Gluten in Russian.

I love Maciej Cegłowski’s writing; his blog Idle Words is well worth keeping an eye on, and his latest post, Gluten Free Antarctica, is part of his hilarious account of a trip to that fabled continent. I knew I’d enjoy it but didn’t expect to be posting about it here; fortunately, there’s a linguistic hook, however feeble, that gives me an excuse:

Far below the Antarctic circle, I watch a woman cry real tears because she can’t get gluten-free toast. […]

Rodney convenes a summit in the ship’s auditorium to address the gluten crisis. Only passengers with dietary restrictions are invited. The rest of us must huddle around the open hatch one deck above, straining to hear. We are deep in the Ross Sea, five hundred miles from the nearest human being, and this is the most exciting thing that has happened on the ship in weeks.

There are tears of laughter on the bridge when I tell the Russian crew about the Great Antarctic Glutiny.

“You mean if this woman eats bread, she will die?“

“Not really. She just gets sick.“

“Yuri, come here! You have to hear this. If she eats bread, the woman will die.”

“She won’t die. Gluten causes digestive problems for some people. But it’s also become a sort of health fad.”

“What is ‘gluten’? Is that even a Russian word?”

Here they’ve got me. Tolstoy never wrote about gluten (kleikovina), and the ship’s dictionary is strictly nautical. Trying to paraphrase the concept only exposes the holes in my own understanding of this mysterious, flavorful substance.

“It’s some kind of a protein in grain. I think it makes things taste good.”

Yuri makes a skeptical face.

“It doesn’t kill anyone,” I insist. “But people can get digestive… unpleasantness.”

“So bread will make her sick?”


“Can she eat potatoes?”

“Yes. And corn.”

Any hope of sympathy from the Russians evaporates.

“Then let her eat potatoes. Let her eat corn. Or let them all stay home and eat whatever the fuck they want.”

I’m tempted to go on quoting, but I’ll restrain myself and tell you to just go over there and read the whole thing; you won’t be sorry. And now we’ve all learned the Russian word for ‘gluten,’ клейковина (though apparently it can also be called глютен).


  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I don’t know how I’ve managed to get through 75 years without knowing the Russian for “gluten”. If I need to say it’ll I’ll say клейковина, as глютен looks like an imitation. Fortunately I don’t need to talk often about gluten.

  2. Thank you, the whole piece is indeed hilarious.

    no one could endure five weeks at sea with a vegan“…

  3. January First-of-May says

    though apparently it can also be called глютен

    …which is, in fact, the only Russian word for it I was familiar with.

    I’m not very surprised to find out that there’s a native Russian term, but I also wouldn’t be especially surprised if most other Russians wouldn’t recognize it either.

  4. Ah, good to know. I’ll emend my dictionary accordingly.

  5. Dmitry Pruss says

    Of course it’s клейковина and the reason you Russians haven’t heard the word must be related to the fact that your macaroni softened into an ooze when cooked (hard wheat with its high gluten content is what holds spaghetti together, but it is more expensive with sometimes tragic consequences for the Soviet pasta eaters). Just like protein isn’t “protein” in Russia, it is белок.

    In Russian translation of Stanislaw Lem’s classic about the impostor robots using an archaicized version of the human language, the mankind is called kleikovina, and individual human beings, kleyushniki. But I don’t know what was the word in the Polish original.

    na przykład w wystąpieniach oficjalnych nie nazywa się nas inaczej, jak lepniakami, a ludzkość – bryją

    (So in the original, it was a Polish word for overcooked oatmeal mash rather than Russia’s hilariously archaically sounding gluten)

  6. I need to talk about gluten and coeliac disease all the time, and am relieved to see that both have unsurprising cognates in Romanian and Polish, the highest-bang-for-buck languages when communicating with L2 English speakers in this part of the world. Клейковина is very likely to stick in my mind from this article for the occasional Russian going forward; thank you Maciej!

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    brevity is for the weak

    A man after my own heart.

  8. Gluten is Latin for glue. There would have been even more confusion and hilarity if you had to explain your gluten intolerance to an ancient Roman.

  9. There must be a sort of cognitive disconnect at work here. I’m pretty certain клейковина (defined as the protein in cereal grains) is mentioned in the botany classes all Russian kids have to go through at the age of 11-12. Does the representative student realize that the ill-reputed глютен in wheat grain is the same as, or a variety of, the same old клейковина? I’m not sure, especially if this is a person who went to school in the 1970s or 1980s and first heard about gluten allergy in the 2000s.

    Thanks for the link, LH – it made my day!

  10. David Marjanović says

    But what is “the austral winter of 2013-14″…?

  11. Thanks, David. That had never occurred to me.

  12. I found discussions of “gluten” when I was a child to be endlessly confusing. I eventually realized that the reason was that when people talk about gluten in bread, they often “forming” or “developing” gluten, which makes it sound like they are producing it.* I suspect that I am not the only person who is unclear about this, and that there are two slightly different meanings of gluten involved here. To some people, it is a protein complex present in grains and their flours. However, to others, it is the gluey-ness and stretchiness of the dough itself, which needs to be created by kneading.

    Recent “gluten-free” diet fads have added further confusion. (And I only mean the fad versions here; avoiding gluten for people with celiac or similar metabolic conditions is a separate issue.) The idea of such diets (if they make any sense at all) is to avoid foods laden with sugars and starches (“low carb”)—not the actual gluten, which is the protein component of wheat and related grains.

    * I recall being specifically confused by the was “developing gluten” was discussed during an episode of 3-2-1 Contact. I tried to find the video online, but I was unable. However, not having watched the show in many, many years, I was shocked by how disco the original opening theme was (and secondarily, how bad the acting was, especially during the first season, which was my favorite when I was a kid).

  13. John Cowan says

    I am encouraging my daughter to start my new grandson on peanut butter (sugarless) as early as possible, to fend off a possible peanut allergy. He can’t handle even semisolid food quite yet, though: next month, peanut butter, then soft bread!

  14. But what is “the austral winter of 2013-14″…?

    Good question. Austral winters (coinciding with boreal summers) are usually given as June to September. Even in Antarctica, by December it is close to about as warm as it gets (still below freezing), so I don’t know why an austral winter would spill across two years.

  15. Thanks for the link.

    New Zealanders seem to have an almost pathological fear of flavor.

    Grossly unfair! Or is Conor from the 1960’s?

  16. Most of the New Zealanders on the ship are retirees, so it might be reasonable to say their palates are from the 1960s.

  17. But what is “the austral winter of 2013-14″…?

    An oxymoron. The Akademik Shokalskiy was trapped in ice for around two weeks from 25 December 2013 to 8 January 2014. This is, as various people have pointed out, high summer in the Antarctic (and indeed everywhere else south of the tropics).

  18. @ajay: It seems like they may have been tempting fate, with a mission to commemorate the Australian Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Douglas Mawson. While the expedition as a whole was very successful, Mawson’s own three man expedition party was almost totally obliterated. First, they lost Belgrave Ninnis and most of their food supplies in a crevasse. As was customary, they then supplemented their dwindling food supplies by gradually eating their sled dogs. However, they were apparently unaware that you are not supposed to eat the livers of arctic predators. The third member of the party, Xavier Mertz, was known to be a picky eater, and probably ate most of the husky liver, leading to an acute and fatal case of vitamin A poisoning. Mawson himself suffered a much milder care of hypervitaminosis and ultimately made it back to base camp and survived. However, to make it back in his weakened state, with no remaining dogs, he had to pull a sledge himself, which he was not strong enough to do. So after Mertz’s death, Mawson spent an entire day sawing their remaining sledge in half with his pocket knife, to make it light enough for him to transport.

    The whole story is recounted in the last chapter of The Beetle of Aphrodite and Other Medical Mysteries, by Michael Howell and Peter Ford (which is really an excellent popular science book).

  19. Note to self: cross antarctic exploration off bucket list.

  20. John Cowan says

    From WP, s.v. hypervitaminosis A:

    Some Arctic animals demonstrate no signs of hypervitaminosis A despite having 10-20 times the level of vitamin A in their livers as other Arctic animals. These animals are top predators and include the polar bear, Arctic fox, bearded seal, and glaucous gull. This ability to efficiently store higher amounts of vitamin A may have contributed to their survival in the extreme environment of the Arctic.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    One of the few things I remember from my undergraduate years is that polar bear liver contains toxic levels of Vitamin A. Years later, I was told that local people are well aware of this, and eat polar bear liver on purpose because of the high this can induce.

    So if any hatters find themselves at a party up beyond the Arctic Circle where polar bear liver is circulating, they will know what is going on and can make their own decisions in the matter.

    Sadly I do not have a source for this titbit; but in any case it’s surely too good to submit to the grey boring process of fact-checking.


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