The Ham Trap

The problem isn’t that a brain learns too slowly. Problems occur when it learns too fast. Instead of methodically and rationally working out what a word means, sometimes my brain races towards some wildly inaccurate conclusions.

It’s as if my brain were a wild horse, and there are times when I wish I could pull back on the reins and say ‘whoa brain…slow down…let’s get there one step at a time‘.

A friend, Jacek, and I were running for a bus, frantically waving to the driver that we wanted to board. Just as we reached the back door, it slammed shut and the bus began to pull out. When Jacek banged his fist on the bus door and said ale chamstwo, the school of life presented me with a language learning opportunity.

I knew that -stwo meant something like -ness in English, a suffix that turns an adjective into a noun. So hearing chamstwo, I immediately chopped the word into two halves: cham and -stwo. Despite knowing it was nonsense, I couldn’t stop my mind from leaping to the conclusion that I had just heard the English word ‘ham’ in its Polish form.

Ham-stwo…hamness…What could that mean?

Normally, when experience gives you such a learning opportunity, it’s best to pay attention to the context. What happened? Who said what to whom? What was their motivation and what was the impact of their words? Acting like a detective, a clever language learner should be able to deduce what the phrase means, memorize it and store it until they find themselves in a similar situation.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t stop thinking about pork!


I did notice that Jacek was either criticising the bus driver’s behaviour or cursing our bad luck. So, despite knowing it was a waste of time, I searched for English idioms connected to meat that could also describe people or luck:

  • ham: if someone is ham in English, it means they try to show off a talent that they don’t really have. Did Jacek mean that the bus driver was an unskillful show-off?
  • pig: in English, pig is a insult, maybe in Polish they use the meat as an insult instead of the animal?
  • lean: the word lean describes a slim person, as well as a thin slice of meat. Perhaps it means our luck is as lean as a slice of ham?
  • thick as mince / mutton: both these comparatives mean stupid. This could definitely apply to the bus driver!

But none of these seemed to fit the context.

Because we were running late for a match, it wasn’t a good moment to stop Jacek and ask some probing questions on the meaning and usage of the expression ale chamstwo. In any case, he didn’t look in the mood for a linguistic discussion. So I decided to ask him later.

The next day, recalling the incident, I searched my Polish-English dictionary for the word hamstwo, but it wasn’t there. Then I remembered that Poles spell ‘h’ as ‘ch’ or ‘cz’. And there is was…chamstwo…translated as ‘boorishness’, while the adjective chamski was translated as ‘boorish’, and cham as boor. These words are rarely used in English and rather old-fashioned. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘boorish’ in my life.

Leaping to the wrong conclusion again, my brain even suggested, ‘maybe Jacek speaks old-fashioned Polish? He must have picked up the expression from his grandfather’.

But I kept hearing the word chamstwo, chamski or cham…in different situations…and from many different people. And it was rarely used lightly – few people said trochę cham.

Why is there so much boorishness in Poland?, I wondered. If the word boor isn’t used in the UK anymore, does it means that our society has successfully eliminated boorishness?

I decided to take a more methodical approach to learning this piece of vocabulary, and started to ask around. When answering, most Poles responded by giving personal examples and got visibly upset while they were sharing their anecdotes. Indeed, most of them didn’t want to discuss the word chamstwo in much detail, and changed the subject as quickly as possible.

Oh, this question touches a nerve, I thought. The word boorish doesn’t elicit any emotions in a British person, but talking about the word chamstwo definitely make Poles feel awful!

And in this way, I learned that chamstwo describes behaviour that is rude or offensive, and that the word was once used to refer to peasants.

And of course, we haven’t eliminated boorishness in the UK, in fact, I’d say it’s back in fashion. There’s a new British English word which would be a more accurate translation of cham and actually looks very similar. That word is ‘chav’, but it didn’t appear in dictionaries until 1998. The Oxford English dictionary defines it meaning as ‘a young, working-class person who displays loutish behaviour’ so it’s similar to cham in that its definition relates to rude behaviour and social status.

So, for me, learning the word chamstwo was a challenge. A challenge in not jumping to wrong conclusions:

  • it’s not related to pork
  • it’s not old-fashioned
  • and we haven’t eliminated it in the UK, in fact, we’re creating new words for it.

Whoa brain!

5 thoughts on “The Ham Trap

  1. After a wee bit of consideration I remembered that there is another polish word similar to “chamstwo” both in the way it’s used and the general feel of it. “Świństwo” (en. meanness, turpitude) has got a lot to do with pork – worth trying next time! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmm, while a chav can definitely be chamski, I definitely don’t agree that all chavs are chams. Cham is simply a rude and bad-mannered person! While chavs are clearly not the best mannered people, not all of them deserve to be called chams.

    Liked by 1 person

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