The Baffling World of Polish Months
#language & literature
default, The Baffling World
of Polish Months, Threshing flax in Polish countryside in the 20th century, photo: Bogdan Łopieński / Forum, len_forum.jpg
Most Polish months don’t sound anything remotely like their English counterparts. What do these ancient Slavic names mean, and what do they tell us about life in Poland, past and present?
Like many other Slavic languages, Polish proudly defied the ancient Latin names so ubiquitous in most other languages of Europe. As a result, the names of Polish months – with two exceptions (and even those two aren’t so easy to identify) – share few similarities to the names of the months you know from English, or indeed most other Western European languages.
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But while this may look like a geographic division at first, there are some Eastern Slavic languages, most notably Russian, that actually did go for the Latin month names. All the while, the different Slavic languages can be rather confounding in their usage, and are often false friends in this respect.
Interestingly, the meanings of the old Slavic words below can shed some light on the lifestyles of the ancestors of today’s Poles. Meanwhile, others... well, they just pose real mysteries...
The word most likely goes back to the verb siec, which could refer to felling trees, an act possibly practiced in the midst of the dark and cold Slavic winter. Because obviously, felling trees when it’s minus 15 degrees Celsius must have seemed like a good idea at the time... Working hypothesis: transporting lumber may have been easier on sleighs.
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February, or luty, on the bank of Wigry Lake in Poland’s Mazury, photo: Andrzej Sidor / Forum
The word is an adjective which used to mean ‘harsh’ or ‘cruel’, which most likely pertained to the freezing, harsh temperatures typical for this month. Interestingly, the sound of the month is almost homonymous with lód, the Polish word for ‘ice’, creating a handy false-friend association.
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One of the two names with Latin roots among the Polish months – much like the English ‘March’, Marzec comes from the name of the Latin god of war: Mars.
The fourth month’s name comes from the word kwiat, meaning ‘flower’. So while April may be known as the cruelest month, for Poles, it’s primarily the time of blossoming vegetation.
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- *Caution: ‘Květen’ in Czech is actually May!
The second and final Latin link. Like in English, the Roman goddess Maia is the reason for this month’s title.
Ever heard of a whole month being dedicated to maggots? Well, you have now! It may be hard to believe, but it turns out the root of this month’s name czerw means ‘maggot’. In ancient times, it marked an annual period where these worms started appearing everywhere. Known as Polish cochineals (Porphyrophora polonica), they were used to produce a red dye, which was exported from Poland from time immemorial. Even the name for ‘red’ in Polish, czerwony, comes from these little bugs.
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- *Caution: a Czech cognate, červenec, is actually July – see below.
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A linden tree, or ‘lipa’, in bloom, photo: Taida Tarabula / Forum
July’s name is derived from lipa, which means ‘linden tree’ (also referred to as a tilia or lime tree). As you may have already pieced together, lindens bloom around this time of year, hence the name. Poles who know their months make sure they don’t leave their car under lindens during blooming season – left too long, their rides become coated in the sticky tree sap dripping from above.
As befits harvest time, August’s name derives from sierp, meaning ‘a sickle’, the tool that’s been used for reaping crops ever since people can remember. In case you’re wondering, the name for harvest time in Polish is żniwa, with the annual festival of Dożynki following soon after in September.
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Yet another link to plants in September. This month’s name derives from wrzos, meaning ‘heather’. Heather looks most beautiful in the autumn, obviously.
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Flaxboard, a contemporary flax product, photo: promotional materials
Taken from paździerze – ‘chaff’ or ‘tow’ – this month refers to the broken fibre removed during the processing of flax or hemp. These crops were used to produce ropes and sacks by our Slavic ancestors, but today, we buy their derivative products in supermarkets, or even hardware stores.
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Possibly the most poetic month name, November’s Polish equivalent comes from liście (leaves) and padać (to fall). Yes, essentially, it means that time of year when leaves fall.
- *Caution: ‘Listopad’ in Croatian means October!
For the root of December, gruda is a lump of earth, likely one which has been coagulated by freezing cold. Yes, it’s definitely winter again...
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Written Mikołaj Gliński, 14 Apr 2017