Horror Show

My seven favourite Polish words are:

  • dramat (drama)
  • fatalnie (fatal)
  • katastrofa (catastrophe)
  • koszmar (nightmare)
  • makabra (macabre)
  • masakra (massacre)
  • tragedia (tragedy)

These words are incredibly common in Polish. They are used to describe how terrible everyday experience is – the weather, traffic, your workload, relationships etc – not important stuff, just things you encounter every day.

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I once attended a management training with a group of Polish managers. It was a bit dull and there was lots of listening to do, so for a whole day I counted the frequency of these words during breaks, chats or group discussions. I counted 11 masakras, 4 koszmars, 2 tragedias and 1 dramat. And that was just in one day.

When using these words, Poles exaggerate about how bad things are. I’ve heard many Poles refer to the weather as a massacre (masakra) which is a bit of a stretch. I mean, a ‘massacre’ is when lots of people die…violently! A bit of rain just doesn’t compare.

As a foreigner, I don’t have a feel for which of these words is the worst. Is a koszmar worse than a masakra? If you have one dramat and one katastrofa in a day is that worse than two tradegias? I don’t know, but Poles seems to have a feel for the scale of horror involved.

I’ve come to the conclusion that these words are used in the Polish version of small talk. In the UK, we break the ice with others by making rather meaningless statements about the weather or travel etc. This is called ‘small talk’.

In Poland, small talk looks like this. Imagine two colleagues meeting in the morning at work:

Magda: Ale masakra!
Janusz: Co?
Magda: Godzinę stałem w korkach.
Janusz: To jeszcze nic. Ja stałem półtorej godziny.

Magda: Massacre!
Janusz: What?
Magda: Traffic jams. I was stuck for an hour.
Janusz: That’s nothing. I was stuck for an hour and a half!

The standard opening is to use one of the seven words (especially after the word ‘ale’) to start the conversation. This arouses curiosity and invites the listener to ask what’s so bad. Then you can describe the horror experience. After that, the listener’s role is to find a worse example – as Janusz does in the dialogue above. By the end of the exchange, both parties agree that things are bad, but disagree about which experience is worse.

Ice broken in the Polish way.

16 thoughts on “Horror Show

  1. This is the most entertaining blog I’ve found in a looong time. I’m sending this post to my coworkers who used to think that me responding “terrible” to “how are you” meant that I was depressed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hahaha, I can’t stop laughing 😀 I’m sending your blog to the others, and just reading to my partner, and we are both having a lot of fun. It;s a masterpiece!

    Looking at this conversation above I thought it would be typical if Janusz finished the talk with something like: “To jeszcze nic. Ja stałem półtorej godziny. To dopiero tragedia (this is a (bigger) tragedy).”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. thanks its nice to see someone interested in the language, i appreciate your blog and the effort you put to understand. in some theories you are very accurate and you actually get to the point, but sometimes you are wrong. xd

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I wouldn’t say there is any scale of horror. All of these are on the same level. Example:
    Andrzej: Dramat.
    Basia: Yes, koszmar.
    Czesław: You’re right, fatalnie.
    Dominik: Yup, it was tragedia.

    But the word “fatalnie” doesn’t suit to this list gramatically. All other expressions are nouns and “fatalnie” is adverb (for example: “it is dramat / koszmar / tragedia” BUT “I feel fatalnie”). However you can make adverbs from nouns… at least from some of them: “I feel koszmarnie / tragicznie” BUT no-one will say “I feel dramatycznie / masakrycznie”. And there is no noun-version of fatalnie. Ok, maybe someone, somewhere said “fatalność” but he was probably one edgy teenager who tried to be cool.


  5. You forgot one – beznadzieja 🙂 This is also a good ice-breaker: “Ale beznadzieja, co?” Or just: “Beznadzieja…. ”

    This is interesting how you managed to observe so many unusual (but not always positive) things in the Polish culture that we, Poles, don’t even notice. Thank you for writing about all that!

    Liked by 1 person

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