In Polish there’s an expression skąpy jak Szkot (mean as a Scot). Being Scottish myself, I sometimes get irked by the stereotype that Scots are mean. It’s not that I’m offended, it’s just that I need to be on guard, monitoring my behaviour, to make sure that I’m not acting in a way that might reinforce the stereotype. So when learning Polish, especially language connected to money and financial transactions, in the back of my mind there was a voice saying ‘don’t pay too much attention, you don’t want people to think you’re obsessed with money.’
The first thing I learned about Polish money was the name of the currency, which most foreigners call zloties. To Anglo-saxon ears, zlot rhymes with slot and makes zloties sound like a bunch of tokens that you use to play slot machines in Las Vegas. Once I got used to the Polish name, I learned that złoty means golden, a word which creates a much better image for the currency than slot machine tokens.
One of the first financial lessons that I got in Poland came when I went grocery shopping. You see, there is one group of Poles who really know how to manage money carefully, and who fight tirelessly to teach others good financial habits too. I’m referring to Polish shop assistants, who are so focused with managing the change in the till, that they hound you to give them the right change. Any foreigner quickly learns expressions connected to giving the right change – nie ma Pan drobnych? Może końcówka? – because making a purchase depends on you having small coins and notes.
Polish shop assistants also give me numerous opportunities to dispel the myth that Scots are mean. Often, instead of giving you all the change, the shop assistant simply announces będę winna grosik (I owe you a penny) and doesn’t give you the full amount of change. Not being a skąpy Scot, I always agree immediately and don’t even think about the countless zloties I must have lost in this way over the years… nor the interest on the unpaid debt!
On the subject of debt, I did find it odd that the Polish word for ‘owe’ is the same as the word for ‘guilty’: winny. Does this mean that if you borrow money from a person, then you are guilty of some crime in their eyes? I also wonder whether this makes Poles more reluctant to take out loans?
The one major challenge when learning words connected money is that there’s so much slang. I quickly learned words like kasa and zeta, but slang words for quantities were more difficult. For instance, the first time I heard pięć dych was at a market when I was trying to buy a DVD, and I was disappointed when I discovered that it means five times ten and not five plus ten. Likewise, when I heard stówka (little hundred) for the first time, I did hold out a hope that it meant less than one hundred… otherwise why else would it be a diminutive?
To my ears, Polish slang words for money make it sound cute and innocent. At first when I heard any word ending in -ówka, it reminded me of the English word hoof. So złotówka (one złoty coin) sounded like a golden horse shoe, while stówka (hundred) sounded like a stone that is trapped in a pony’s hoof. Likewise, the first time I heard tysiak (thousand) it reminded me of prosiak (piglet) and I thought it was a cute forest mammal. At least bańka (million) sounded more serious and I assumed contained some good advice – if you come into a million, go straight to the bank. Yet, I later discovered that bańka means milk churn, which is the last place you ought to keep a million zloties!
Of course, not wanting to look like a mean Scot, I can’t say that I don’t have any money in case people think it’s an excuse not to contribute. In English, we say, I’m broke (as if having money fixes you), while in Polish, I was surprised to learn that you say jestem spłukany (I’m rinsed). It sounds like you left your cash in the pocket of your jeans when you put them in the washing machine. And actually, this would work pretty well as an excuse for not paying. Sorry, can you pay for dinner, all my cash was rinsed at 60 degrees?
Another money topic I tend to avoid concerns saving money. In English we have an idiom ‘to save money for a rainy day’. It suggests that you should save money now so that you can cheer yourself up by spending it on a rainy day. I prefer the Polish version: trzymać coś na czarną godzinę (literally, keep something for a black hour). Cheering yourself up on a rainy day sounds trivial in comparison. Whatever nightmarish thing appears at this black hour, I certainly want to have some cash saved up… perhaps I can bribe it to go away!
One final expression, and one that I find particularly alarming, is the Polish proverb stating that pięniądze leżą na ulicy (money is lying on the street). You see, there’s an old joke that asks ‘how do you kill a Scotsman?’ The answer is to throw ten pence in front of a bus.
So if it’s true that money is lying on the ground in Poland, I just hope it isn’t lying on streets that the buses drive down!