Sounds Polish to Me: Hollywood's Best Fake Poles
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Hollywood's Best Fake Poles, Still from 'The Big Lebowski', 1998, photo: Mary Evans Picture / Forum, center, the_big_lebowski_fot_mary_evans_picture_forum-0043155010-2.jpg
A surprisingly large number of Hollywood characters have names that sound Polish to US ears, but whose Polish background is never discussed, and whose names few real Poles actually have. Never fear, Culture.pl is here to present some of American media’s most famous vaguely-Polish characters and assess their varying degrees of Polishness.
As with many other foreign elements on screen, relatively few people in the American audience have enough knowledge of Poland and its culture to tell the difference between the authentic and the imagined, especially with names. Although Western media has a fair amount of Polish characters, (and a surprisingly large amount of ones named Kowalski) it also has many with Polish-sounding names, but whose Polishness doesn’t define or even inform their character. Here are six you’re likely to be familiar with, so let’s examine them.
1. Emmet Brickowski from ‘The Lego Movie’
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As the main protagonist of The Lego Movie, Emmet shows admirable hope and optimism in the face of a tyrannical government run by the evil President Business, who is threatening to destroy the city of Bricksburg. Having risen like a phoenix from the destruction of numerous wars, one could say that same hope is at the heart of the Polish national ethos. However, a quick search unsurprisingly reveals 0 uses of this name anywhere in Poland or abroad. While he may be a hero to the world of Lego, Hollywood probably made his name up for the pun, not for the Poles. When the film was being dubbed for Polish cinema audiences, Emmet’s name was deemed so ridiculous that in the Polish version of the movie his surname is simply omitted.
2. Mike Wazowski from ‘Monsters Inc’
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It’s difficult to tell Mike’s ethnic origins by looking, probably because he has one eye, two horns, and a round green body, which even the most grotesque Poles don’t come close to. However, there are fewer than 100 people in all of Poland with this surname, and that’s including alternate spellings. Interestingly enough, ‘Wazowie’ is the Polish name for the Swedish Vasa dynasty, who ruled the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1587 to 1668. But Mike’s name is more onomatopoeia for his child-scaring profession (which he pursues with varying levels of success in the Monsters Inc films and shorts) than it is a nod to any Polish origins. Although they abound in Slavic folklore, contrary to popular belief, you’d be hard-pressed to find monsters in your closet in Poland.
3. Wayne Szalinski from ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’
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Rick Moranis as Wayne Szalinski, Eve Gordon as Diane Szalinski, Allison Mack as Jenny Szalinski and Stuart Pankin as Gordon Szalinski star in the family comic adventure 'Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves' directed by Dean Cundey, photo: Walt Disney Pictures / Forum
An uncommon but still present name, there are approximately 400 Szalinskis in Poland today. Entrepreneurship and creativity are undoubtedly part of the Polish spirit – just ask scientist Maria Skłodowska-Curie, the first woman and first Pole to win the Nobel prize, as well as the first person to win it twice. Wayne, however, doesn’t quite live up to that bar – instead, he works tirelessly in his suburban Fresno garage to create a shrink ray, which he thinks doesn’t even work, that is until his kids accidentally activate it in his absence. The movie also has another coincidental tie-in to Poland: his dog is named Quark, which entered the scientific lexicon thanks to James Joyce’s literary mention of twaróg, the Polish curd cheese.
4. Erwin Sikowitz from ‘Victorious’
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It may seem that the show’s creators concocted this name to emphasise the ‘psycho’ and ‘wits’ in his personality as he often walks around school barefoot, has a religious obsession with coconut milk, and climbs into classes through the window. Well, what other path exists for a former hippie in LA who wants to keep feeling young other than by teaching at a performing arts high school? But surprisingly, there are several instances of this name in America and Europe, though in Polish would more likely be spelled Sikowicz. Considering his unruly curly hair and a name like Erwin, it’s a safe guess that his character is Ashkenazi Jewish, a population with many centuries of history in Polish lands.
5. Gerald Broflovski from ‘South Park’
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Gerald, a lawyer who left urban New Jersey for the bucolic South Park, embodies many positive and negative stereotypes of Ashkenazi Jews (though this is done with such tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness as to largely reject them). He may well have Polish roots, even though his name might seem more Jewish than Polish.
When Poland was partitioned in the late 18th century by Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary, people were made to register their names so that the occupying powers could keep tabs on them. When registering, many Jews in Poland took typical Polish names, even the names of Polish aristocracy, as well as names whose meanings in Polish are slightly illogical (see more here.) Broflovski is rare if not entirely made up for the show, although it’s a welcome change from the typical ‘-berg’ and ‘-stein’ usually given to token Jewish characters.
6. Jeff Lebowski from ‘The Big Lebowski’
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Jeffrey Lebowski, or ‘The Dude’ as he calls himself, is happily enjoying a calm life of weed and white russians, when thugs confuse him for a billionaire with the same name and soil his beloved rug. He then gets tied into an Odyssean quest for revenge. The name Lebowski may come from the Yiddish name ‘Leyb’ or Russian ‘Lev’, but possibly also ‘łeb’, the Polish word for head. Today, there are 150 Lebowskis in Poland. (The dude’s bowling teammate, surfer Donny Kerabatsos has an Irish given name and Greek surname, neither of which is discussed.)
The Dude’s other teammate, the irreverent Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak is acknowledged as Polish (the character’s name is likely based on the surname Sobczak which is often found around Poland). Walter is Polish Catholic, but after converting, embraces Judaism with his military strength, even though The Dude insists he is in fact still Polish Catholic and only fooling himself.
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All these characters span multitudes, but common in all of them is a capricious and wacky energy, which they express through suing Satan for defamation, teaching method acting, or building a shrink ray. These coincidentally comedic bearers of imagined Polish names embody characters who, though undoubtedly American, always have something unique in their personality. This flexibility speaks to Polish immigrants to the new world – both Catholic and Jewish – retaining their religious and cultural traditions while building themselves a niche in American society, and in the process acquiring some of cinema’s most beloved roles.
Written by Theo Canter, Jan 2020
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