Keep Calm

Different cultures emphasise different emotions. Britons, for instance, think that calmness is the queen of emotions and that if only everyone would calm down, then the world would be a better place. All those ‘keep calm and…‘ memes (like ‘keep calm and drink tea‘) are part of our propaganda campaign to sell our favourite emotion to the world 😉

If a foreigner wants to appear British, then he or she needs to develop their ability to be detached and ironic while saying ‘we might have a slight issue here‘ as the house burns down.

So which emotions are peculiar in the Polish language? Which emotions does a Polish language learner need to understand not only linguistically, but also emotionally, in order to sound like a Pole?

In my experience, it isn’t positive emotions (like happiness, surprise or relief) that are tough to express in Polish, it’s the words used to describe negative emotions that give me sleepless nights.

The first Polish word used to describe an emotion that I came across was zły. The dictionary translated it as ‘bad’ but I just felt confused.

You see, there are such a variety of declensions of this little word: zła, źli, złe, złemu, złą, złego…some with a ‘z’, some with ‘ź’, some with ‘ł’, and others with ‘l’ – that I didn’t know whether it was one word or many different words. I’ve probably been corrected more often for grammatical errors connected with the formation of the word zły than any other word in Polish.

And then there is the meaning. At first I thought it was a direct equivalent of the English word ‘bad’ as in źle się czuję (I feel bad) and złe zachowanie (bad behaviour). So when I heard Poles say Jestem zły (lit. I am bad) I wondered if they were confessing something about their character and were going to tell me where the bodies were hidden. Of course, it turns out that zły means ‘angry’ too… and a lot more besides.

Type these three letters z-ł-y into an online dictionary and you get a mass of English translations. Angry, bad, evil, ill, malevolent, malicious, malign, miffed, miserable, nasty, peeved, poor, savage, adverse, annoyed, erroneous, evil-intentioned, evil-minded, fierce, incorrect, invalid, mad, pissed off, spare, upset, vicious, wrong, hot under the collar. That’s a lot of meaning packed into three letters! Does the word zły describe many different emotions or just one huge cocktail of badness?

All in all, for a Polish learner, zły is bad word… both in terms of meaning… and grammatically!

Another time I was confused about the word zły was when a Polish colleague wanted to warn me that our boss was in a bad mood and said uważaj, ona jest w złym humorze. I understood that it was a warning about about her sense of humour, and I feared being the victim of some malicious joke. But I was merely the victim of a false friend. ‘Humour’ in English used to mean ‘mood’ as well, but nowadays it just refers to jokes and comedy. So when a Pole says that are in a bad mood (w złym humorze), I like to think that they are just having a ‘bad comedy day’ and so I avoid making jokes they won’t appreciate.

When I first came to Poland I used to buy a sport newspaper called Przegd Sportowy. Not knowing much Polish, I didn’t read the articles, but simply checked the football results from European leagues. On one particular Monday, the headline on the cover read ‘Hańba!‘. In Scotland, football fans shout this word quite often when they see an opposition player using their hand to play the ball and want to appeal for a penalty. The word ‘handball’, when shouted by a Scottish crowd, sounds just like hańba. So innocently, I assumed the lead story was about a controversial penalty in a football match. Indeed, the picture below the headline showed some hooligans rampaging in a stadium. They must have been really upset by the referee’s decision, I thought.

Of course, it turned out that the story was about some hooligans destroying a stadium and the Polish word hańba means ‘disgrace’. I should have known because if there’s one emotion that is expressed frequently in Polish, it’s ‘shame’. In order to sound even slightly proficient in Polish, it’s necessary for a learner to master one key expression:

Ale wstyd!

Poles are so good at saying this. The slight shake of the head, the way the word ale lasts twice as long as the word wstyd, the sharp, downward intonation at the end. It’s cutting. Whenever the national football team lose an important match, a public institution isn’t functioning properly or a politician makes a silly gaff, I’ve learned to react like a Pole by expressing the emotion of shame and saying ale wstyd!

I have more trouble with the word żenada (embarrassment) though. It sounds too nice for such a powerful emotion. To my ears, it sounds likes a soft drink. Do you want lemoniada, oranżada or żenada? I just can’t connect it to a feeling of embarrassment.


If there’s one language mistake I’ve made that did cause me to feel żenada, it concerns the expression to describe being ‘in the huff’. For years, instead of hearing the correct version strzelić focha, I thought the Polish version was strzelić foka (to shoot a seal). ‘It’s rather brutal, I thought ‘that when a Pole is in the huff they go outside and shoot a seal‘. I did wonder whether there are many seals left in the Baltic or whether they’ve all been shot!

How was I supposed to know that the word was focha and not foka? The only Foch I knew was a French general in the First World War. And while he probably had good reason to be in a bad mood, I doubted that his temper was so infamous as to become part of the Polish language.

So when I informed a room full of Poles that someone had just shot a seal, understandably, they were a little confused. And when they figured out my mistake, I felt embarrassed… just a little żenada.

Of course, language learning can be a minefield. You’re going to trip up from time to time.

So even if I make an embarrassing language mistake in Polish, I revert to the British emotion of calmness:

Keep calm and take care of the seals!

2 thoughts on “Keep Calm

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