#language & literature
default, The illustration for 'Bohater/Hero' from the book 'Quarks, Elephants & Pierogi: Poland in 100 Words'; text: Mikołaj Gliński, Matthew Davies, Ad, center, quarks-elephants-pierogi-ilustracja_8.jpg
The Polish word for ‘hero’ (as well as ‘protagonist’) has come a long way.
First recorded in the 16th century, bohater arrived in Polish via Ukrainian, which itself borrowed it from the Turkic and Mongolian languages, where baghatur is a historic honorific title. As such, bohater is just one of many Eastern words which entered Polish as a result of close contact with Muslim cultures and their great empires, like the Crimean Khanate of Tatars or the Turkish Ottoman Empire, with which the Polish-Lithuanian state shared a border and waged wars, but with which it mostly engaged in peaceful co-existence.
This close contact with altogether different cultures brought knowledge and mutual fascination. This is attested by loanwords which entered Polish from Turkic languages – words like dżuma (‘pest’), kajdany (‘shackles’), kurhan (‘burial mound’), szarańcza (‘locust’). Some of them, like horda, reportedly went via Polish onto other Western-European languages (compare the English meaning: ‘horde’).
Eastern influences are also apparent when one looks at the costume of Polish nobles during the Sarmatian period. With their kontusz, delia, czekman and sukmana garments, Poles made a rather Eastern impression on Western Europe over the centuries. And little wonder, as these words all have roots in the East.
Also, Polish houses were traditionally full of elements of style from the East, like dywany and kobierce (both mean ‘carpets’) and makaty (‘tapestries’). And if tytoń (‘tobacco’) and kawa (‘coffee’) were served, these were all inventions from the East, as were the words for them. Turkic is also present in everyday words such as bazar (‘bazaar’), towar (‘merchandise’), tapczan (‘bed’), torba (‘bag’) and jasiek (‘small pillow’).
All in all, it might seem a bit paradoxical that some of Polish history’s greatest heroes, like King Jan III Sobieski and Hetman Stanisław Żółkiewski, made their name fighting the Ottoman Empire, only to end up being referred to as bohaterzy, a Turkic word.
Polish words in English
Written by Mikołaj Gliński. Taken from Culture.pl's book 'Quarks, Elephants & Pierogi: Poland in 100 Words' by Mikołaj Gliński, Matthew Davies & Adam Żuławski, illustrated and designed by Magdalena Burdzyńska, published December 2018.