‘Kapewu’? A Short Guide to Old Polish Slang
default, ‘Kapewu’? A Short Guide to
Old Polish Slang, Stanisław Grzesiuk, Warsaw, 1962, photo: Wacław Kapusto / Forum, center, grzesiuk_kawa_141215_02.jpg
So, your grandpa was a ‘baciar’, your dad a ‘bikiniarz’ – but you don’t always get what exactly it is they’re talking about? Whatever your knowledge of the Polish language, this lexicon of phrases from old slangs and urban dialects is sure to lend it some flair.
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Strike by ‘Kurier Warszawski’ delivery boys, November 1905, photo: Kostka & Mulert Photo Shop / National Library Polona
In Kraków, he was called an ‘ancymon’, while in Lembryczek (pre-war slang for the city of Lviv), a street urchin was a ‘baciar’ (from the Hungarian ‘betyár’ – a hoodlum or goon). A baciar spoke bałak, a Lvovian slang. Elsewhere in Galicia, such rascals and scoundrels were called, in the plural, ‘sztrabancle’ (from the German ‘strabanzen’ – to loiter), and in Poznań, they went under the names of ‘szczuny’, ‘zyndry’ or ‘ejbry’. There were, of course, many other similar terms, because Poland was also full of andrusy and wisusy.
In Warsaw, and especially in its riverside neighbourhoods of Powiśle and Czerniaków, a street urchin was simply an ‘antek’ – which is also a common diminutive of the name Antoni. The satirical newspaper Trubadur Warszawy (Warsaw’s Troubadour) explained the term this way in the year 1927:
I’m Antek. I can’t swear that it was the name I was given during baptism, but here, near the Wisła, the custom is that even if you’re called Hipolit, Konstanty or – imagine it – Maurycy, people’ll still call you Antek anyway.
Unfortunately, sometimes a kind-hearted antek would grow up to become a majcher- and szpadryna-carrying hooligan (the terms for a knife and brass knuckles, respectively). If he lived in Lviv, he would have been called a ‘chachar’. And if a chachar wants to give you bałabuchy, or zamalować kłapacz (both terms for beating you up), you should know that there is nothing pleasant coming. It could lead to a fest magulanka (a mighty fight). But let’s set aside violence and focus on etymology instead.
‘Chachar’, just like ‘baciar’, is Hungarian in origin. It spread all over the southern voivodeships of Poland, taking on a different meaning in each region. In Kraków, and in the east of the Lesser Poland region in general, chachars were simply street urchins. The article Śląskie Wyzwiska (Silesian Invectives), published in Kłosy in 1934, states that:
A ‘chachar’, or an unemployed person in general, received their name only recently; back in the day, a chachar was mostly a lazybones avoiding work.
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Still from the movie ‘Dziesięciu z Pawiaka’ (The Pawiak Ten). Pictured: Adam Brodzisz, 1931. Photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
At the beginning of the 20th century, it was common for an antek to become a bek. Stefan Okrzeja was one, and so were Józef Piłsudski and later Prime Minister Walery Sławek… In underground slang, ‘bek’ was a Polish Socialist Party (PPS) fighter.
A woman fighter, such as Faustyna Morzycka or Wanda Krahelska, was called a ‘beczka’ (like the Polish word for barrel), and a group of beki (the plural of bek) were ‘becja’. Members of the PPS, whether they were beki or agitaje (agitators), were called ‘pepesiacy’ or ‘papuasi’. The latter variant, stemming from the Polish name for the inhabitants of the island of Papua, was particularly in vogue among PPS’s political enemies.
Beki were armed with bronki (Browning pistols; the term is similar to Bronek, a diminutive for the name Bronisław) and participated in eksy, or expropriations of Russian property in the name of the revolutionary cause. They also performed prowoki and szpiki, or committed assassinations of prowokatorzy (instigators) and szpiedzy (spies).
The conspirators were particularly fond of abbreviations: ‘dru’ was an underground printing shop (from Polish ‘drukarnia’) and ‘gra’ was a good trafficking spot (from Polish ‘granica’ – the border). Szwarc (contraband), which included flugblaty (leaflets) and bibuła (books; literally, blotting paper), was usually smuggled by dromaderki (female smugglers of illegal publications, called this after the dromedary camel).
Many beki and beczki suffered setbacks during their operations. After getting caught by a fijoł (a gendarme), a rewirus or a stójkus (both meant ‘cop’), they ended up in ul (jail or prison; literally, a beehive) and were then transported to cytla (Warsaw’s Citadel) or białe niedźwiedzie (Siberia; literally, white bears). As you can see, prison terminology was quite elaborate in this period.
Some of the most original terms include ‘duma’ (stemming from the name for the Russian Parliament, which was created in 1906 – but meaning also ‘pride’ in Polish) and ‘skałon’ (created on the basis of the General-Governor responsible for the bloody repressions which followed the 1905 revolution). Both of these words designated prison toilets.
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Stefan Wiechecki (on the right) with Tadeusz Kur, a journalist for the ‘Stolica’ (Capital) weekly, in Cafe Praha, 1960, photo: audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
A birbant, a bon vivant, or a bibosz – somebody leading a riotous life, never one to avoid fun – was known to bradziażyć. In Old Polish, you could similarly say that such a person bisurmani się or lampartuje (all terms for partying). He would flanerować (roam) from pub to pub, often tempted to gamble. This usually made it easy for him to wyprztykać się z floty (run out of money)… but there’s no glik (luck) without risk!
As a result of bradziażenie, it’s easy to become a bradziaga. This word comes from Russian and designates a vagrant or globetrotter. Such a free-floating person was known in Lviv as a ‘makabunda’ (a distorted form of ‘vagabond’). In Silesia, a ragamuffin was a ‘haderlok’ or a ‘szlapikorc’, while in Poznań, he would be called a ‘łatynda’, ‘opypłus’ or ‘szuszwol’.
‘Menel’, a word for a ‘bum’, still used in all parts of Poland, has an interesting etymology. In one of his pre-war columns, Stefan Wiechecki described this dialogue, reportedly overheard in a courtroom:
‘He called me a “menelik”…’
‘But there’s nothing offensive about that. Menelik is the name of one of the kings of Abyssinia’, replied the judge.
‘Your Honour, it’s possible that it designates a king in Abyssinia, but here, in Szmulowizna, it’s something altogether different.’
The exotic dress of the Emperor of Ethiopia fascinated the Warsaw populace to such an extent that peculiarly dressed people began to be called by his name. Menelik II’s honourific was negus negesti (king of kings), and as a result, the slang term ‘nygus’ (loafer, good-for-nothing) became part of the Polish language.
The people of Warsaw also insulted each other (for no discernible reason) with the use of names such as kopernik and gambeta. While the former referred, of course, to the famed Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus, Leon Gambetta was a French statesman during the Second French Empire and the Third French Empire periods.
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A marketplace at Kercelego Square in Warsaw, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
To the surprise of no one, various antki (plural for ‘antek’) were known to gather in groups. And just as every country has its own customs, almost every large city district had its own name for these.
In Warsaw’s Wola, you could run into a zastawa, while Czerniaków had naboje (or naboja in singular) as well as other, similar grandy and ferajny. Poznań’s Chwaliszewo was famous for its juchty (the word’s meaning has since changed – in today’s Poznań slang, ‘juchta’ means theft).
Łódź’s Bałuty had its own naród (literally, nation). People used to say: ‘Bałuty i Chojny, naród spokojny’ (Bałuty and Chojny are a peaceful nation), while inhabitants of other neighbourhoods of the city would add ‘bez kija i noża nie podchodź do bałuciorza’ (don’t approach a bałuciarz without a fighting stick and a knife, with ‘bałuciarz’ meaning ‘bully’). As a side note, the citizens of Łódź described inter-district fights with the help of a very graceful word: ‘hulala’.
Chewra, just like ferajna, was adapted from Yiddish – which uses this word to designate a crew, an entourage or a brotherhood. Secret criminal jargons often borrowed from Yiddish, which was not well understood by the general population. But as soon as people caught on, these ‘new’ words entered the everyday Polish language.
Among the words which came from Yiddish through criminals are ‘chawira’ (house), ‘trefny’ (illegal or damaged), ‘mojra’ (fate or fear) and ‘dintojra’ (bloody revenge). Kmina, the dialect of criminals, was actually very cosmopolitan: it included Greek words (possibly overheard from merchants of Greek descent who came from Odessa or Crimea) such as ‘kimać’ (to sleep), ‘mikrus’ (a short person) and ‘szemrany’ (suspicious), but also some terms borrowed from Romani (‘sikor’ – a wristwatch, coming from the word ‘sukar’ – beautiful).
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‘Ty to masz kiepełe!’ or ‘You’ve got some brains!’ – kiepełe (literally, head) can denote smartness. A very łebski (brainy) łepek (guy) counts as cwajkiepełe (literally, two heads), since everyone knows that two heads are better than one. In the extremely popular radio-play Wesoła Lwowska Fala (The Happy Lviv Wave), which tells the story of kind-hearted Lviv hoodlums Szczepko and Tońko, you could hear:
Ta to Tońcio i Szczepcio batiary jedne we Lwowi si besztaju. Ale obacwaj som cwajkiepełe.
That’s how Tońcio and Szczepcio, Lviv baciary, insult each other. But they are both very smart.
The opposite of cwajkiepełe was frajerska makitra. Somebody exhausted by his duties would say ‘Cały Lwów na mój głów’ (literally, ‘all of Lviv is on my head’). ‘Bajtlować kogoś’ means to bother somebody. ‘Trzym kalafę’ or ‘stul sznupę’ (Poznań dialect), meanwhile, are rather inelegant ways of asking someone to speak more quietly.
A pre-war sztubak (schoolchild) who wanted his friend to see something interesting would say: ‘lip na to’, as ‘lipo’ meant eye. In his 1939 book O Gwarze Uczniowskiej (On Schoolchildren’s Jargon), Ignacy Schreiber lists many other names for body parts. Some are still familiar even today, while others sound downright peculiar:
A nose, especially a misshapen one, is a ‘kulfon’, ‘kibel’, ‘kluba’, ‘kinol’, ‘kluka’, ‘kindybuch’, ‘ferniak’ or ‘niuch’, while an eye is ‘lipo’, ‘cebula’ or ‘gała’. As such […] ‘cebule jak zdychająca jaskółka’ (eyes like a dying swallow) is an expression for the sad or dreamy eyes of a girl. Hands in the idiom of children are ‘łapy’, ‘graby’, ‘pazury’, ‘kikuty’, ‘strachy’ and ‘straszaki’, or – perhaps the most accurate expression – ‘psuje’ (literally, something that breaks other things).
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A ‘bikiniarz’ in colourful socks and a tie, photo: F. Koziński, Reprodukcja FoKa / Forum
‘Just around the eka’ means the same as ‘just around the corner’, since ‘eka’ is Poznań slang for a street corner – but it can also mean a group of young people hanging out on said street corner (the word can even denote a football corner). Eka is derived from the German ‘ecke’, which means both corner and angle. In the 1950s, the Eka z Małeki, a group of young people from the corner of Małecka Street in Poznań’s Łazarz district, gained some prominence thanks to their involvement in Poznań’s June 1956 protests.
Post-war eki (plural for ‘eka’) were very similar to Kraków’s dżolerzy, Wrocław’s bigarze and Warsaw’s bikiniarze - all of these names designated the Polish equivalent of British teddy boys or French and Belgian zazous. The groups were sometimes called figusi and bażanty (literally, pheasants). One of the papers described them in the following poem:
Ta odmiana chuligana
Wstręt, odrazę budzi w nas
Strój — jak bażant, mózg barana
Skończyć z tym najwyższy czas.
These troublemaking types
Fill us with disgust
Pheasant-clothes, brains like apes
End with them we must.
Bikiniarze endeavoured to resist the lifestyle endorsed by the Union of Polish Youth (which was set up by the authorities of the communist regime in order to indoctrinate young people) and were open about their love of jazz and Western culture in general. One of their chants can be translated as: ‘Near the mall in the district of Wola / people gather to shout “Coca-Cola”’ (Pod pedetem cała Wola / wszyscy krzyczą “Coca-Cola”).
Thanks to their slang, bikiniarze nie zasuwali drętwej mowy (they didn’t speak like squares), parodying the official style of propaganda by using phrases such as: ‘Nie agituj mnie, flimonie, już mnie agitowali’ (Don’t canvass me, you fool, they already had me canvassed).
Their main weapon against Stalinist homogenisation, however, was fashion, so their slang contained a plethora of expressions denoting different pieces of clothing. A bikiniarz always had his skoki (shoes; literally, jumps [noun]) potrójnie szyte (triple-stitched), his head covered with a czapka oprychówka (literally, a thug cap). Sing-singi (colourful socks) were also typical, as well as the krawat w gołe girlsy (tie with naked women on it).
And let’s not forget about haircuts such as the plereza (mullet), mandolina (literally, mandolin), kaczy kuper (literally, duck’s tail) and fanfan (named after the haircut worn by Gérard Philipe in the movie Fanfan la Tulipe).
Jak bonie dydy
‘Jak bonie dydy’, ‘jak bum cyk-cyk’, ‘jak pragnę zdrowia’, ‘jak pragnę podskoczyć’, ‘jak babcię drypcie’ and ‘jak Bozię kocham’ don’t always make sense, but they all mean something like ‘scout’s honour’, ‘on my mother’s life’, or ‘I swear to God’. Each of these phrases is a synonym for the phrase ‘na słowo honoru’ (you have my word).
But such obiecanki cacanki (empty promises) can be misleading. What if the other person bierze nas pod pic (tries to hustle us) or wstawia farmazon (tries to pull one over on us; the Polish phrase stems from Russian ‘farmazirowat’’, which means to pretend or simulate)?
We all know someone who will swear pod chajrem (literally, risking a curse) that they will do something na zicher (for sure), but in the end, they’re sure to only ever fulfil that promise ‘na świętego Dygdy, co go nie ma nigdy’ – which would mean something along the same lines as ‘when the Cubs win the World Series’ did a couple of years ago.
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Still from the movie ‘Stawiam na Tolka Banana’ (My Bet’s on Tolek Banan), directed by Stanisław Jędryka, photo: Stefan Kurzy / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
Questions like ‘Kapewu?’ can sometimes still be heard in Poland, but today, the phrase is mostly associated with the slang of the heroes of cult children’s TV series from the 1970s like Podróż za Jeden Uśmiech (A Trip for One Smile) and Stawiam na Tolka Banana (My Bet’s on Tolek Banan). Today, you’re more likely to be asked questions like ‘kumasz?’, ‘czaisz?’ ‘jarzysz?’, ‘kminisz?’ or ‘kapujesz?’. They all mean ‘do you get it?’ – and the last of them can teach us something about the etymology of kapewu.
The Polish ‘kapować’ probably came from the German capiren or Italian capire, meaning ‘to understand’. Forms of the latter, like ‘capito’ and ‘capisce’, are sometimes still present in Polish slang. For example, the rapper Włodi rhymed on the Molesta group’s debut album: ‘Źli i łysi to klima, kapiszi?’ (The bad and the bald are my squad, understood?).
Kapewu is a humorous, quasi-French form of the Polish ‘kapować’, created as analogous to phrases like ‘parlez-vous’ and ‘comprenez-vous’. Other examples of such French stylisation are two phrases present in an old Warsaw local dialect: ‘iść de pache’ (walk hand in hand) and ‘przepraszam za pardą’ (I’m sorry for interrupting or bothering you).
In the above-quoted book about schoolchildren’s slang from the late 1930s, Ignacy Schreiber lists several words for joy and approval. These include words like ‘byczo’, ‘morowo’, klawo’, but also a mysterious exclamation: ‘sikalafą!’. This stemmed from the French ‘si qu’a la font’, which is itself a slang term which means ‘that’s the way it goes’ or ‘that’s life’ (I’m tempted to write here: ‘that’s c’est la vie’ to preserve the spirit of other French loans in Polish slang).
But Poles willing to admit that something was cool had a broader repertoire: szafa gra (literally, the jukebox’s on), gra gitara (literally, the guitar plays), gites bomba and cymes pikes.
‘Myszygene Wojtek’ was built on the basis of a Polonised version of the Yiddish ‘meszuge’ (coming from the Hebrew ‘meszug(g)a’, a madman, lunatic or crazy person) – which gained an attachment to the name Wojtek under mysterious circumstances. The phrase referred more to something like ‘bzik’ (going bonkers) than any actual serious mental illness.
Thanks to the way it sounded, people later argued that myszygene meant somebody with myszy w głowie (mice in the head). Someone from Lviv would call a person like that by the tender name of bałwatuńcio. On the other hand, kałakunio, although it sounds just as nice, is actually an insult, meaning a dimwit or a dunderhead. Similarly, ‘pokałamuciło mu się w łepetynie’ was a common expression to describe somebody who dostał szmergla (has gone crazy).
If someone talked nonsense, you would say that he ‘wymyśla ambaje’ or ‘plecie androny’, and his tall tales could lead to istne bachandryje (or ‘czysty kintop!’, as somebody from Wielkopolska would say: a barrel of laughs). When the teaching of Latin was common in Poland, schoolchildren used to call each other mentekaptus (from Latin mente captus – crazy).
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Scene from the play ‘Szwejk’ (Švejk) written by Jaroslav Hašek, performed at the Juliusz Słowacki City Theatre in Kraków. Zuzanna Zalewska as Paliwecowa and Stefan Jaracz as Szwejk, 1930, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
The word ‘nasermater’ sounds like a mysterious spell, but its meaning is quite mundane. To do something nasermater (sometimes na sermater or na serfajku) is to do it carelessly and just for show. In Łódź, such pretend work was called ‘omiatanie Pietryny’ (omiatanie means sweeping and Pietryna is Piotrkowska Street, the main street in Łódź).
To describe this situation, the people of pre-war Lviv used to say zmajstrować coś hała drała or hoca drała. Nasermater was also used as a mild curse (similar to ‘damn’ or ‘screw it’). It was common not only in Southern Poland, but also in Ukrainian and Czech. In Jaroslav Hašek’s novel The Good Soldier Švejk, the title character sang: ‘od Krakova vieje viater všicko idě na sermater’ (a wind blows from Kraków, and everything goes to hell).
We’ve discussed various lazybodies quite extensively, so it’s high time we turned to people doing honest work. ‘Remiecha’ was a word for every kind of craftsman, while ‘skrobidecha’ (literally, board-scratcher) meant carpenter. In Warsaw, a janitor or a caretaker was called a ‘strupel’, or, in a lofty style characteristic of the capital, ‘rycerz miotły’ (literally, a knight of the broom). A cabby was called a ‘dryndziarz’ or a ‘sałaciarz’, while a gravedigger was referred to by the name ‘łopaciński’ (from łopata – a shovel).
Polish slangs, especially those created by criminals, have more terms for the police than we could list here… and when somebody broke the law, they would of course find themselves in need of the help of a ‘męczynas’, an attorney. And ‘piszpan’? Piszpan (literally, a ‘write-mister’) referred to office clerks or other members of the intelligentsia.
But now, ‘drabina w kant i fajrant!’ (tools away, and time to go home).
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We have known since at least 1935, when Julian Tuwim published Polski Słowni Pijacki (The Polish Drinking Dictionary), that the Polish language boasts a wide repertoire of words associated with drinking alcohol. In his volume, Tuwim collected more than 2,000 terms used to describe drinks, states of intoxication and people fond of drinking.
The popular personages of the Interwar period gave him numerous great examples of expressions denoting getting drunk. Leon Schiller contributed zacinanie Bacha and Stefan Jaracz zlakierowanie się w pechę. The military types often talked about trucie iwana, while Tuwim himself did not hesitate to rymsnąć jednego.
Bad vodka is called berbelucha, and Tuwim quotes the following example from a collection of songs ‘deploring drinking, gambling and socialism’: ‘niech gorzałka berbelucha zniknie jakby w smole mucha’ (let bad booze disappear like flies in tar). Kojsa was another name for alcohol of poor quality, but it could also simply mean a shot glass.
Stanisław Grzesiuk – famous for chronicling and preserving the language and music of pre-war Warsaw – was known to sing: ‘głębszą kojsę zrób i siup!’ (pour a deeper glass and drink!). In his biography, he also listed this saying: ‘Wypić można po kubeczku, spokój w głowie, w porządeczku’ (Drink a cup that is full, thoughts’ll calm down, all’ll be cool). But not everybody took such great advice to heart…
In Marek Hłasko’s short story Pętla (Noose), the watchman admonishes the protagonist for being ‘na dużym flicie’ as of late (Flit was the name for a bug-killer, which might perhaps explain the origin of the phrase). In Wniebowstąpienie (Ascension to Heaven), Tadeusz Konwicki called cheap vodka łzy sierot (lit. orphan tears). Olaboga, dynks and sztamajza were names for denaturised alcohol, imbibed by some as a cheap, but harmful, alternative to spirits.
In the movie Przyjęcie na Dziesięc Osób Plus Trzy (Party for Ten Plus Three), Zdzisław Maklakiewicz, having left prison, asked his old pals, who were standing near a beer vendor:
‘How’s Mojka, what’s new with him?’
‘Well, you understand, Mojka switched from cologne to ‘sztamajza’; then to French polish; then, he wanted to drink ink, but you know how it is…
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Interior of a factory in Łódź. Visible, among others, is the manager, Mr Tempelhoff, 1931-1939, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
‘“Siaja” z miasta Łodzi pochodzi’ is a well-known phrease which means that 'siaja' comes from the city of Łódź. The phrase is of course pleonastic, as Łódź is already a city and needs no additions – but that’s the way it goes, slang-wise, in Łódź, where saying it any differently is less than welcome.
But let’s get back to siaja. What does it mean? For example, you could enter an ‘everything for five złoty’ store on Piotrkowska Street, look around and say: ‘E, sama siaja!’, which is another way to say that everything is rubbish or trash.
Linguists suspect that the word was popularised in the local slang by Łódź textile workers, who used the French word ‘saie’ to describe thin fabrics made of low-quality cloth. But the streets created their own etymology, according to which the term was created in memory of Szaja Rosenblatt – a factory-owner often labelled as ‘king of the wool’. Szaja became extremely rich, but his products were considered to be of very poor quality.
Even if you wanted to buy some siaja, you would need at least some bejmy, szwajnery, geld, peti meti, sarmak or szmal (all terms for money). According to a poem published in the satirical Mucha (The Fly) in 1893:
Byłoby kwiatowe corso,
Ale diablo krucho z forsą…
Wiele bowiem jest ochoty,
Ale za to nie ma floty.
I’d have bought some cloth, a floral pattern,
But my wallet’s been terribly flattened…
There is lots of stuff I would love to get
And if I did, I’d be in massive debt.
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Originally written in Polish by Patryk Zakrzewski; translated by MW, Jun 2019