When a Pencil Is a Rocket Launcher: How We Talk about War

In Kyiv, the word karandash (pencil) is an ordinary word one might encounter in an office supply store or an elementary school. But in eastern Ukraine, where the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has killed more than 10,000, displaced another 1.7 million, and injured thousands of civilians, karandash means something else. The Ukrainian military uses it to describe 122-millimeter grad rocket launchers.

Slang is used in every war, and the Russian-Ukrainian one is no exception. Everyday words have been militarized and may reveal some of the conditions on the frontline where journalists often cannot go.  

Each year, the Come Back Alive charitable foundation assembles a calendar to remind people that the war is ongoing and to raise funds to support the troops.  

The 2019 calendar is designed in the format of a military dictionary that includes slang used by Ukrainian soldiers. The design of the calendar imitates the style of old textbooks; each illustration is a creative interpretation of the words that are used by military people but have a completely different meaning for civilians.

Without further ado, here are the other eleven words we selected:

  1. Mishka (Bear): a tank.  0002
  1. Pokemon: a modernized Kalashnikov machine gun.  0003
  1. Dashka: a Degtyaryov-Shpagin heavy machine gun. In civilian life, it’s a female name that means “given as a gift” or “one that brings well-being.”   0004
  1. Ptashka (Birdy): an unmanned combat air vehicle.  0006
  1. Red fish: canned anchovies in tomato sauce. In civilian life, this word combination describes gourmet salmon fish.  0007
  1. Semechki (Seeds): gun shells. In civilian life, this word denotes sunflower or pumpkin seeds.  0008
  1. Beha: an infantry combat vehicle. In civilian life, the word “beha” is used as slang for BMW cars and motorcycles.  0009
  1. Multyk (Cartoon): a camo pattern developed by Crye Precision. In civilian life, this word means a cartoon. 0010
  1. Tabletka (Pill): an ambulance. In civilian life, it means a small dose of medicine.  0011
  1. Ulitka (Snail): a metal ammunition drum for the AGS-17, a heavy infantry support weapon.  0012
  1. Ochi (Eyes): thermal and night vision scopes.  0013

Vitaliy Deynega is the founder and CEO of the charitable foundation Come Back Alive in Kyiv, Ukraine. Come Back Alive creative director Oleksiy Novikov put the calendar together, and the artwork was created by Oleksandr Komiahov.

Image: An image from the Come Back Alive charitable foundation's 2019 calendar. The Ukrainian military uses the word pencil to describe 122-millimeter grad rocket launcher. Courtesy