Quirky Polish#2 – Canaries

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


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!

Quirky Polish#1 – Saigon

The beauty of a language is that they evolve – words get attached to meanings and sometimes no one knows why. The expression sticks and every one uses it, but no one questions why it’s used.

That’s one of the joys of learning a foreign language – you come across such curious expressions for stuff.


So here is one of my favourite bizarre Polish expressions:


To był kompletny saigon!

Poles use this expression when a situation or place is in a total mess or upheaval, a good English translation would be ‘disaster zone’.

Now there are some expressions that come with a date stamp, you know exactly in which period of history they come from.

Obviously, this expression came into being during the Vietnam War when Saigon wasn’t looking its best. So sometime during the late Sixties or early Seventies when the Vietnam War was in the news, some Poles started using the word and it caught on.

I often hear Poles in their 20’s or 30s using this expression even though they weren’t even born when the Vietnam War took place!

Jokingly I ask them why they haven’t updated the word, i.e. chosen a more freshly bombed out city to describe a messy situation. Why not Bagdad or Grozny? But then again, that probably wouldn’t be a good idea.

If you’re Vietnamese, wouldn’t you find this expression would be a little offensive? Imagine another culture that heard about the destruction of Warsaw during World War II and it became common in that language to use the word ‘Warsaw’ to describe something that is a total mess. ‘The event was a complete Warsaw‘. Not exactly good PR.