Hello & Goodbye

The first thing you cover when learning a foreign language is how to say ‘hello’. Once you’ve mastered that, you can move on to ‘goodbye’. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Polish greeting cześć means both hello and goodbye. ‘How economical,’ I thought, ‘I’ve learned two words for the price of one. Learning Polish is going to be easy’.

I was also surprised to learn that cześć means honour or reverence. In this sense, Polish is more respectful than English. ‘Hi’ is derived from ‘hey you over there‘ and was just used to get the attention of the guy standing in the way of your tractor. ‘Hello’ is what you shout down the telephone to ask ‘is anyone there?

Despite being included in a beginner’s first language lesson, greetings and salutations are actually a rich language area, full of nuance and culture. You don’t just say hello, you also show respect, social status and define the closeness of the relationship.

While many Polish greetings have a similar form to English – dobranoc, dzień dobry, do widzenia – there are some expressions that are a little less straightforward to learn:

Pa

When I first came to Poland and spoke very little Polish, I used to give one-to-one English lessons to a manager in a oil company. During the lessons, the manager would receive a lot of phone calls from her employees, some of which she answered in my presence. She would finish each call by saying ‘pa’ and I used to think that it was her dad that was calling.

He certainly has a lot of questions,’ I thought, ‘to bother his daughter at work all the time!’

Szerokiej drogi

When I first heard the salutation szerokiej drogi, I didn’t really get it. I understood that it literally means ‘I wish you wide roads’, but was confused why Poles used the adjective wide. If I was to make a ranking of ideal road conditions, I’d put fast roads first, followed by safe in second position. Wide wouldn’t even make the top ten.

But then I heard an anecdote and the expression suddenly made perfect sense.

It concerned an American director who came to work in Poland to run a factory situated 45km from Warsaw. He lived in the city and so commuted to work everyday using a busy road that had one lane in each direction.

The first time he made the trip, he freaked out.

Why? Because it was one of those Polish roads with additional lanes on either side. If you want to overtake, then you drive in the centre of the road, and cars coming the other way move over into these additional lanes. Being American, he’d never seen this style of driving, and he spent the whole trip swerving to avoid cars that were coming directly towards him. As soon as he got to the factory, he went straight to the procurement department and asked them to order him a big Volvo…the safest model available. His employees in the factory taught him the expression szerokiej drogi and jokingly said it to him every time he left to go home.

So actually, the salutation is very literal. Wide roads mean safe roads because there’s room to avoid other traffic. What’s more, wide roads are fast roads because there’s or plenty of room for overtaking.

So I should apologise to those Poles that I doubted. Wide roads are better than fast or safe roads, and when they wished me szerokiej drogi, it was wisdom based on experience!

czitczat6

Witam

The use of witam in Polish has always puzzled me, and it’s actually one word of Polish that I can’t bring myself to use. For me, it just doesn’t make any sense. Okay, it’s useful when you are welcoming a guest to your apartment or a new employee to your place of work, but in other contexts, I find it strange.

And I’ve always been particularly confused by the use of witam or witajcie at the start of emails. What is the writer welcoming me to? The email?

In English this would sound automated, as if the computer were welcoming you:

Welcome to this email.

You will find its contents in the two paragraphs below.

If you are not completely satisfied with the contents of this email, please reply button on the top right of the screen.

We wish you a satisfactory stay in your inbox.

Kłaniam się

I had a landlord in Krakow who always used to use this expression when he came round to collect the rent money. He was medium-height and very skinny, usually dressed in black. As he was leaving, he would always say kłaniam się and he would bow slightly. It was as if he were a butler that was leaving his master for the night.

At first, I assumed it was a regional expression, and that I was hearing the word ‘goodbye’ in a Cracovian dialect. It wasn’t until later that I learned that kłaniam się actually means ‘I bow’.

I can’t help using kłaniam się sarcastically from time to time. Like when I was summoned to give a presentation to a board meeting – I delivered the presentation, answered some questions and left so they could move on to the next topic. So I picked up my laptop, bowed slightly and said kłaniam się as a I backed out of the door.

Cześć.

Pa.

I wish you a wide virtual highway.

Kłaniam się.

Welcome to the end of this post 😉

Far, Far Away

To a child, sitting in the backseat of a car, the most important question is ‘how much further is it?‘ You can’t blame them for asking – Polish fairy tales often start with za siedmioma górami, za siedmioma rzekami… (over seven mountains, over seven rivers…), which builds the expectation that most places are pretty far away.

From an early age, we need to know how near or far something is… it’s no wonder that a language develops a rich set of words to describe such things.

Near

In English, travel agents promote hotels in holiday resorts by saying they are only ‘a stone’s throw‘ from the beach. And this is something you can check. Just walk out of the hotel, pick up a medium-sized stone and try to throw it as far as the beach. Of course, your hotel will only be a stone’s throw away from the police station if you injure someone, but if no one is around, then you can actually verify the advertising.

The equivalent expression in Polish – rzut beretem – intrigues me. If you want to say that something is close by, then why say it’s only a beret’s throw away? I assume you would have to toss the beret as if it were a Frisbee, otherwise it wouldn’t go very far. But why a beret? I guess you can throw a beret further than a woolly hat, but why choose headgear in the first place?

I’ve never associated the beret with Poland. It’s more commonly associated with France. Maybe this idiom is anti-French? Do Poles like to tease the French by throwing away their headgear? Is that why Napoleon didn’t hang around in Poland very long – because Maria Walewska kept throwing his funny hat out of the palace window?

A better hat would be those worn in Zakopane – I’m sure you could throw a ‘kapelusz góralski‘ quite far off the top of Giewont.

For advertising purposes, the expression rzut beretem is perfect if you’re promoting a hotel in the south of France. Saying the beach is only a beret’s throw away fits the cultural context. But it wouldn’t make any sense in Morocco where you would need to throw a fez and your hotel would need to be right on the beach to have any chance of hitting it.

Far

When you learn a foreign language sometimes you get jealous. You come across a word, expression or idiom that is so cool, poetic or funny that you wish you had it in your own language too. That’s how I feel about the following expressions – I wish we had them in English!

Both of them describe a far away backwoods, and they’re so much more poetic than in the middle of nowhere, boondocks or hinterland. There’s a children’s book called ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and these two expressions seem to fit into that world.

Tam gdzie diabeł mówi dobranoc (out where the devil says goodnight) – this one is really creepy. I mean, if the devil was saying good morning or good afternoon, it would be scary, but the fact that he’s saying goodnight makes it especially dark… as if you wouldn’t want to visit that place because you don’t know whether you’d wake up the next day. I can just imagine the devil saying ‘night, night‘… and adding sarcastically… ‘don’t let the bed bugs bite‘.

devil3

At least the devil is polite enough to say goodnight… in person. You’d think a busy executive like the devil would delegate the job by sending some minor demon to wish you sweet dreams. But no, wherever this place is, it’s important enough that the devil gives it his personal attention.

Tam gdzie wrony zawracają (out where the crows turn back) – while the diabeł expression seems to increase the importance of the place, this expression makes it so unattractive that crows don’t even bother to fly there.

I love the implicit insult in this expression. Crows consume rubbish and carrion, but not even a crow would visit this place to scavenge. When I steal this expression, package it and export it to the UK, I’ll substitute seagulls for crows – they’re more numerous and even less fussy about what they eat… so the insult will sting even more!

But then again, by replacing crows with seagulls, the idiom would lose some of its darkness. After all, crows are associated with death, and if they turn back, what horrors must exist beyond that point?

So, in actual fact, I don’t need a fairy tale or holiday brochure to transport me to a far away place… that’s over seven hills… and over seven rivers.

When it includes the above expressions… all I need to is have a conversation in Polish!

The Week is Dead

After a long, hard Wednesday at work I went to the kitchen around 4pm.

‘How are things?’ Magda asked.

‘I need more coffee to get me through the rest of the day,’ I replied.

‘Me too… But środa minie, tydzień ginie,’ she said with a smile.

It was the first time I had ever heard that expression…and it made me laugh. What a wonderful little saying! Wednesday is passing, the week is dying.

But what I liked most about the phrase is that it expresses solidarity. We were both tired at work and couldn’t wait for Friday afternoon. Look on the bright side, we’re three fifths of the way there!

I once found the expression środa minie, tydzień ginie on a website offering ‘inspiring quotes’. That’s so Polish I thought. Saying ‘the week has been crap, but don’t worry it’s almost over’ isn’t exactly inspiring…it’s more like consolation. But actually, on that long, tiring Wednesday afternoon, it did give me a lift.

I do wonder why it’s Wednesday and not Thursday that is passing. I mean, after Wednesday there’s still two days to go until the weekend. After Thursday, you’re straight into Friday! Still… I can’t disagree with Piątek – weekendu początek.

Talking of Friday, I’ve observed some Poles picking up the American habit of wishing one another a ‘happy Friday’. Unable to wait for Friday afternoon when it’s normal to say ‘have a nice weekend’, some people turn Friday into a happy day too. Incidentally, I’ve never heard anyone wishing me a ‘happy Monday!’

The expression ‘have a nice day’ didn’t appear in the UK until the late 1980’s when McDonald’s opened their first outlets. Their staff were trained to wish customers a nice day at the end of the interaction, and it’s become a common expression ever since. I’ve heard that miłego dnia only appeared in the 90’s in Poland. Luckily for you, the Berlin Wall was holding it back throughout the eighties.

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the expression ‘have a nice day’. The intention behind it is great, the problem is with its resolution. To quote the comedian George Carlin*: ‘Everybody wants me to have a nice day…That’s the trouble with have a nice day, it puts all the pressure on you. Now I’ve gotta go out and somehow manage to have a good time!

czit czat_jpg

So actually, although it’s less positive, Polish chit-chat is more realistic. Everyone can relate to środa minie, tydzień ginie. Nevertheless, Americans’ positive attitude is spreading fast. Will it conquer Poland? I’m not so sure.

I used to work for an American corporation and had a lot of meetings, calls and interactions with American colleagues. One of most important emotions in the US is excitement, and during a typical meeting, Americans would say how excited they are at least once. In the US it’s important to be positive and give the impression that you’re happy, energetic and engaged.

Poles have a hard time adapting to this – I know because I ran training for groups of Poles about the differences between Polish and US corporate culture, but they didn’t go very well:

Me: You should say you’re excited at least once during a conference call with your American colleagues.

Poles: What if we’re not excited?

Me: Doesn’t matter, I don’t think the Americans are either. They just put on a positive face.

Poles: Isn’t that false?

Me: They’re trying to share positive emotions and create a good atmosphere.

Poles: But it’s hard to get excited about a new time management tool. we just don’t care that much.

In the US, there’s pressure to be positive, wear a smiling face and wish everyone a nice day. I definitely don’t feel that kind of pressure in Poland.

So Happy Friday!

The week is dead.

Have a nice weekend 😉

 

*George Carlin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJZ6ixiVgCs

Idioms for Dinner

Idioms can be confusing, especially if you understand the words literally. Often I jump to conclusions about what a Polish idiom means and end up getting it completely wrong.

The worst thing is… I tend to remember the wrong meaning more vividly than the actual one.

So here’s a small sample of Polish idioms I’ve misunderstood – all connected with food:

1. Wpaść jak Śliwka w Kompot

This is translated as ‘to get into hot water‘ and I like it because it’s so Polish. In the UK, we don’t have kompot and plums aren’t a popular fruit, so to understand this idiom you need to come to Poland and take a look at a jug of kompot.

śliwki

Do the plums in a kompot jug look like they are in trouble? When I first came across this idiom I assumed, incorrectly, that it meant to be in a comfortable, familiar situation. Shouldn’t plums feel at home in a jug of kompot? After all, the plums are with friends! What’s more, I don’t think a plum in kompot is in that much danger. A lot of the fruit gets left behind once the kompot is drunk. I’d rather be a plum in kompot than a plum in jam or in bigos.

2. Jak Flaki z Olejem

Literally, this means ‘as tripe with oil‘. I had been offered flaki (tripe) many times in Poland (which I politely refused) before I came across this idiom. So I associated flaki with something very ugly…even a little exotic…and frankly disgusting.

So when I came across the idiom, I assumed it meant either disgusting or ugly. In English we have an expression that something looks like a ‘dog’s dinner‘, meaning that it’s a mess or really horrible to look at. I figured flaki z olejem meant the same.

I was surprised when I later saw the idiom in its full version ‘nudny jak flaki z olejem‘ which is best translated by the English idiom: ‘dull as ditch water’.

Now I feel sorry for all those Poles who had to eat tripe for every meal so that it became the definition of boredom!

3. Bułka z Masłem

I first heard this idiom when listening to a shanty in the port of Sztynort in Mazury. Maybe it was the context that fooled me because the shanty was about a sailor who survived a storm, reached Sztynort and ate a bread roll with butter. So I assumed its meaning was connected to safety or stability. You know, the kind of thing a fireman would say after it turns out that there’s no bomb in the building. ‘It’s okay, just a false alarm, everything is safe and we can all go home and eat a bread roll with butter‘.

Of course, bułka z masłem actually means that something is ‘easy/simple‘. I guess it’s pretty straightforward to spread butter on a roll, but it’s not so easy to understand why it was included in that shanty.

Curiously, the English language also uses food idioms to describe something that’s easy:

  • a piece of cake (UK)
  • as easy as pie (US)

…except both are a bit more posh than the Polish bułka.

In Conclusion

The Polish language is full of great food idioms. Indeed, you could eat a three-course meal consisting of idiomatic foods only:

Client: What do you recommend?

Waiter: Well for a starter, I recommend flaki z olejem.

Client: No, that’s a bit boring. Anything else?

Waiter: Perhaps…dwa grzyby w barszczu?

Client: Barszcz is fine, but I’ll just have one grzyb..save some room for desert.

Waiter: As you wish. For the main course, we have some niezły bigos.

Client: Perfect, I’ll have the bigos. Can you serve it with bread and butter?

Waiter: Dla nas to jest bułka z masłem.

Client: I’d prefer bread if you have it.

Waiter: And for desert, the icing on the cake, wisienka na torcie.

Client: Delicious.

Waiter: Anything to drink?

Client: Kompot…with plums?

Waiter: Certainly…and I assure you that no plums were harmed in the making of the kompot.

Muchomore, Mucholess

One regret I have about living in Poland is that my Polish wife doesn’t like mushroom-picking and has never taken me on a trip to the forest with a basket. One of the rites of passage for foreigners into Polish culture is the first time they are invited to go mushroom-picking. My wife has failed to give me this basic initiation …and education.

As far as mushrooms are concerned, my mental basket is empty.

In the UK we don’t have many forests left. That’s why, we don’t have much affection for mushrooms despite the wet climate. To us, mushrooms are small, white buttons that you buy in plastic-wrapped packs in Tesco. They are grown in darkened warehouses and don’t have any taste. Indeed, the only people who actually go mushroom-picking in the UK are desperate students looking for a psychedelic experience.

Consequently, English speakers only use one word for the fungi that grows in the woods – mushroom. If you want to define them more precisely, then we borrow from French – chanterelle, champingon etc.

In Poland, however, mushrooms are a passion and their appearance marks a time of the year. Not only are they a delicious food, but they are a hobby, a source of income and an activity that unites the whole family. The entire population can get involved – you just need to get up early enough and know where to look.

While English speakers only use one generic expression, Polish has the generic name grzyby, as well as a different name for each type of mushroom – borowik/prawdziwek, rydz, kurka, kania, pieczarka, maślak, gąska, koźlarz, podgrzybek, zajączek. And all Poles know the difference between a kurka and a gąska from 100 metres away through a dark, damp forest.

In English, we do have a specific word for the poisonous mushroom known in Polish as muchomor. It’s called a toadstool, i.e. a chair that a toad can sit on. This makes it sound quite harmless… even cute. At least in Polish, they give cute names to edible mushrooms – kurka (little chicken), gąska (little goose) and zajączek (little hare), while giving aggressive names to poisonous mushrooms – szatan (satan), and muchomor (fly-killer). Now that’s a clear message!

grzyby

Whenever I ask Poles how they acquired this skill, the answer is pretty much the same:

Me: How did you learn all this?

Pole: When I was a child my grandma (or grandpa) took me to the woods to pick mushrooms. Didn’t your grandma take you?

Me: No.

Pole: Why not?

Me: Well, we don’t have forests. We cut down all the trees centuries ago to build ships.

Pole: That’s a shame.

Me: Yes, we gained an empire, but we lost the opportunity to go mushroom-picking.

Pole: There must be some forests left.

Me: A few. But, in any case, my grandma wouldn’t know the difference between a mushroom and toadstool. If she had taken me mushroom-picking as a child, then I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you now.

I worry about the consequences of not learning this crucial Polish skill. I’ve tried to warn my wife – what if there’s another war and we have to live wild in the forest? Not knowing the difference between a szatan and a prawdziwek, I will probably be poisoned before the first shot is fired!

So far my arguments haven’t convinced her… I’m still hunting for mushrooms in Tesco.

Polish Idioms#1 – Cats

Idioms are mysterious…especially those in a foreign language. Why do they have this particular meaning? Where did they come from? Do people really use them?

In a way, idioms are like internet memes. At some point in history, someone created an expression that ‘went viral’ and became part of the language.

So I’ve decided to write some posts about my favourite Polish idioms – organized by category – to begin with…cats!

1. pierwsze koty za płoty

I first came across this idiom at work. Together with a colleague we were running a series of training sessions. After the first session had finished and the participants were leaving the room, my colleague said ‘pierwsze koty za płoty‘.

I could see that she was referring to the group of participants that were leaving the conference room. ‘Ah-hah,’ I thought, ‘we’re chasing the cats out of our garden. I wonder why? Maybe the cats were doing their business in the flower beds and we wanted to keep them away from the roses?” I assumed the idiom meant ‘to get rid of unwanted visitors’ like when it’s late and you want the party guests to leave so you can go to bed.

I later learned that the idiom actually means to complete the first step in a series of challenging tasks. And actually, in English we have a similar expression to describe a difficult task: it’s like herding cats.

2. kupować / kupić kota w worku

In English we have an idiom with the exact same meaning: ‘to buy a pig in a poke‘ (a poke is a bag or sack).

Despite using different animals, these two idioms are related. They both refer to a trick played in the middle ages in which a seller would sell what they claimed was a pig in a sack, but it was actually a cat. The buyer, if they didn’t check the contents first, would buy a cat, which is worth a lot less than a pig.

Incidentally, in English, we have another idiom – to let the cat out of the bag – which means to reveal hidden information / plans, and is directly related to the same trick. If you open the bag, reveal the cat, then you have exposed the trick. Curiously, this second cat idiom doesn’t seem to exist in Polish. Perhaps in Poland there’s better customer service and you simply return the kot and get a refund?

3. odwracać kota ogonem

I can visualise most idioms and imagine them in a scene (cats, fences, bags etc), but I just can’t picture this one.

I came across it in a comment posted under an interview with a politician. The commentator claimed that the politician had turned the cat around by its tail.

I checked the dictionary and discovered what it meant (twist everything around), but I couldn’t visualise how you would do it? Is the cat facing you or the listener? Do you turn the cat around sideways or flip it over like a hamburger? And how to avoid getting scratched?

When taking our cat to the vet, I struggle to get it into a cat carrier. How skillful do you need to be to turn the cat by its tail? Perhaps there is a YouTube video with ‘how to’ instructions?

I can understand how the first two idioms became part of the Polish language – they make sense – but this one? If it meant ‘doing something impossible‘ or ‘perform a miracle‘, then I could understand. But it describes a skill that someone can achieve. Wow!

4. kot po kupie

According to Katarzyna Mosiołek-Kłosińska*, there are 32 Polish idioms about cats and most of them portray cats as difficult or devious. Fortunately, the modern world appreciates cats much more – there are literally millions of cat pictures, videos and memes online. Indeed, a scientific study found that people who watch cat videos online feel more energetic and positive.

kot

Having two cats ourselves, my wife and I have created our own Polish cat idiom. After visiting the cat litter, our cats get a sudden burst of energy or joy and sprint through the apartment at top speed. Hence our proposal for a new cat idiom:

jak kot po kupie (like a cat after a crap) – meaning to be happy and energetic

  • Jak się masz?
  • Świetnie – Jak kot po kupie.

 

  • How you feeling?
  • Never better. I feel like a cat after a crap.

 

Will it become part of the Polish language? Probably not. I’m sure there were millions of failed idioms that didn’t catch on and died. But it’s worth trying.

 

*Katarzyna Mosiołek-Kłosińska, Motywacja Związków Frazeologicznych Zawierających Wyrazy „Pies” i „Kot”, [w:] Etnolingwistyka, tom 7, Uniwersytet Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej, Wydział Humanistyczny, Lublin 1995, s. 21 – 31.

Nation of Poets#2 – Geography

Poles use a lot of rhyming expressions in everyday speech. The most famous is ‘smigus dyngus‘ – a rhyming name that sounds silly, but which actually fits well with the type of activity it describes!

I once told a friend that I like these rhyming expressions in Polish and he said:

What can I say? We’re a nation of poets!

So to celebrate this nation of poets, here are some of my favourites. This week two expressions that include cities / countries:

Jedno oko na Maroko, a drugie na Krym

nation2

What an excellent example of Polish poetry – using a rhyme to describe a physical feature, in this case, a squint (zez), i.e. one of the eyes looks west towards Maroko, while the other looks east towards Crimea.

Now this is quite a squint with both eyes looking very far apart. I wonder if Polish allows for smaller differences, i.e. jedno oko na Monako, a drugie na Kijów? Monaco isn’t as far west as Maroko so this would describe someone whose eyes are only slightly out of alignment.

Actually, just thinking about this idiom gives me a squint (see Shakespeare above).

Życie jak w Madrycie

Literally, this means ‘life like in Madrid‘ and describes a lifestyle that is fun and luxurious. To me, this is one example in which Poles have chosen a city that rhymes over a city that has an especially vibrant lifestyle. I mean ‘life in Paris or Rome‘ might have been better choices, but they don’t rhyme with życie.

All in all, this expression is great PR for Madrid, and I wonder whether any Poles have taken a holiday in Madrid just because they anticipated a fantastic nightlife? Perhaps the expression was created by a Spanish marketing agency to build a positive image about the Spanish capital?

With that in mind, I can imagine a Polish tourist agency trying to do the same thing by creating a rhyming idiom about a town or city in Poland:

  • Get it on in Ustroń
  • Party hard in Nowy Targ
  • Oh-la-la Dukla
  • Live in up in Gołdap
  • If it’s in, it’s Ryn
  • You and I, Biłgoraj
  • Run amok in Sanok
  • The nights are long in Elbląg
  • Live a lot in Sopot
  • Woo-woo Łódź
  • Shake your bun in Wieluń
  • Make a Wish, Przasnysz

If ‘live it up in Gołdap‘ became a common expression in English, then the tourist industry in the town of Gołdap would clearly receive a significant boost. Or if ‘You and I, Biłgoraj‘ was included in the Cambridge dictionary, then perhaps Biłgoraj would become a honeymoon destination like Paris or Niagara Falls. Or if ‘Make a Wish, Przasnysz‘ went viral, then maybe the next Disney theme park would be built in Mazowsze.

Imagine that!

77 Words for…#1 – Meat

They say that Eskimos have 77 different words for snow. It’s probably an urban myth, but, since snow is part of their everyday experience, I’m sure they have a lot of words to describe it.

If something is important to a particular culture, then it’s natural that they develop a rich vocabulary to discuss it.

In British English, for example, we have at least 77 words to describe drunkenness (pissed, plastered, rat-faced etc) and your level of drunkenness (tipsy, merry, paralytic etc) – it’s a common feature of our everyday experience.

So I wonder what’s the Polish equivalent? What is so important to Polish culture that a broad and nuanced vocabulary has evolved to describe it?

resturant

Here’s one possibility.

In a bar where I used to eat lunch everyday, the menu is pinned to the wall and as the queue approaches the counter, you have time (but not much time) to read the menu and choose what you want to order. The challenge (except on Fridays) is to understand the difference between various types of meat.

This bar regularly serve the following:

  • sznycel
  • filet
  • bitki
  • befsztyk
  • rumsztyk
  • eskalop
  • medalion
  • zraz
  • kotlet
  • stek
  • bryzol
  • pieczeń

On a typical day, the menu includes 5 of the above meat choices plus one vegetarian option. What’s the difference is between zraz, bitki and bryzol? Aren’t they all just pieces of meat? Well, one day the menu actually included sztuka mięsa…so no zraz, bitki and bryzol aren’t pieces of meat because ‘piece of meat’ is another menu option!

Because there’s not much time to make a decision, I usually play safe and order kotlet. That’s the challenge with learning words for food – you learn by experience, but when you’re hungry, it’s not the time to take a risk.

Also, with unknown foods, I usually make a judgment based on the sound of the word. Bryzol, for instance, sounds like a product for cleaning the bathroom, zraz sounds like a sports injury, and bitki sounds like what’s left on the field after a battle. Sorry, but I have 30 minutes for lunch before I’m due back at my desk, just give me a kotlet with potatoes!

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.

Quirky Polish#2 – Canaries

One of the joys of learning a foreign language is that you come across strange expressions that completely confuse you.

quirky_jpg

I was once driving behind a bus which transported shoppers to and from a out-of-town shopping centre. On the back of the bus was an advert with a bird in a cage and the text ‘no canaries inside‘. I could have overtaken the bus, it was moving a lot slower than my car, but I wanted to work out what on earth the advert meant. If you wanted to encourage people to use your bus service, then why is it an advantage that there are no canaries inside?

My mind raced, going through all the possibilities I could think of:

  • Obviously, it wasn’t literal. If there was a canary inside the bus, then it would be a selling point. No need to stress that there aren’t any.
  • Canaries came from the Canary Islands originally, hence the name. Maybe the advert was selling holidays? Nope, still made no sense.
  • Besides being pets, canaries were used in coal mines to detect poisonous gases – maybe the advert meant that there’s no danger of being intoxicated by fumes in this bus service? Hardly a selling point.
  • The most famous canary I knew was Tweety Bird from the Warner Bros cartoons. Maybe I was Sylvester the cat and I should hunt the bus to the shopping centre? No, that still didn’t fit.

I was confused…completely confused.

Later that day I asked my wife and she explained that a ‘kanar‘ is a plain clothes ticker inspector who rides buses in search of fare-dodgers.

Ah-hah, I finally understood the advert – the bus service was free so there’s no danger of getting caught by any ticket inspectors!

Like a child, I asked lots of Poles why ticket inspectors are called ‘canaries’ but they didn’t know. Someone somewhere probably had a good reason for calling a ticket inspector a ‘canary’ and it caught on. Now it’s part of the language.

And that’s the fun of learning a foreign language. You come across words and expressions that will confuse you, surprise you and amuse you. Just enjoy the ride!