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Rzeczpospolita ‒ Poland Word by Word

Mikołaj Gliński
The document of the Union of Lublin, which created a single state known as Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów
Jan Matejko, Union of Lublin that created  the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth National Museum in Lublin; source: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia 

Rzeczpospolita means republic or commonwealth, but the word is often used as a synonym for Poland.

You might already have seen this word. Accompanied by the adjective Polska (Polish), it appears on government buildings in Polish towns and cities. And no wonder, as Rzeczpospolita Polska is the official name of the country. But do you know what it means and where it comes from?

Rzeczpospolita is the term traditionally denoting the historical polity formed in the 16th century by the union of Poland and Lithuania. This confederated state, usually referred to in English as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the most common Polish term is Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów), came to be one of the biggest polities in early modern Europe, before it eventually vanished from the map in the late 18th century.

The word rzeczpospolita was originally coined as a translation of the Latin term res publica (republic), with its two structural components (rzecz + pospolita) following closely the semantic content of the Latin word. In the eyes of the Polish nobility, Rzeczpospolita was the ‘common good’, a polity shared by all citizens (which back then, however, meant members of nobility only). As such it was perceived as a splendid continuation and development of the Roman republican ideals.

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While the historical truth was surely much more complicated, Rzeczpospolita became a term denoting also other later polities formed by Poles. From the so-called Druga Rzeczpospolita (Second Polish Republic, 1918-1939), through  communist Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa (Polish People's Republic, 1945-1989), to Rzeczpospolita Polska, which is the official name of the country today.

In contemporary Polish, Rzeczpospolita is often used as a synonym of Poland, and in many sentences can be supplanted by it. So the sentence ‘Jestem obywatelem Rzeczypospolitej’ meaning ‘I'm a citizen of Rzeczpospolita’ is actually equivalent to ‘I'm a Polish citizen’.