his surname with two “y”s at the end, while CNN and The New York Times spell his last name with one “y.” In 2015 Zelenskyy was an actor and comedian who was playing the president of Ukraine in the TV show “Servant of the People.” In 2019 he was elected president for real – a role into which he has grown very well. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

The country he leads used to be called “the Ukraine,” but has recently gone by just “Ukraine” because the old version of its name implied a subordinate status to Russia.

The same goes for Ukraine’s capital, “Kyiv” (pronounced “kee-eef), whose spelling is derived from the Ukrainian language, as opposed to the previous Russian spelling, “Kiev” (pronounced “key-EV”).


Then there are Ukraine’s regions. Prior to changing his pretext for invading Ukraine to that of Nazi hunting, Putin’s original lie had been that he was sending “peace-keeping” troops into the oblasts (regions) of Luhansk and Donetsk, which Russia already partially occupied. The oblasts make up the area known as “Donbas,” which is a portmanteau formed from “Donets Basin,” which is a shortening of “Donets Coal Basin.”

The specific color of blue in the Ukrainian flag is called azure. The azure top half represents the sky, while the gold below it represents the nation’s sprawling wheat fields. (By the way, one of the country’s primary symbols is the sunflower, which, it turns out, was used at least once recently as a source of psychological warfare: One news report told of a local woman who was handing sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers, telling them to put the packets in their pockets so that after they’re buried, flowers will grow.)

This column, with its focus on conflict, wouldn’t be complete without a look at invectives. In addition to fighting their enemies with bullets and bombs, many Ukrainians are using the good old morale-boosting tactic of swearing.

“It can be a coping mechanism,” says Harvard researcher Emily Channell-Justice, “to use slang and slurs to comment on a situation that many people don’t have any control over.” When one Ukrainian factory worker was recently asked if he had a message for Vladimir Putin, he replied in English, “I would tell him to go **** himself.” No translation needed.

Next time we’ll take a look at all manner of weapons being used by both sides, ranging from sabotage to stinger missiles.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at

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