The Peculiar World of Polish Animal Idioms
#lifestyle & opinion
default, The Brzozowice housing estate on the river Przemsza, photo: Grzegorz Celejewski / AG, center, #000000, tablica_zwierzeta_ag.jpg
Curious what it means to have a snake in one’s pocket or buy a cat in a bag? In this article, Culture.pl discusses popular Polish animal idioms – presenting their literal translations, explaining their figurative meanings and providing examples of their use in Polish texts. Be advised: some of the animal idioms found here might sound peculiar to English speakers!
First cats over the fence
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First cats over the fence, photo: Artur Tabo / Forum
In this case, the first cats over the fence show the way for the cats that are to follow. This idiom is used to express that after the first attempts at doing something, which may be problematic, the next ones will cause less trouble.
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Coach Kwaśniewicz was happy with how his team played, although he admits that these were the first cats over the fence.
From ‘Udana Premiera’ (A Successful Premiere), an article in ‘Express Ilustrowany’ (Illustrated Express), 2003, trans. MK
Well, it looks like this article has just seen its first cats over the fence! Do keep reading, as there’s lots of fun to follow.
To buy a cat in a bag
Here’s another cat idiom. Whereas English speakers ‘let the cat out of the bag’, Polish speakers purchase a cat in a bag (or, more precisely, they try to avoid doing just that). The latter phrase means to buy something, or decide to do something, without first checking it out.
Read the ingredients of pastas thoroughly, so that you don’t buy a cat in a bag – in this case, a pasta made with powdered eggs rather than regular ones.
From ‘Zamień Chemię na Jedzenie’ (Swap Chemistry With Food) by Julita Bator, 2013, trans. MK
To sit like a mouse under a broom
- Siedzieć jak mysz pod miotłą
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A still from the film 'Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice', 1940, photo: Everett Collection / East News
A mouse hiding from a cat might seek refuge, for example, under a broom. This phrase is used to describe a situation when someone is behaving very calmly, trying not to draw any attention to themselves. It’s a little similar to the English expression ‘to be as quiet as a mouse’.
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Actually, some expand the Polish idiom by saying that somebody is sitting as quietly as a mouse under a broom:
You know, even now I don’t attend any meetings, because I don’t want anybody saying that I go around snooping; I sit like a mouse under a broom; sure, I like to party, but only where nobody knows me.
From ‘Brzezina i Inne Opowiadania’ (The Birch Grove and Other Stories) by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, 2006, trans. MK
To be bored like a pug
A person sitting like a mouse under a broom for too long might very well get bored. Actually, they might become very, very bored or, as this Polish idiom puts it, bored like a pug. Why the comparison to the small canine?
This isn’t entirely clear, but one explanation (given by the eminent linguist Mirosław Bańko) points to pugs historically having been the favourite pets of European aristocrats. Since they’re not fit for hunting and don’t require a lot of exercise, pugs might have indeed been bored just hanging around aristocratic salons.
Ligęza was bored like a pug and for days on end he lay with his arms behind his head, staring at the ceiling.
From ‘Nowele Zebrane’ (Collected Novellas) by Karol Bunsch, 1986, trans. MK
The sausage isn’t for the dog
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A girl with a dog near a cold meat stand, photo: Jędrzej Wojna / AG
Up next is another dog idiom. When in Polish somebody says that ‘the sausage isn’t for the dog’, they mean that a particular thing isn’t meant for all, only for specific people. Even though the dog would really like to sink its teeth into the tasty sausage, that’s just not going to happen, as the sausage isn’t meant for it:
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The suggestion was very clear. I laughed at him and told him that the sausage isn’t for the dog.
From ‘Zawód: Policjantka’ (Profession: Policewoman) by Mateusz Baczyński, Onet.pl, 2016, trans. MK
A wolf is drawn to the woods
This idiom mentions a species that’s closely related to dogs – wolves. The meaning of this Polish phrase is that people are inclined to long for, or return to, their old, established habits. Sometimes, depending on the context, it may suggest that the nostalgia-evoking old habits were naughty or mischievous.
‘A wolf is drawn to the woods – I’m beginning to miss the adrenaline and the challenges’, says the 56-year-old Krzysztof Hołowczyc about his plans to once more participate in the Dakar, the world’s toughest rally
From ‘Krzysztof Hołowczyc: Zaczyna mi Brakować Wyzwań’ by Sebastian Chrostowski in ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’, 2019, trans. MK
The wolf’s full and the sheep’s unscathed
- I wilk jest syty, i owca cała
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Still from the film 'Pomocnik' directed by Wacław Fedak, 1989, photo: National Film Archive – Audiovisual Institute
Here we have another wolf idiom. It’s used to describe a situation where a compromise has been achieved – where two sides of a dispute reach an agreement that meets their needs in a more or less satisfactory way. Although the hungry wolf was looking to devour the plump sheep, it was satiated otherwise, and the two can now peacefully co-exist:
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After Friday’s trial, one can say that the wolf’s full and the sheep’s unscathed.
From ‘Pastor Leci do Domu’ (A Pastor Flies Home) by Marcelina Szumer-Brysz in ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’, 2018, trans. MK
When there’s no fish, a crayfish is a fish
Oftentimes, a compromise means you have to settle for less than you initially intended. When you’re in a situation when you have to accept less than you originally wanted, you can express that by using this Polish idiom. Curiously, the English equivalent focuses on bread rather than aquatic life: ‘half a loaf is better than none’.
[…] we tried to employ the services of professional painters, not dabblers making pub signs. But when there’s no fish, a crayfish is a fish.
From ‘Ja, Inkwizytor: Młot na Czarownice’ (I, Inquisitor: A Hammer for Witches) by Jacek Piekara, 2015, trans. MK
To feel like a fish in water
- Czuć się jak ryba w wodzie
This is another fish idiom. Whereas English speakers say that someone is ‘like a fish out of water’ to describe a person who is feeling uncomfortable in a particular situation, Poles say pretty much the opposite. When in Polish, you say that somebody ‘feels like a fish in water’, you mean that the person feels very good in a given place or situation:
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Elizabeth accompanied him on the vacation, but she didn’t cope well in the heat and was afraid of tropical diseases. Jeff, on the other hand, felt like a fish in water there.
From the book ‘Powrót do Lwowa’ (Return to Lviv) by Maria Nurowska, 2008, trans. MK
To have a snake in one’s pocket
While the last Polish idiom places a creature in its natural habitat, this one puts an animal in a rather unexpected place. What sort of a person would carry around a snake in their pocket? If you asked a Pole this question, the answer would be pretty obvious: a scrooge.
He cracked and made a remark that our dear brother Bronisław had a snake in his pocket and didn’t offer as much to the church as he should have, and that now, because of that, he’s probably explaining himself to St Peter.
From the book ‘Lato Nieśmiertelnych’ (Immortal Summer) by Mariusz Ziomecki, 2002, trans. MK
Work’s not a hare, it won’t run off
- Robota nie zając, nie ucieknie
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A running hare, photo: Raimund Linke / East News
Here’s another idiom that relates to money. This Polish phrase encourages us not to take work too seriously – it’s an incentive to remain idle for a while. The things that need to be done can be dealt with at a later time… they won’t disappear like a hare running off into the distance!
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Anielka, do sit down – work’s not a hare, it won’t run off.
From ‘Dawno Temu Anielka’ (A Long Time Ago, Anielka) by Ełżbieta Szadura in ‘Wysokie Obcasy’ (High Heels), 2001, trans. MK
A horse would laugh at that
A highly work-oriented person might find the previous idiom absurd or even devoid of sense. In English, you could express such a view by saying that the phrase is ‘enough to make a cat laugh’. In Polish, you’d say something similar, but instead of a cat, it’d be a horse laughing:
Listen to what you’re saying – really, a horse would laugh at that.
From the book ‘Pamiątka z Celulozy’ (Cellulose Souvenir) by Igor Newerly, 1952, trans. MK
To know each other like bald horses
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Horses at pasture, Białowieża Forest, 2020, photo: Agencja Wschod / Forum
When in Polish, you say that people know each other like ‘bald horses’, you mean that they know each other very, very well – they understand each other perfectly. The phrase points to the fact that horses, like humans, lose hair as they grow older. Two bald horses that have been working as a team since their youth must know each other’s reactions and habits through and through. This simple truth is said to be the origin of the idiom:
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Wiesław and I knew each other like bald horses, and when I had some literary dilemmas, or even life dilemmas, I ran to him for advice.
From ‘Panopticum’ by Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, 1995, trans. MK
To stare like a calf at a painted gate
- Gapić się jak cielę na malowane wrota
When you know somebody really well, you can sometimes allow yourself a moment of thoughtlessness around them. At a moment like that, you might find yourself staring at something ‘like a calf at a painted gate’, as this Polish idiom puts it. The meaning of this phrase is to gaze at something without thought.
He himself was sitting staring at the cup like a calf at a painted gate
From ‘Charitas’ by Stefan Żeromski, 1927, trans. MK
One swallow doesn’t make it spring
- Jedna jaskółka wiosny nie czyni
The opposite of thoughtlessness is when thoughts go flying through your head. As it happens, a flying animal is mentioned in the last idiom on our list. In Polish, you say that ‘one swallow doesn’t make it spring’ when you want to express that one event, typically a positive one, isn’t necessarily a harbinger of change or a new trend.
The English equivalent is very similar: ‘one swallow doesn't make a summer’. It seems that while in England, people are anxious for the summer to arrive, in Poland, spring is the more awaited season:
Just as one swallow doesn’t make it spring, one colder month doesn’t mean there’s no global warming.
From ‘”Co Się Stało z Globalnym Ociepleniem?" by Krzysztof Jabłonowski, konkret24.tvn24.pl, 2020, trans. MK
That’s it for now. We sincerely hope you didn’t get bored like a pug reading this article! If, on the contrary, we’ve made you hungry for more Polish animal idioms, check out our article ‘9 Odd Phrases Poles Love to Use’, where you can find a few more.
Written by Marek Kępa, June 2020