Here are some phrasal expressions Polish people like using a lot, but whose literal meaning can be quite confounding for non-native speakers. Translating them makes little sense, but we did it anyway to see what we could uncover. Can you guess what they mean?
Knowing these phrases can help you better understand what Poles are actually saying. Maybe you can even start using them if you’re feeling brave enough!
1. What does gingerbread have to do with a windmill?
This is certainly the most effective, though probably not the most polite, way to caution the person you are talking with that what they just said has little relevance or connection to the topic of your conversation. Use cautiously.
Pole 1: I saw Grzegorz at the post office this morning.
Pole 2: I’ve decided my favourite colour is blue.
Pole 1: What does gingerbread have to do with a windmill?
2. He did me a bear’s service
What is a ‘bear’s service’? Well, it’s a disservice. The phrase refers to a favour which, when granted, ends up being more trouble than it was worth. The traditional explanation is that when a bear’s deadly pat hits you on the head, it kills both you and the fly it’s trying to swat.
Pole 1: You did me a bear’s service by cleaning my desk.
Pole 2: But it looks so tidy now.
Pole 1: Yeah, but you threw away all my notes for the lecture I need to give.
3. Don’t call a wolf out of the woods
Calling the wolf out of the woods is not something you would normally do, right? Not that it could ever be effective too. The saying pertains to a situation where someone is invoking an outcome that is not wished for or which could even be dangerous, a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. One partial English equivalent has dogs (‘Let sleeping dogs lie’) or devil himself (‘Talk of the devil’ when somebody appears). So consider the wolf to be a Polish devil. The saying is likely a relic of not only times when wolves were a real threat but also when the spoken word had real power.
Pole 1: I just hope he will be fine and nothing bad happens to him...
Pole 2: Don’t call a wolf out of the woods.
Speaking of wolves, when you are speaking about someone and that person suddenly appears, in Polish that person is also a wolf: ‘Speak of the wolf!’ (o wilku mowa) It’s much like the English phrase ‘Speak of the devil!’
4. What is supposed to hang, won’t drown!
This one is more about fatalism and basically means that what is about to happen will happen. The literal sense of this saying eludes even the most seasoned speakers of Polish even though they still know perfectly well when and how to use the phrase. Use it when you feel like some things in life are just bound to be the way they are and there’s nothing people can do about it.
Pole 1: Please be careful and watch out for yourself!
Pole 2: No worries, what is supposed to hang, won’t drown!
5. After birds
This is what Poles say when they want to say something is definitely and irrevocably over and done with. It is usually accompanied by a sense of a regret which comes with lost opportunities. A more colloquial variant has ‘ptoki’ (instead of ‘ptaki’).
Pole 2: I searched the trash and found your notes for the lecture.
Pole 1: After birds. I gave the lecture yesterday.
6. To turn the cat around by its tail
Trying to turn a cat around by its tail does sound like something troublesome, though for Poles the truth is, it’s primarily irritating. The phrase refers to the gentle art of presenting facts in a false or distorted light (lying is the next step). This could include artful or blunt rhetorical manoeuvres, like shifting one’s ground.
Pole 1: The mayor has been turning the cat around by its tail again.
Pole 2: What did he do this time?
Pole 1: He made some speech about how people need to embrace email, all while he’s been shutting down half the city’s post offices.
Pole 2: Scandalous!
7. To hang dogs on someone
The history of this one goes back to the times when Mediaeval criminals were hung along with dogs in order to humiliate them even more (that is, to humiliate the humans). Luckily, these barbarian times are long gone and the contemporary usage of the phrase is limited to slandering someone’s reputation only.
Pole 1: I hate Grzegorz he’s the nastiest and most stupid person I know.
Pole 2: Stop hanging dogs on him.
If you like sayings with dogs and a tinge of the macabre you can also consider the proverb: Tu jest pies pogrzebany (‘Here lies the dog, buried’). The English equivalent would be Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet: ‘Aye, there’s the rub!’
8. Frankincense to the dead
This humorous phrase refers to something which is of little use, redundant or dispensable and often comes up in connection with some failed attempt to remedy a problem.
Pole 1: Maybe I can get my son to eat his greens by buying him tickets to see Tomasz Stańko in concert?
Pole 2: Sounds about as helpful as incense to the dead.
If you still need to refer to someone using a picturesque Polish phrase, you can try to descibe someone as the fifth wheel of the cart, or piąte koło u wozu.
9. This goes together like an ox and a carriage
When you want to say that something is a terrible match, use this phrase. A more radical version compares ‘a fist’ and ‘a nose’ – if you’re confused what the idea is: they don’t match!
Pole 1: I wonder what the new post office building will be like. The street it’s in is full of 19th-century buildings.
Pole 2: I heard they wanted to make it a modernist block.
Pole 1: That goes together like an ox and a carriage.
And what are your favourite sayings Poles use… Do you know similar expressions in your language? Let us know!
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 11 Oct 2017; updated by AZ, 4 Jan 2018