Cleaning the Kitchen, Clothes and Mechel

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Зачистить: to get rid of something (slang)

Hygiene is real simple in English -- at least in terms of language. For the basics, all you really need to know are two verbs: to wash and to clean. You wash with water (your hands, the dishes, clothes, floors, etc.). You clean just about everything else (the stove, your room, the family silver, etc.).

I wish Russian were that simple. In Russian, the verb depends on what you are cleaning and how you are cleaning it. Here's a mini-handbook of hygiene and housekeeping.

For surfaces -- animate or inanimate, vegetable or mineral -- cleaned with water: мыть. Ты помыла руки? (Did you wash your hands?) Я хочу помыть голову (I want to wash my hair -- literally, "head"). Соня помыла огурцы (Sonya washed the cucumbers). Мой муж помыл все полы, окна и посуду (My husband washed all the floors, windows and dishes). Мыться means to wash oneself, in the shower, bath or otherwise. У нас сегодня праздник! Дали горячую воду, и я наконец-то помылась! (Today is a holiday. They turned on the hot water, and I finally took a bath!) Мыло (soap) is the stuff you use to wash yourself. In the old days, there were two kinds: the stuff you used on humans (туалетное мыло -- hand and body soap) and the stuff you used on dishes and other hard surfaces (хозяйственное мыло -- kitchen soap). These days you can buy средство для мытья посуды (dish detergent); жидкое и твёрдое мыло для тела/лица (bar and liquid body/face soap); and моющие средства (cleaning liquids), which can refer to just about anything that cleans something.

For fabrics washed in water: стирать. This verb is related to тереть (to rub), which is how clothes once got washed. Remember the washboard? The Russian equivalent is рубель, and you can thank your lucky stars you never had to use one. But the concept stuck in the language, even if now the process involves dumping clothes in a washing machine (стиральная машина) and pushing a button: Я постирала постельное бельё (I washed the bed linen). Я сделал большую стирку (I did a big wash). Купи стиральный порошок (Buy some clothes detergent -- literally, "washing powder").

For fabrics, inanimate objects and other stuff I can't figure out how to categorize that are cleansed of dirt or something unnecessary, unattractive or harmful primarily without water and often with a tool: чистить. (Hey, I'm trying my best. If you want a good definition, open a dictionary.) This refers to cleaning something off the surface or cleaning something out. Чистят зубы, ботинки (They brush their teeth, polish their boots). Соня почистила огурцы (Sonya peeled the cucumbers). Муж чистил грибы для засолки (My husband sorted and cleaned the mushrooms to be salted). Чистил костюм is somewhat ambiguous: It can either mean that you brushed off the suit or had it dry cleaned. If you wanted to be clear, you could say: Я отдал костюм в химчистку (I brought the suit to the dry cleaners). Чистили мусорный бак (They cleaned out the dumpster).

For messes, problems, bandits, mercenaries, rodents and other bad things that need to be made to go away: зачистить. Говорят, что государство собирается зачистить Интернет от негосударственных СМИ и от критики в адрес власти (There's a rumor that the state is going to rid the Internet of the nongovernmental mass media and criticism of the authorities). Рейдеры атакуют: общежитие приказано зачистить от жильцов (Raiders are on the attack: The dormitory has been ordered to evict the residents). And then there is the зачистить that Putin made famous last week: "Придётся послать ему доктора и зачистить все эти проблемы" ("We'll have to send in a doctor and clean up all those problems").

Confusing? If all fails and you don't know what verb to use, just ask a pro.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.