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:

table

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?

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.