The Polish Butcher

On a warm July evening we sat in the garden of a friend’s summer house. In the growing darkness the only illumination was a lamp on the wall of the cottage, which acted as a magnet for insects from the local forest. Moths and flies flew in circles while beetles and bugs crawled up the cottage wall towards the source of light.

I noticed something huge…slowly making it’s way up the wall…and now it was only a few centimetres from my friend’s head. I had to warn her.

Emm, Ola…uważaj bo blisko twoja głowa jest ogromny koń polowy.

(Look out Ola because there’s a huge field horse near your head).

She looked surprised, but turned around to see what I was referring to. Realising that it was only a harmless grasshopper, she started laughing, ‘Kon polowy!’ and the rest of the group started giggling too.


In English we have an idiomatic expression to butcher a language, i.e. to cut it into pieces until there’s just a big mess. Well, I’ve been butchering Polish for years…changing the word order, inventing completely new expressions, combining words that shouldn’t be combined, adding sounds to the pronunciation of words and using expressions in the wrong context. What’s left after this butchery is a bit of a dog’s dinner. Honestly, it’s never been my goal to speak perfect Polish, but to have fun interacting with Poles. I usually give them a good laugh.

Of course, when you want to warn someone that a huge bug is about to jump on their face, it’s useful to use the right vocabulary. Saying that a horse (koń) is climbing the wall instead of a grasshopper (konik polny) helps to get the listener’s attention…even if it doesn’t convey the correct level of danger.

But these mistakes are logical. I mean, I knew that the Polish word for grasshopper was related to a horse! And it was such a big grasshopper than the diminutive konik just didn’t do it justice. So, there’ some rational behind my butchery…I hope.

For instance, when someone says dziękuję, I always respond with proszuję. I prefer it when one expression mirrors the other.

Or with the word order in the sentence nic się nie stało… even when 55,000 Polish football fans are singing this in the National Stadium, I still can’t get the word order right. Switching the order of nie and się, I always say nic nie się stało. But, Polish word order is supposed to be flexible, isn’t it? … so don’t blame me if I take liberties.

Then there are words into which I add additional sounds…they just sound better to my ears. Most often this involves adding the letter z into words connected to animals:

  • pajęczy-z-na (pajęczyna / spider’s web)
  • ro-z-pucha (ropucha / toad)

Finally, Polish has too many comparative expressions and I only have enough free memory space for one…which happens to be the shortest and simplest: jak bela (as a bale) which is used in the expression pijany jak bela (drunk as a bale)

Now I compare everything to a bale:

  • szybki jak bela (fast as a bale)
  • zimno jak bela (cold as a bale)
  • lubić kogoś jak bela (to like someone as much as a bale)

and just assume that the listener understands that I mean ‘a lot’ or ‘very’.

So I butcher Polish…which works for me… but that’s not good news for those around me.

I live in Poland and interact in Polish around 90% of the time. The consequence of this is that my Polish skills improve, while the Polish of those I interact with gets worse!

Those friends from the summer house also use the expression kon polowy from time to time.

And my wife got so used to jak bela that she started to use it herself. Now we both use jak bela. It’s a nice shortcut, but, technically, her Polish is now worse.

So I invite you to start using jak bela too.

I wait for the day when it spreads out into society and I hear it in everyday situations. For instance, when I visit the doctor and he or she says, after completing the medical examination, that I’m zdrowy jak bela or when I’m watching football on TV and the commentator says Rasiak walczył jak bela.

I’ll be able to laugh and say…hah!…I started that…that’s my creative butchery!

Third Time Lucky

I once thought that if I stopped making mistakes, then my Polish would be better.

I employed a teacher for 1-2-1 lessons. At our first meeting, I told the teacher that if I made a mistake, she should interrupt immediately and correct me. She agreed and we started talking in Polish. I said two words, she stopped me and corrected me. I repeated the first two words again – this time correctly – and added a third word. She said stop, corrected me again… and so it went. It took ten minutes for me to finish the first sentence.

Hmm…I thought… maybe it was a mistake to try avoiding making mistakes. Were mistakes so bad? I had certainly made some good ones!


The first time I was invited for dinner in Poland, I wanted to buy some wine to give to my host. No problem, I knew the Polish word for wine was ‘wino‘, I just needed to know the word for dry and white so that I could buy some dry, white wine. I opened my English-Polish dictionary. White was biała and dry was suchy. I made a note on a scrap of paper – suchy biała wino.

I walked to local shop, took out my note and asked for suchy biala wino. The shop owner looked at me strangely.

„Białe wino…a wytrawne, półwytrawne, słodkie?

I switched to my standard emergency response ‘Nie rozumiem‘. He took down two bottles off the shelf. One said wytrawne, while the other was półwytrawne. Either wytrawne meant dry or sweet and pół probably meant ‘un-‘. I gambled that it meant sweet and bought półwytrawne.

I learned three things from this experience. One, that wine in Poland is wytrawne or słodkie. Two, that wytrawne means dry. And three that using a dictionary isn’t as simple as I thought.

Another time I was running a training session for a group of around 30 Poles. Holding up a clipboard, I asked if everyone had their podpaski (sanitary pads) so that they could make notes. The entire group burst into laughter. That was very powerful and immediate feedback. Ah-hah, I thought, I’ve used the wrong word and whatever it means, it’s pretty funny.

And one time, I used the verb to kiss (całować) rather than the verb to regret (załować). Instead of saying sorry and regretting what I’d done, I embraced my inappropriate actions by saying I wanted to kiss them.

Indeed, the more embarrassing the mistake, the more powerful the learning experience. There are load of Polish words I’ve learned because I got them wrong the first time.

I ended the 121 lessons after one meeting. I thought that if I stopped making mistakes, then my Polish would be better. But in the end I realised that if I stop making mistakes, my experience of learning Polish would be poorer….much much poorer.

English and Polish share an idiom – third-time lucky / do trzech razy sztuka – that sums up the process of learning through mistakes. In many cases, especially in language learning, you need to fail twice if you want to succeed the third time.

False Friend#1 – Ewentualnie

There are some words in different languages that might look the same and sound the same…but they don’t mean the same! That’s why they’re called ‘false friends’.

While learning Polish, I’ve been tricked quite a few times. Here’s one of the worst (because it meant waiting for beer):

Myself and two friends once took an overnight train from Warsaw to Dresden. Before we left the station, the conductor came to our sleeping compartment, checked our tickets and said ‘if you want anything to eat or drink, just come to the last compartment where you can buy snacks, water, juice …’i ewentualnie piwo’.

Our ears pricked up at the word piwo – it was the start of a long weekend and we fancied a beer or two – but what did the conductor mean by ‘ewentualnie piwo‘?

None of us spoke Polish very well and we assumed that ‘ewentualnie‘ means the same as ‘eventually’ in English, meaning ‘after a period of time’ or ‘at the end’.

‘So we can buy beer eventually. What does that mean?’ asked one friend.

‘Maybe it means that we can buy it after a certain time or point in the journey?’ I replied

‘Yeah, they’re probably picking up the beer in Wrocław and we’ll be able to buy some after that,’ another friend agreed.

So we waited a few hours, checking our watches every few minutes and looking out of the window.

‘Any sign of Wrocław?’

‘No, we’re in somewhere called Leszno.’

‘Are they loading beer onto the train?’

‘Can’t see any.’

The journey was agonizingly slow, but finally the train passed through Wrocław and we went to buy three beers.

In a cruel world, there wouldn’t have been any beer left…but the train was quiet that night. Strangely, the beer was from Elbląg and it wasn’t even on the route!