Włochy ‒ Poland Word by Word
Włochy is the Polish word for Italy. But do you know where it comes from? Certainly not from Italy...
Looking at the Polish map of the world, one thing that might strike you as a bit confounding is the names of several countries which don’t sound anything like their counterparts in other languages. Actually they don’t sound anything like one would expect. This is particularly evident in the case of Germany (Niemcy), Hungary (Węgry) and especially Italy, that is Włochy.
In fact, using this word makes Polish truly unique in Europe, as the only other European language to have an alternative name for Italy is Hungarian: Olasz (the word is actually also a cognate of Wołoch, Włoch and ultimately *walhaz). So why did Poles decide to go for the strange, mysterious and ugly Włochy? Where does this word actually come from?
Consulting a dictionary is of no avail: the nearest you will get is włochaty (‘hairy, shaggy’) and the cognate włosy (‘hair’), and they both rather misleading (although the word włochy could also be an augmentative of ‘hair’). But as Italians don’t seem to be much more hairy than most other nationalities, we surely need a different explanation.
As it turns out, the word Włochy is descended from the Proto-Germanic word *walhaz (itself derived from the name of the Italian tribe Volsci) which was a term for speakers of various Romance languages living in post-Roman Empire areas with whom Germanic peoples came into contact. By extension, it could also refer to foreigners in general (compare the contemporary Dutch word Waals ‘Walloon’, and the English word Welsh).
In Polish, the word, or actually one of its variants, namely Wołochy, was at first used to refer to the Romanised tribes of the Balkans (compare Vallachia). It was only later that the name, now as Włochy, was transferred to another, more Southern people, namely the Italians.
The same word root włochy also appears in another Polish word, namely włoszczyzna (‘mirepoix’). The word denotes a mix of vegetables used for cooking a flavour base for soups. This handy bundle, which usually includes carrots, parsley, celery and leek, is even today sold in most grocery shops throughout Poland.
Curious for more Polish idiosyncratic geography? Countries like Włochy, Niemcy and Węgry feature in this guide.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, January 2017