15 Perfect Polish Sayings We Should Add To Our Vocabulary
Don’t panic, but chances are there is a Polish person somewhere within your immediate vicinity right now. Why should you panic about that? I literally just said you shouldn’t. You never listen. At least listen to this: Polish people have spread all over the world, many, unsurprisingly, around the time when the only coke available in Poland was something named—and I swear this is true—Polo Cockta, which tasted like Band-Aid-flavored Dr. Pepper.
But if you want to really understand the Polish experience/mindset, you will have to do more than study our soft drink history. You should also learn the meanings of the following Polish words …
“Kombinować” Is Like “Figure Out” Only … Grayer
First, a quick note on the pronunciation: I’ve done my best, but English is ill-equipped to capture the true sounds of the Polish language, which are legally/rightly classified as choking hazards in many parts of the world.
“Kombinować” translates to something like “to figure out” but with a well-understood implication that you will have to use your wits, grease a few palms, promise to marry someone to first obtain said grease, and ultimately maybe even fake your own death. It was basically the unofficial motto of the communist Polish People's Republic (1947 – 1989) when the only way to get ahead in life was to, well, “kombinować” like a mofo. “Hustle” is kind of close in meaning to it, but even that word implies too much hard work.
“Kombinować” doesn’t necessarily suggest dishonesty but rather using every tool in your arsenal—some of which may be a little grimy—because life isn’t exactly a unicorn blowjob dispensary, and you sometimes have to get creative to get by. That’s something you learn pretty quickly while living in the Fun Zone (TM) (C) between Germany and Russia.
“No” Means “Yes” And So Much More
So what does “no” mean exactly…? Yes, umm, you see, right, well… It means all those things I just said, plus a few more. In its most basic form, it’s the Polish “yeah,” which is confusing enough for English speakers. But over time, we tinkered with it until it could mean just about anything. Some of it will weirdly make sense to you, like how a “no” at the beginning of a sentence can indicate embarrassment or awkwardness, not unlike the strategically stretched out “yeeeeeeah” in “Yeeeeeeah, I just... slipped and fell ... butt first … on my electric toothbrush.”
But “no” can also mean things like a frustrated “Come on!” and you probably won’t catch anyone in the US screaming “Yeah!” at their car when it won’t start. And if you do, you should probably start backing away from them slowly…
“Żółć” Is Linguistic Violence in More Ways Than One
“Żółć” was actually once voted the most Polish word ever because it’s made up entirely of the letters that don’t exist in Western languages, which we invented for the sole purpose of watching YouTubers try and usually fail to pronounce any of them correctly. Also, according to experts, “żółć” perfectly captures the Polish spirit since its name literally means “bile/the color yellow” but is more often used to mean “fury” in the sense of bitterness brought on by the frustration of not being able to achieve your goals. One day, we will get that goddamn submarine screen door working… One goddamn day…
“Napiwek” Means “Tip” And Is the Reason Why No One in Poland Is Expected to Live Off Tips
In my day, Poland didn’t really have a tipping culture. They were a thing in certain, higher-class places, but since I had my first non-canned pineapple at age 18, suffice to say we weren’t exactly frequent guests at those locales. Tips have become much more popular in big cities in recent years, but even so, the US idea of someone being expected to live off them sounds absolutely insane to Polish people.
A big part of it might have something to do with the meaning of the Polish word for “tip.” “Napiwek” comes from “Na piwo,” which literally means “For beer.” Yeah, “tip” in Poland essentially translates to “beer money,” as in something a little extra for you to treat yourself. Not a way to pay your goddamn rent.
“Pierdolić” Is the Most Versatile Polish Curse Word Ever
I’m betting you’ve heard of the Polish “kurwa.” Hopefully not when your plumber took one look at the pipe situation in your house. It’s essentially our F-bomb: a heavy-duty and multipurpose curse word that, interestingly, translates to “whore.” But we do also have a word that means "to f**k,” and it’s conservatively about a hundred times more versatile than “kurwa.”
Here is a super condensed list of what “pierdolić” can mean, depending on its modifiers (which work a bit like how “f**k” changes meaning if you add “off” or “over” to it): To talk nonsense, to lie, to disregard someone, to waste something away, to steal, to snitch, to do a half-ass job, to beat somebody up, to eat a lot of food, to run away, an expression meaning “I give up” and so much more.
“Szczęście” Reminds Us That Happiness Is Fleeting
The word “szczęście” translates to both “happiness” and “luck/fortune” in Polish, which is actually not uncommon in European languages. The English word “happy” actually comes from “hap,” which means “chance, luck,” and still survives in words like “hapless.” But, let’s be honest, you don’t really think about it, in the same way you don’t think about how “vanilla” basically means “little vagina.” But Polish people do. About how “happiness” is the result of random chance, not about vanilla-flavored genitalia (hopefully …)
Anyway, because of the dual meaning of “szczęście” and its related words, whenever Polish people say that they’re happy, they’re on some level aware that they are referring to this one particular moment in time, which is mostly the result of random chance. Tomorrow, though? Tomorrow you might wake up to a bear making love to your favorite sofa. Again, this is what living in the Fun Zone does to your brain.
There Are Between 11 and 19 Reasons to Use “Kilkanaście/Paręnaście”
Pronunciation: kill-kah-nah-shee-chye / pah-ren-nah-shee-chye
There are so many things that work best when you have more than 10 but less than 20 of them, like songs during your favorite band’s live show or fries in a small-size order, or Simpsons seasons. That’s such an awkward way to put it, though. “More than 10 but less than 20”? “Between 11 and 19?” Yeah, that is definitely how normal people make mouth sounds good.
“Dozen” doesn’t really cover the entire range, so what are you supposed to do when you want to brag to your date that you’ve read Atlas Shrugged “between 11 and 19” times without sounding awkward? Sure, you could say, “I only have sex with body pillows,” but in Poland, you’d use the much handier word “kilkanaście” or “paręnaście” as in “I have read Atlas Shrugged kilkanaście times and every time I finish it, my opinion on what the minimum wage should be drops by $1. It’s at -$19 right now.”
Go Out There and Give it 150% With “Półtora”
Similarly to “kilkanaście,” “półtora” is a useful and quick word for something that you deal with on a daily basis. It means “one and a half” and can be used in phrases like “It’ll take półtora weeks for your body to expel that electric toothbrush on its own.”
Technically, English has a prefix that means the exact same thing, except that that word is “sesqui-“ and if you ever used it in casual conversation, you would/should immediately be arrested on suspicion of being a Replicant or just an asshole. In either case, the punishment is półtora months of hard labor digging up the victims of that plane that crashed into that cemetery. Darndest thing. There were supposed to only be 200 people on board, but so far, we’ve recovered over 500 bodies…
Our “Janusz” Is As Annoying As Your “Karen”
It’s funny how certain names can become behavioral stereotypes, like how in the US, “Karen” is now basically a synonym for “I want to speak to the manager so they can fire you for not accepting the expired coupon that I left back home.” We have the same thing in Poland, only our asshole who ruined a perfectly good name for a lot of good people is a guy named “Janusz.” Let me tell you about Janusz. Janusz is in his 50s, though with how much he drinks, his insides are basically pre-embalmed and therefore don’t technically age. Janusz occasionally needs a think before spelling his name, though he is an expert on every subject under the Sun, which he firmly believes is a planet and also the same thing as the Moon.
Janusz talks like an adult Lolcat with an impressive collection of stained tanktops (“Janusz” actually used to be a pretty popular meme where he’s represented by a proboscis monkey.) If you want to see Janusz’s bare feet up close, invite him to a fancy restaurant. They’ll be up on the table in no time. In short, Janusz is a Frankenstein monstrosity made up of the worst parts of Polish culture. He is all of our flaws and shortcomings in one sweaty, unwashed, pigheaded package, and no Janusz who ever laughed at a Janusz meme ever recognized himself in it.
You’re Gonna Have to Work Hard to Be Called a “Przyjaciel” in Poland
“Przyjaciel” means “friend” in Polish, but outside of ironic usage, don’t expect to be called that by a Polish person without putting in years of work, including providing a minimum of three alibis, bailing the Polish person from jail, and waiting to be bailed out next to the Polish person while comparing scars and going “That was freaking awesome!”
Some people will probably disagree with this definition but, for my money, in Poland, you can have a thousand buddies, chums, pals, acquaintances, people to help you turn the chair to screw in a lightbulb etc. But a “przyjaciel”? You get one or two of those tops. Three is technically possible, but the more likely explanation is that you are seriously misjudging how close you and one of those people really are.
A “false friend” isn’t actually someone pretending to be your przyjaciel so they can gain access to your stash of Polo Cockta and its apparent magic powers. “False friends” are words from different languages that sound identical or very close to each other but mean very different things. All languages have them, and the false friends between Polish and English aren’t really all that interesting from a linguistic point of view. But good hell are some of them funny.
So you have words like “fart,” which, you know, is great because it describes your butt blowing a raspberry in English. But in Poland, it means “luck” or “fortune,” pronounced similarly to the English version only with a more distinct . It sometimes appears in such phrases as “Ale fart!” meaning “What luck/Good thing that,” but looking in its written form like someone shouting that they have gas at a craft brewery, and I just wanted you to share that mental image with me.
Then there is the word for the old rulers of Russia, which you English speakers spell a few different ways like “tsar,” “czar,” “tzar,” or “csar,” and it’s impressive that with so many tries you still haven’t gotten it right. It should be “car,” at least in Poland, where it’s pronounced something like . Now, please imagine an old Ford placed on an ornate Russian throne with a crown on the hood and beeping “Let’s go to war with Sweden” in Morse Code because you need to find joy and happiness in this bastard of a world wherever you can.
That’s why I debated with myself whether I should tell you about the next word cause I’d pay good money to see one of you mistake the two, but … what do you think the Polish word “prezerwatywa” () means? Probably “preservative,” right? Well, word of warning. If you find food in Poland or whatever that someone warns you has a “prezerwatywa” in it, they’re not being health freak assholes. They’re looking out for you cause “prezerwatywa” means “condom” in Polish.
Another word to watch out for is “dres,” pronounced like the English “dress” but again with a stronger . This one can be especially confusing to foreigners cause it still refers to a piece of clothing, only instead of prom attire, it means “tracksuit.” It’s also the name for a subculture of the same name that is like the Polish version of chavs, though I wouldn’t worry too much about them if you ever visit Poland. Two of them once tried to mug me by asking if I had any money and took my word for it when I said “no” and let me go. I sometimes wonder what happened to them. I hope one of them died so the other one could have the use of their shared brain cell all to himself.
Suffice to say, paragons of humanity they were not, though it would be weird if they were since “paragon” () means “receipt” in Polish. In short, it’s still kinda hard for me to take comic book characters named “Paragon” seriously.
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Thumbnail: Tomwsulcer/Wiki Commons, Tomasz_Mikolajczyk/Pixabay