Like a Dog

People love dogs, but languages don’t. The English language treats dogs poorly with most dog idioms having negative meanings. A dog’s life is an unhappy one, you work like a dog and then die like a dog…and it’s not a happy ending.

On moving to Poland, I noticed that Poles were dog lovers, so I held out a hope that Polish dogs would get a better deal linguistically than they do in English. Yet before I even got to metaphors and idioms, the first challenge was learning the Polish word for dog.

The base form is easy – it just looks like the English word ‘pies’ as in apple pies. The challenge arises when the word is used in different cases:

pies, psów, psa, psem, psie, psi, psiego, psy, psu, piesek, pieskie…

I know that dogs come in many shapes and sizes, but does the Polish language need to reflect this? It isn’t instantly obvious to a foreign learner that psa, psem or psów are forms of the word for dog. Frankly, I see as much similarity between a Chihuahua and a Labrador than between pies and psa!

When I first learned the word for dog, I just assumed that the plural of pies was piesi (pedestrians). So, when I noticed a triangular road sign with an exclamation mark, warning drivers about piesi, I assumed it was an instruction to watch out for small dogs!

The animal may be cute, but the Polish word pies, and all its forms, is a dog to learn!

Fortunately, many dog idioms in Polish are less challenging because they are similar to those in English – pieskie życie (a dog’s life), zszedł na psy (going to the dogs) and traktować jak psa (treat like a dog) – but there are many more that are unique to Polish.

So is the Polish language kinder to dogs than English? Well, one way to verify this is to go through a checklist of needs, such as Maslow’s hierarchy, and ask if each of them are met. So let’s consider a typical Polish dog, perhaps called Burek, and check whether his needs are met according to Maslow’s hierarchy.

Physiological

Starting at the base of the pyramid, one can ask whether Burek’s basic needs (food, sleep etc) are cared for. As regards sleep, it seems not. Psia wachta (dog’s watch) is the worst watch in the middle of the night. While the rest of us sleep soundly, Burek is awake, keeping an eye out for intruders and thieves. And what reward does Burek get for keeping us safe? Certainly not kiełbasa as the idiom nie dla psa kiełbasa (sausage is not for a dog) clarifies. If he is fed at all, it’s low quality and given grudgingly.

Safety

Is Burek’s personal safety looked after? No, he’s not even given a roof over his head. The expression pogoda pod psem suggests that he has to sleep outdoors at the mercy of the weather.

The first time I heard the expression pogoda pod psem (literally, weather under a dog) I did wonder whether it meant good weather. I haven’t spent much time under a dog, but I imagine you’re sheltered and warm down there. Maybe it means hot, steamy summer weather? But no, as it turns out, it just means rotten weather. I should have known that if a dog’s involved, it wouldn’t be good news.

So it seems that Burek not only stays up all night, but does so in the cold, wind and rain.

Belonging

The next level of the pyramid is belonging. Surely, Burek is a loved and valued member of the family who will be remembered long after he has passed on? Well, no… the Polish language doesn’t pass this test either. The idiom zdechnąć jak pies pod płotem (literally, die like a dog under a fence) is used when someone passes on but isn’t mourned by any one. So it seems that poor Burek won’t be remembered for long…or at all.

Esteem

Is Burek respected as an individual? No, it seems not. The idiom nie jednemu psu Burek (there’s more than one dog called Spot) reminds us that Burek is just another dog. If you shouted his name in the park, half a dozen dogs would run over. If the wrong one followed you home, who cares!

So no, one can’t say that Burek’s owners help to build his self-esteem, he’s just another dog.

Self-actualization

Finally, we come to the apex of Maslow’s pyramid, the highest and most fulfilling need. Does Burek have opportunities for development? Can he grow personally and realise his full potential as a dog?

Nope.

Anything poor Burek achieves will be psu na budę (useless).

So as this quick run through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows, Burek isn’t any better off in the Polish language as Spot is in English. In fact, he’d be better off with Pavlov than Maslow… at least, he’d get fed regularly.

If languages truly reflected people’s affection for dogs, you’d think there would be a lot more positive idioms and expressions. After all, a dog is a man’s best friend, and as they say in Polish wierny jak pies (faithful as a dog). And how do the English and Polish languages treat them in return?

Like dogs!

dogs1

Given all the bad PR that surround dogs, isn’t it time they got organized and started demanding better treatment… at least linguistically? Dogs need to break free of their leashes, assert their rights and campaign for better idioms. If they were to raise awareness of their situation, lobby the makers of dictionaries and march through our cities’ streets, then perhaps one day, in the not too distant future, we’ll all aspire to live a dog’s life!

Financial Insecurity

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!

money1

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!

The Granny Stopper

When building a footpath up a mountain, there’s a technique called a granny stopper. About 300 metres from the car park, the builders of the path include a challenging piece of terrain in which you have to scramble over a big rock. This is the granny stopper and its purpose is to give walkers a taste of what is to come later in the ascent. And if you’ve brought your granny with you, this is where, for her own safety, she gets discouraged and turns back.

Whoever designed the Polish language included a granny stopper too.

granny2

When a beginner starts learning Polish, the first hundred words aren’t too bad. You can make some progress and learn some basic statements and questions. But then, and with great irony, it’s when you come to the verb ‘to go’ that everything stops.

This issue is one that creeps up on the learner, slowly suffocating them like a boa constrictor. At first I learned simple sentences like idę do kina or idę do domu. Next up was chodzić which I learned is used for habitual actions, such as często chodzę do kina. Okay, I said to myself, instead of using different tenses like English, Polish just has different verbs. That’s fine… up to a point. But it went on and on. I would continually come across a sentence I didn’t understand, look it up in the dictionary, and out popped another go-verb. What does pójdziesz ze mną? mean? Oh, pojechać means go as well. Not another one! In the end I was scared of checking any word in the dictionary in case I discovered another verb for ‘go’.

In fact, there are three words meaning ‘go’ in Polish – chodzić, iść and pójść – and that’s just going on foot. There’s another three if you’re driving or riding – jechać, jeździć and pojechać. And it’s these Polish verbs of motion that bring learning to a complete standstill!

This is especially true when deciding which verb to use and in which form:

Student: How do I say ‘I’m going?’

Teacher: It depends. Are you going on foot?

Student: Yes.

Teacher: Are you male or female?

Student: Male.

Teacher: Do you plan on reaching your destination?

Student: Of course, why else would I be going?

Teacher: Some people just wander around, you know? We have a different form for that.

Student: Oh. No, I’ll be reaching my destination.

Teacher: Okay, then one more question. Is it a one-off trip or do you go there regularly?

Student: One-off, I guess. But if I like it, I might go back.

Teacher: Doesn’t matter. So you’re a man going by foot, you plan to reach your destination and it’s one-off trip… Where are you going?

(student stands up and heads towards the door)

Student: Lesson’s over. I’m going!

Teacher: But don’t you want to know the correct Polish verb form?

Student: Nah, forget it. Life’s too short.

Sometimes you just want to go someplace without overthinking it, for instance, to the bathroom.

I remember once trying to leave someone a note saying ‘I will go there at 9am tomorrow’. I was in a hurry and just wanted to scribble a quick message to reassure an acquaintance that I would take care of an issue. In the end I just wrote tam 9am jutro ja, stuck the note on the fridge and dashed out the door.

And that’s the problem. Going often means hurrying. When you’re in a hurry, you just don’t have time to sit down with pencil and paper and work out which Polish verb of motion is correct in this instance. It would have taken me a hour to work out that I should have written pójdę tam jutro o dziewiątej.

It’s the same with managing your personal space. In a flash of anger, you’re not in the mood to choose between saying idź do diabła or pójdź do diabła. There’s no time to consider whether the person should go all the way to the devil or whether it’s enough just to reach hell and wander around!

And that’s the dilemma. Do I want to invest enough time to communicate accurately in Polish or do I want to have a life?

If you choose not to have a life, then, once you have a basic grasp of chodzić, iść and pójść, you can spend the next few years on other verbs of motion – jechać, jeździć, pojechać, latać, lecieć, polecieć, biegać, biec, pobiec, pływać, płynąć, popłynąć.

It’s enough to drive you nuts, and I quickly developed a phobia about the verb ‘to go’. Yet it’s like having a phobia of breathing air because you can’t escape it. These verbs are everywhere and you are constantly reminded of your failure to master them.

If you look depressed, someone will ask ‘o co chodzi?‘ And they get a shock when you scream in reply ‘don’t say that word!’. You can’t take a step back, carefully consider your options and find the best solution because you don’t remember whether it should be iść po rozum do głowy or pójść po rozum do głowy? And you can’t shake your head and say  nie wierzę, że do tego doszło (how did it come to this?) because you know, deep down, that there’s another go verb buried in that statement.

And there’s no consolation when you finally do lose it, when the grammar finally drives you over the edge. It’s at this moment that the Polish language continues to twist the knife. Because, just like English which uses expressions like ‘go crazy’ or ‘drive someone insane’, Polish also uses a go verb for this fateful event. When you sit on the ground, put your arms over your head and mumble verbs of motion over and over, you are just acting out another go verb: odchodzić od zmysłów.

I really sympathize with teachers of Polish. It must be a real challenge hauling learners, kicking and screaming, over this gargantuan granny stopper. I assume that, as well as having teaching skills, they also require coaching and psychiatric skills to motivate, placate and possibly treat their students.

But perhaps this linguistic granny stopper is a kindness, separating the weak from the strong early in the learning process. Those who turn back may well have made the right decision. Because, as well as saving themselves a lot of blood, sweat and tears, perhaps, by choosing not to struggle with Polish verbs of motion, they’ve managed to preserve their own sanity?

Nation of Poets#3 – Work

Poles use a lot of rhyming expressions in everyday speech, and when I once told a friend that I like these expressions 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 favourite rhyming expressions connected to work:

w naszym fachu nie ma strachu

This means ‘in our profession there is no fear‘, and when I first heard the expression I took it literally as a claim by the tradesman that he is so brave that he can tackle any job.

And to be honest, I would be rather unsettled by such a show of bravado. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t employ any tradesman who made this claim. It’s asking for trouble!

I imagined that the last words of many Polish builders before they met an untimely death were ‘w naszym fachu nie ma strachu‘…just before he fell off the dachu!

Later I learned that it’s not meant literally, and that it’s an expression tradesmen use to calm the client when they ask if a particular job is possible. A good rhyming translation would be ‘no fear, the plumber is here.’

work

elektryka prąd nie tyka

Another favourite of mine, and another expression to add the category ‘famous last words of Polish workers’ is elektryka prąd nie tyka (electricity doesn’t bother an electrician)

As far as I understand, this expression is complete wishful thinking as the electrician believes he is immune to electricity. I don’t know whether Polish electricians are made out of rubber, or whether their reactions are faster than a spark of electricity, but I still fear that they might be a little over confident.

zdrowie na budowie

Given the bravado of the previous two expressions, when I first saw zdrowie na budowie, I took literally. I assumed it was a slogan from communist times and was probably printed on posters in the style of social realism. By looking after the safety of himself and his colleagues, our heroic brick-layer builds apartments in record time.

I also figured that, in response to all the foolish bravery shown by Polish workmen, it was necessary to come up with a way to remind electricians that they are not immune to electricity. Fortunately, in Polish the word building site happens to rhyme with health and so, in an easy day’s work for the copywriter, zdrowie na budowie was created.

Yet my incorrect assumptions didn’t end there.

I also thought it was nice that construction firms care so much about the well-being of their employees that they came up with this slogan. Of course, it’s fashionable nowadays to erect digital signs saying 127 days since the last accident on this building site. What’s more, modern corporations have programs to support the well-being of their staff, but it seems that Polish building sites were ahead of this trend. I wondered whether it extended beyond health to other more fashionable concerns like wellness na budowie or mindfulness na koparce?

Then one day I learned that this slogan isn’t about workplace safety…nor mindfulness on a fork-lift truck, but it’s actually a toast and that the full version should read na zdrowie na budowie.

So the expression does refer to health on the building sites, just not in the way I assumed. ‘To your health on the building site‘ is the actual translation.

Oh!

What else is there to say when it turns out that your assumptions were completely wrong and that the world is actually a lot more cynical than you that you imagined?

gdzie kucharek sześc, tam nie ma co jeść

In the spirit of ignoring workplace safety, this last expression concerns a situation in which it wouldn’t be a problem if half the workforce had an work-related accident.

In English we have a very similar expression: too many cooks, spoil the broth, and both languages agree that the less cooks, the better.

I don’t know what it is about the cooking profession, but both languages agree that chefs just can’t work together in the kitchen. Perhaps they should learn from the builders and open a bottle of sherry before they start work?

I’m disappointed that we don’t have an English expression that rhymes. Using the Polish format with a number of chefs, it’s a piece of cake to come up with some useful rhymes:

  • when the cooks number eight, their soup you’ll hate
  • when the cooks number five, you won’t stay alive
  • when the cooks number four, just head for the door

I guess we’re just not a nation of poets…well our builders and cooks aren’t.

So if you’re working hard decorating your apartment or preparing food for Christmas in the kitchen, I hope your workplace is safe, free of fear and full of teamwork. If not, then there’s a simple solution…’na zdrowie‘.

The Weather Super Power

There’s a t-shirt you can buy that says on it: ‘I speak Polish. What’s your super power?

The thing is, I do think Poles have a super power but it’s not connected to speaking Polish.

It’s connected to the weather.

When learning words in a foreign language, it helps if you can hear, see or touch the thing that the word refers to. Alternatively, if the item of vocabulary refers to an experience, then it’s useful to remember a time when you’ve experienced the same thing.

But what if the expression describes something you’ve never sensed…never experienced…and is something you don’t even believe is possible for a human being to experience?

That’s what I felt the first time I heard a Pole say:

Spac mi się chce. Jest niskie ciśnienie dzisiaj.

(I’m sleepy. There’s low air pressure today)

Being British, I agreed politely even though I was thinking ‘what the hell are they talking about? How can the level of air pressure make them sleepy? Are they saying that there’s a huge column of air pressing down on their head and shoulders?’

I didn’t get it because I couldn’t feel it. I didn’t get it because I had never even experienced it.

The UK is a smallish, windy island, and the air tends to rush around a lot and definitely doesn’t stay in one place long enough to sit on anyone’s shoulders. The only air pressure British people feel is when walking into a strong wind.

But I kept hearing it. I met countless Poles who complained that the air pressure made them sleepy. So I came to the conclusion that Poles have some sixth sense that allows them to detect the level of air pressure? Some kind of super power.

Only it was a reverse super power because it takes energy away. A Polish super hero called Captain Ciśnienie wouldn’t have the energy to save anyone from mortal danger!

But that didn’t make any sense, so I just treated such statements as a mild case of hypochondria. I thought Poles who blamed air pressure for their sleepiness were exaggerating or making excuses to have another cup of coffee.

Yet… after living in Poland for 3-4 years…I started to feel it too. On days when the air pressure was low, I literally felt ‘under the weather’.

I’ve heard it’s the same in Munich with a wind that blows off the Alps called the föhn. When it blows, it gives the inhabitants a headache, but newcomers don’t feel it until they’ve been there a few years.

So it took me a few years to pick up this super power and get a feel for the word ciśnienie… only there are days when I wish I hadn’t.

Air pressure wasn’t the only type of weather that caused me confusion when learning Polish.

Like most foreigners, the first time I heard leje jak z cebra (literally, pouring like from a churn), I heard the word ‘zebra’ and assumed that this was the Polish equivalent of ‘it’s raining cats and dogs‘. I didn’t find this too strange because it doesn’t make much sense to imagine cats and dogs falling from the sky… so why not zebras too?

I did ask myself ‘why zebras?’ There aren’t any zebras in Poland except for the ones you use to cross the road.

Another Polish weather idiom is pogoda w kratkę (weather in plaid) which is used to describe changeable weather. When I first heard this, I automatically assumed that kratka was referring to Scottish tartan. The weather in Scotland is extremely changeable, so it made sense to talk about tartan weather.

It also answered the zebra question.

Zebras have black and white stripes, less colourful than tartan, but also arranged vertically. Since a zebra’s stripes are wider, it means the weather changes aren’t so frequent but are more severe…well, at least in my mind.

cats and dogs

If there’s one Polish season that has great branding, it’s autumn. I don’t know who invented the marketing campaign, but all Poles know how to promote this this season effectively. As soon as September arrives, I begin to hear the campaign slogan:

  • Złota Polska Jesień (golden polish autumn)

Indeed, I heard this expression so much that I started using an abbreviation – ZPJ – to save time.

Unlike most marketing campaigns, it is accurate. Poland does have lots of forests and the leaves turn golden in autumn, but it only tells one side of the story. While September and October are fully golden, the period from November to mid-December should be called Szara Polska Jesień (SPJ) because it’s cold, dull and smoggy for weeks on end.

They never mention SPJ in the holiday brochures!

If you want a good weather forecast, then don’t bother with the TV or internet. Poles look to nature when trying to predict the seasons.

I’ve heard Poles predict the depth of the upcoming winter or the raininess of the summer by making reference to one or more of the following:

  • the arrival or departure date of migrating birds
  • the number of babies in a stork’s nest
  • the thickness of the dog’s winter coat
  • whether mice decide to move indoors
  • the appearance of moles in the autumn

I’ve come to the conclusion that this skill of observation is another type of Polish super power.

In the UK, we seem to have lost this connection to nature, and we aren’t able to gather such useful data from animal and plant life about the upcoming seasons. The only exception are cows, but they only predict the next few hours and only one type of weather: rain. If the cows are sitting down in a field, then it will rain shortly. If they are standing up, your picnic can go ahead.

Come to think of it… perhaps cows have that super power thing… and it’s the air pressure that makes them feel sleepy and sit down?

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.

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.