What’s in a Name? 4 Curious Things Named After Poland
From chemistry and entomology, to human pathology and musicology – here are the curious stories behind some things from very different fields of reality with what seems like nothing in common other than the word ‘Polish’ in their names.
And yet, these things do have one thing in common – they each have something to say about Polish history and culture. So prepare for trivia polonica, and meet the bug, the dance, the disease and one (more) element.
Polish cochineal, the Polish bug
Did you know there was a time when Poland was a real economic power from cultivating a small insect? It sounds odd until you realise that this bug was the main source of red dye many years ago. In the late Middle Ages, Poland’s production of the little creature almost made it a monopolist in bringing Europe the colour, earning the bug a ‘Polish’ surname.
The famous red dye was extracted from a little insect known as the Polish cochineal (Porphyrophora polonica). Its larvae lived on the roots of herbs, particularly that of perennial knawel (Scleranthus). Inhabitants of Polish regions specialised in growing the plants and were experts in manufacturing the beautiful crimson dye, which was beloved by kings, dukes, and their courts all over Europe.
In the 16th century, the popularity of the Polish red started to wane due to the cheap import of an alternative dye from Mexico (also extracted from a cochineal insect, but one living on cacti). The Polish supplier was eventually superseded and Poland lost its leading position in bringing Europe red.
Still, it seems tempting to think that the cultural memory of the Polish cochineal is somehow preserved in the red colour of the Polish flag. With all due respect to the historic bug, perhaps it’s fortunate that it was the more impressive eagle has become the national emblem of Poland.
Plica polonica, the Polish plait
For many centuries, plica polonica, or Polish plait, was one of the most mysterious diseases bothering mankind. It’s also one of the most nauseating. The condition is characterised by the hair shaft becoming irreversibly entangled, ‘forming a mass which is matted and sometimes can be sticky and moist’ (the latter being the result of scalp inflammation). As a result, someone suffering from this condition developed a hairstyle which could resemble a dreadlock hairdo popular today.
The condition was first reported by Western travelers to Eastern Europe who saw it on the heads of local peasants, thus the plica became associated with Polish territories although the living conditions of peasants were pretty bad for most of Eastern Europe.
For a long time plica polonica was surrounded by much mystery. It was even considered a result of evil spirits: devils, strigoi, and witches, namely Polish witches. Those affected were cautioned not to cut it, cutting the plait could result in blindness, hearing impairment, madness, bleedings and even violent convulsions. Actually, for quite a long time, even doctors weren’t sure if it was a disease, and what caused it. Some believed it was a distinct disease entity, neurotic condition, or a symptom of rheumatism, others considered it an inherited disease.
Today we know that the condition known as plica polonica is caused by the lack of proper hygiene, poor hair care, and the various diseases caused by them. Be it in Poland or anywhere else.
Polonaise, the Polish dance
The Polonaise is surely the most Polish of all Polish dances. Therefore it might be a bit of a paradox that the name of this arch-Polish dance is actually a French word. Polonaise means ‘Polish’, and danse polonaise simply means ‘a Polish dance’. In another ironic twist, the polonaise, this time as the musical movement, was first popularised in Germany, by such composers as Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann, and later Beethoven and Schubert. But it was Frederic Chopin, the son of a French emigrant to Poland (now it all clicks) who took the polonaise to a whole new artistic level.
In Poland, the polonez is a slow, solemn and dignified dance in ¾ time, usually danced in traditional national costume. It is closely connected with Polish history – Kościuszko reportedly composed one, another one by Ogiński is titled Farewell with the Fatherland. The most famous instrumental polonez in Polish literature appears in Adam Mickiewicz’s grand epic Pan Tadeusz, where it is performed on dulcimer by Jankiel the Jew. Today, not so popular as it once was, polonez remains the traditional first dance of the Studniówka ball.
Polonium, a dangerous political element
Can chemical elements have political meaning? It certainly was the case with polonium. The discovery of polonium (Po, atomic number: 84) was first announced on 18th July 1898 by Marie Skłodowska and her husband Pierre Curie. The discovery would open the new field of science known as radioactivity, but it would also lead to political controversy – the name of the new element was deliberately chosen to highlight a political issue.
The name ‘polonium’ was a clear reference to Poland – and as such it was an obvious political statement on the part of Marie Skłodowska, an emigrant from Poland. Marie chose the name in blunt defiance of the politics of the day, at a time when the name ‘Poland’ wasn’t even on the map, a result of the partitioning of the country over 100 years earlier. With polonium, Marie was sending a powerful and potentially subversive political message, reminding the world that there was a Poland.
The discovery was soon followed by another one, that of radium (in the same year) – these groundbreaking elements earned the couple a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903, and certainly contributed to further publicity of the Polish issue around the world.
Anything named after Poland that we’ve missed? Let us know your favourites in the comments!
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 11 Sept 2017