7 Words in English You Didn’t Know Came From Polish
Languages are full of words that came via other ones. In the case of Polish and English, this relationship has been rather one-sided, with Polish borrowing from English particularly intensely during the 20th century. But here are a few examples that show that the traffic was not just one-way, and also how these linguistic transfers can be quite complicated.
The name of this food item (it’s what the Brits call a pickle, American readers) was likely borrowed from Germanic languages (compare it with the German ‘Gurke’), which themselves most certainly took the word from a Slavic language. Polish being the closest geographically, it’s no surprise that ogórek, Polish for 'cucumber', fits the description of most wanted suspect.
The lively rhythms of this popular Polish folk dance (originating most likely from Mazovia) were immortalised around the world by the music genius of Chopin. However the odds are that this word came into English via Russian, the original Polish word is actually mazurek. Considering that Mazovia surely is in Poland, there can be little doubt that it came to Russia from Poland.
This word from the world of physics – denoting the tiniest element constituting our physical reality – seems at first to have little to do with Poland. Admittedly, it was coined by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake, before being repurposed by physicist Murray Gell-Mann who considered it an apt name for the tiny particle needed in the theoretical model he had been working on. As it turns out, the word as used by Joyce is linked to the German word ‘quark’, which on its part is an ancient borrowing from the Polish (or Slavic) twarog. It means curd cheese. Strange? We think so too (you can find the whole story here). Still, it’s heart-warming to find a piece of Poland out there in the cold universe of anonymous atoms.
One way of getting into another language is on board another one. Such contraband was practiced successfully by Polish when it used Yiddish for this purpose. Polish (or Slavic) is actually at the core of many Yiddish words that have made it into the American-English vocabulary, most often in slang. One example could be the word ‘schlub’ which refers to someone clumsy, stupid or unattractive. The Yiddish word supposedly goes back to the Polish żłób, which actually means ‘manger’, oddly enough. Find out more about the inricate inner-relalations of Polish and Yiddish.
The English word for this evergreen tree has a somehwat unexplained etymology. While its connection to Prussia is undisputed (Prussia was the the area from which the lumber, as well as many other commodities were imported to Western Europe by Hanseatic merchants), scholars have struggled hard to account for the the initial 's'. Our hypothesis, call it a folk etymology if you want, proposes that the source could have been the phrase z Prus, Polish for ‘from Prussia’. In case you’re wondering, the Polish word for spruce is świerk.
The word in the form of vitamine was coined by Polish biochemist Kazimierz Funk around 1912. Funk was among the first scientists to formulate the concept of vitamins, although he had wrongly believed them to be amines, and 'vital' ones at that. Still, the name stayed and we’re all healthier for it.
We will never know what the ultimate source for vodka making its way into the English language - many say it’s from Russian, while others (yes, us Poles) will argue both the word (it's wódka) and drink were surely invented in Poland. In any case, the word means ‘little water’ in both languages, and for good or bad, plays an important role in the culinary cultures of both nations.
This is just a small sample. Do you have any favourite English words that are really Polish? Let us know in the comments!
For more Polish Words in the English lexicon, see The Story Behind Words Like Horde, Gherkin, Schmuck and Quarks
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 6 April 2017