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.