Cute Overload

I have one inhibition when speaking Polish.

It’s not that I’m concerned with making grammar mistakes. I don’t care if I get vocabulary mixed up. And it’s not about using the right declination.

The thing that I have a big inhibition about…is diminutives!

I just don’t feel comfortable speaking in a way that makes things small and cute.

The Polish language has a lot of tricky grammar, but one, often overlooked, challenge for learners is grasping diminutives. By saying kawka instead of kawa (coffee) or piesek instead of pies (dog), Poles have special ways of making things sound small, cute and fluffy.

There’s a website called Cute Overload – it’s just pictures of cats, dogs and other sweet animals. If you need a daily fix, this is the place to go. And sometimes that’s what Polish sounds like…cute overload!

Take for example the word kot. Now I do think that cats are pretty…but does Polish really need 15 words to talk about a cute cat?

9 cats

kot, kotek, koteczek, kotulek, kotuś, kocurek, kociak, kociaczek, kocię, kociątko, kicia, kiciulek, kiciuś, kocisko, kocur

In English we survive with just two cutesy words for cat, namely kitty and pussycat, but Poles either really like cats or no one is heartless enough to trim the dictionary.

I ask Polish friends to explain all of this, but it rarely helps:

Me: What’s the difference between kot, kocurek and kiciuś?

Pole: Well, a kocurek is a small, cute and fluffy cat.

Me: And a kiciuś?

Pole: It’s even smaller and more fluffy.

Me: Cuter too?

Pole: Oh yes.

There are so many words for cat that sometimes I get confused and think any word that starts with a ‘k’ is another kitty word. Kościuszko…is that the guy who lead an uprising in the 18th century or is it just another word for a pretty cat?

Polish kids learn all this language during the first few years of their lives. Foreigners, who try to learn Polish grammatical rules, have a harder time. Indeed, if you try and organize all the cat words into a sensible order, you end up with a table that even Mendeleev would struggle to understand:


And as a result of internet memes, there’s even a new addition: koteł. Will the list ever stop growing?

So coming back to my inhibitions, I’m actually okay using diminutives when referring to kittens, puppies and froggies, but I have a harder time when it comes to non-living things – kawka, herbatka, łyżeczka, kanapeczka (coffee, tea, spoon, sandwich). It just feels silly to make an inanimate object all small and fluffy. If I just want milk in my coffee, do I need to say that I want it z mleczkiem (with a wee dash of milky-wilky)?

One consequence of this is that I’ve been told that I’m too serious when speaking Polish. Maybe I sound like a cyborg, speaking like a robot in a serious, neutral tone.

So anyway, I have lots of doubts and questions about these Polish diminutives:

  • Is it rude to respond with a different level of cutesiness? If someone offers me kawka and I, like a cyborg, say ‘yes, I’d like some kawa’, is that rude?
  • Are there any objects that are so big that you can’t make them small and cute? Godzilleczka? Mount Everestek? Kosmosek?
  • Is it possible to use contradictory diminutives, i.e. making extreme words sound less extreme? For instance, ogromienki, wrogeczek, katastrofka?
  • Why is the diminutive form often longer and uglier than the original word? e.g. cukiereczek, filiżaneczka, kanapeczka.
  • Why are some diminutives actually completely different things? For instance, the diminutive of cukier (sugar) is cukierek (hard-boiled sweet) while the diminutive of zegar (clock) is zegarek (watch).
  • Why does the word mały (small) have its own diminutives – maluteńki, maleńki, malutki, malusieńki? Isn’t this taking things just a drobniuteńko too far?
  • Scottish English has the word ‘wee’ meaning small, e.g. the best translation of wódeczka is a wee vodka. Can’t Polish just have one word for all of this?

And finally, one last question, why does the Polish language need 15 words to describe a cute cat?

49 thoughts on “Cute Overload

  1. answering in the same order: No / No / YES!!!/ really? I don’t find them uglier / cukierek and zegarek are not diminutives, just different things / No / No
    btw there is much more options for cat: kicior, kociszczę, kotunio, kotełek, kociąteczko, kiciusiek… and my favourite: SIERŚCIUCH 🙂


  2. “Kotek” does not always apply to “a small, cute and fluffy cat”.
    I had a neighbour, who called his fat and ugly wife “kotek”, though “hipopotam” would be more suitable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Why are some diminutives actually completely different things? For instance, the diminutive of cukier (sugar) is cukierek (hard-boiled sweet) while the diminutive of zegar (clock) is zegarek (watch).”

    These are not diminutives, they are just different words with different meaning. It’s like comparing “kot” with “Kościuszko” 😉

    “Scottish English has the word ‘wee’ meaning small, e.g. the best translation of wódeczka is a wee vodka. Can’t Polish just have one word for all of this?”

    There was one guy who had similar idea – wasn’t that Orwell with his newspeak? Everything could be plusgood, right? 😉
    Nope. It’s our heritage and we love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, I love Polish language analysis. So in my opinion:

    1) Yes, it’s rude to respond on a lower level of diminutiveness. If you respond “Yes, I’d like some kawa” it’s like you’re accusing the second person to be childish. On the other hand, the higher level is fine: “Yes, I’d love to get some kawusia”.

    2) It’s sometimes possible, for example godzillątko is a small Godzilla, like Godzilla child. You could probably say “he had his own small kosmosik”.

    3) Wróżka is diminutive from wróg and probably originally meant somebody hurting with magic. You can say trumienka (trumna) and naturally tragedyjka (tragedia).

    4) I guess it changed meaning. So originally cukier could have meant something sweet, and then people started using cukierek. Or the other way round – cukierek meant sugar, but then it changed meaning.

    5) It serves two purposes: it ephasizes that something is really small and adds an emotional attitude to the target. For example malusieńkie dzieciątko is not only very small, but somehow also helpless. With ‘si’ it’s more emotional than with ‘tk’. By the way, it’s mały -> maleńki, malutki -> maluteńki and maluśki -> malusieńki. Also: drobniutki -> drobniuteńki and drobniuśki -> drobniusieńki. Unfortunately, there is no drobnieńki. 😦

    6) We have a word mały, and you can say “mała wódka”, but that would be just ridiculous. 😉 😉
    Although to be fair you could also theoretically say “miniwódka” or “tyci wódka” or “tyci tyci wódka”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! You certainly do l love language analysis. I didn’t know that wróżka is the diminutive of wróg – makes sense.
      And ‘tyci’ is interesting because in English you can also say that something is titchy meaning small!


      • Just to clarify – in old polish “wróg” meant “destiny” not “enemy”. It’s not about hurting someone with magic but about telling the future, often unpleasant future. And around XX century the unpleasant future become more general and word “wróg” changed it’s meaning. So these words come from one thing but they’re not diminutives.
        Also “wrogeczek” sounds awesome but “wroguncio” is easier to pronouce. 😀

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I found your blog post through a friend’s reference and I love it! 🙂
    Personally I HATE Polish diminutives, the worst of which I consider PIENIĄŻKI. By goodness, you can give pieniążki to a five-year-old so that s/he learns counting and the money value, but a normal grown-up earns pieniądze! 🙂
    Yes, Polish language is not too logical and has quite a number of words which look like diminutives but aren’t. This, however, allows for some play on words. For example, some time ago I liked to joke that, in the attempt to fight the overly used diminutives, I will start to order “kanapa z szyną, bokiem i pieczarami” (instead of “kanapka z szynką, boczkiem i pieczarkami”). By the way, “szyna” does not really seem to have a diminutive (although there are jokes about that), but the diminutive of “szynka” is “szyneczka” while, say, “boczek” can indeed be both bacon and the diminutive of “bok”, depending on the context, which makes things even worse (but more fun).
    I really have no good response to your questions, but I’ll try anyway:
    – I don’t think it is rude to respond with “kawa” to “kawka”, however – for the sake of joking – I’d respond with something like “dzięki, ale wolałabym kawę” because, mind you, “kawka” is also a bird species! 🙂
    – Basically you can try to make just about anything cutesy in Polish. More like “Evereścik” or “Kosmosik” though.
    – Contradictory diminutives? You bet! Still more like play on words, but perfectly valid. Consider “straszniutka tragedyjka” when some microcelebrity cannot find his favourite hair shampoo in the closest store as opposed to some real “straszna tragedia”.
    – Why some diminutives mean something completely different, I think I’ve already partially answered 🙂
    – Sometimes diminutives have gradation, but it’s shady. For example “drobniutki” is smaller than “drobny”, but I’d have a hard time deciding whether “drobniuteńki” and “drobniusieńki” differ from each other (while both are definitely smaller than “drobniutki”).
    – If Polish had just one word to make diminutives, it wouldn’t be so fun! 😀
    – As for the last question – I can assure you, as a cat lover, that there actually CAN be many more cutesy cat words, most of which I make up myself on a daily basis 😀 Kiciąteczko, kituś, kotałek are just some examples. So… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • A sofa with rails, flank and caves…that’s hysterical. 🙂 Maybe I’ll try it…as a foreigner I might just get away with it! Thanks for all the answers. Yeah, I’m starting to think the list of cat words is endless!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Just the few things I’d like to add:
    – “Kocisko” is actually not a diminutive but an augmentative of “cat”. It describes a big, old, often mean cat;
    – A lot of diminutives have some “soft” consonants (like ci, ni, si), eg. kociak, psiak. Even the ‘w’ in ‘kawa’ is pronounced like English ‘v’, but in ‘kawka’ it’s more like ‘ph’ so it sounds fluffier;
    – we can make a diminutive of virtually anything: animals (wężyk, pajączek), furniture (stolicę, fotelik), numbers (jedyneczka), days of week (wtroeczek, piątunio), adjectives (czerwoneńki, dużutki) and much more;
    – You can use diminutive form of something extreme to make fun of it or in ironic way, eg. “Mamy mały problemik” can mean literally “we’ve got a tiny problem” but figuratively “we’ve got a huge problem”.
    Well, I hope my English is at least as good as your Polish 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Everything is possible in spoken polish. Diminutives of diminutives and so on. We can create a diminutive out of every word for example but it is almost the same case in Spanish, come on.Everyone says kawka for small quick coffee, łóżeczko for warm and nice bed (not necessarily small, rather to emphasize the good things about it) but again, man, this is the same in Spanish = cafecito/cafetito, camita. Of course rules there are much easier to understand but speaking Spanish with diminutives only is considered very weird and so it is in Polish (seriously who says kociulek and kociątko?).

    So talking is just one side of the language. If you really want to catch the beauty of the language you must read. No choice here. In writing things like “małe łóżeczko” is considered a mistake – obviously there is no big łóżeczko.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m Polish, but I HATE the use of word “kawka” for coffee, as “kawka” means primarily a bird species and that bird is always first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the word “kawka”, so it sounds rather strange for me, as if the people saying that were about to eat those birds…


      • I always hear the name of the writer – Franz Kafka. Maybe that’s a new defintion for ‘kafkaesque’ – not knowing whether someone is referring to bird, a writer or a small coffee!


  8. Właśnie ktoś polecił mi tego bloga. Przeczytałem wszystko i twoje refleksje na temat polszczyzny są świetne. Czasem zabawne, a czasem interesujące, nawet jeśli nie zawsze prawdziwe 🙂 Jest wiele rzeczy, których my, rdzenni użytkownicy języka nie zauważamy albo traktujemy jako oczywiste. Fajnie przeczytać opinię kogoś kto stara się to wszystko zrozumieć i podchodzi do tego z humorem. Powodzenia, na pewno będę czytać bloga, czy może… blogusia? blogunia? blogeczka? 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The thing with “kocię” and “kociak” is, both means “kitten” and this forms were originally used in different regions of Poland. There are other pairs like this one: cielę, cielak (calf), kurczę, kurczak (chicken), szczenię, szczeniak (puppy)… They are not dimininutives in fact. They are just the words meaning “young animal”. Because of the Polish history and awful lot of migrations this forms are mixed now and they don’t seem regional anymore.
    So kot and kociak are like cow and calf. Kociak is just young, not cute or sweet. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  10. there is another new expression related to cats which you might enjoy. it’s “hociak”. you can say about someone attractive “kociak”, but usually a guy since it’s masculine, and this new version is hodżpodżd polish that incorporated the word “hot”. so a “hociak” is a guy even more handsome than a kociak!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I see that nobody touched on one catsy aspect, which is that “kocur” is actually a male cat. Which makes “kocurek” a young, male cat and it does not necessarily has to be cute or fluffy (but they usually are).

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Another thing is that diminutives can help you fight fear. Let’s say a child is affraid of some monster (potwór). If you start calling monster “potworek”, it will sound less scary. Miś, is also much less scary than niedźwiedź.
    Every time I have a problem at work with reconsiling some numbers, I say that my “cyferki” does not match. This may sound silly, but makes me feel less flustrated 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Are there any objects that are so big that you can’t make them small and cute? Godzilleczka? Mount Everestek? Kosmosek?”

      NOPE. 😀,124

      Diminutive can be used for showing contempt too, e. g. “zawistny człowieczek”, “ciasny rozumek”, “broni swojego honorku” (from Sapkowski’s “Boży bojownicy”). When something is small, it’s silly, not very important or unethical in a very common way (“niskie pobudki”).

      PS: My friend show me your blog at boring nightwatch. It lightened my 4.00 A.M, 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • It seems these diminutives can show so much – emotions, sarcasm, contempt, class realtions – a kosmosek of nuance!

        Glad you’re night shift was a little brighter 🙂


  13. I don’t like using diminutives. Especially when it comes to pieniążki, piwko, wódeczka. They are “adult” words, and it even annoys me when people diminutive them. So for your question about coffee, i would answer exactly the same way as you do. “Yes, I want some kawa”.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Prompted by your article and fascinated by the various linguistic quirks of Polish and English languages I would like to bring to your attention problem that has puzzled me for a while. Contrary to the lack of English words for humble cat there is a magnificent multitude of place descriptives used in towns and villages of Great Britain. Where Polish suffice with “ulica”, “aleja” and “plac” (and perhaps just a few more in very specific locations) in English you will find: road, street, avenue, crescent, way, mews, close, rise, hill, approach, drive, place, lane, parade, boulevard, alley, grove, walk, square, green, terrace, circus, plaza, common, ride, mead, bank, passage, garden (gardens), court and vale.
    How about that to expand on this discussion? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Like, I have to say, from the start, that it’s wrong.

    We have definitely way way WAY more than just fifteen words for cute cats.
    Which is funny because polish people don’t seem so fond of cats? Like, most will say they prefer dogs and cats are evil, and it’s not just older people. Cats have horrible rep with Poles and you can bet that any time a person say “I like cats” there’s gonna be at least one other person saying “well, I think cats are disgusting”.


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