The Story Behind Words Like Horde, Gherkin, Schmuck & Quarks
#language & literature
small, The Story Behind Words
Like Horde, Gherkin,
Schmuck & Quarks, This article is not about kiełbasa, photo: CC / Wikipedia, 1024px-kielbasa_krakowska_2.jpg
The real story behind words of Polish origin in English is not only fascinating, but it also points in many surprising directions.
Gherkin, horde, uhlan, kielbasa, schlub... The Internet is full of examples of words of (supposedly) Polish origin that have made it into the global English lexicon (here's a full list). These are often unreliable, and at times quite confusing. We've decided to examine the potential Polish words employed in one of the most popular languages of the world – and see what stories they really tell us. The search for Polish words in English can be testing, so get ready for a trip to unexpected and exotic linguistic destinations – and eventually, beyond language, into the realm of the Finneganian.
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Where should we look first for Polish loan words in English? Food, of course. While it seems that some Polish words for food have taken root in the English language – like kiełbasa, bigos or babka (which are Polish words for sausage, a kind of meat and cabbage stew, and a cake, respectively) – they have remained basically what they are in Polish, that is, the names of specific kinds of food, and rather obvious instances of cultural and gastronomical exchange. In the age of globalized cuisine, this is only mildly interesting, so let’s just leave borshch, pierogis and pączki aside.
The case of 'gherkin' may be more interesting and instructive – especially as this word is much more domesticated in English, going back all the way to the 1660s. At first glance, it doesn’t necessarily seem to come from Polish, even if the tradition of pickled cucumber is associated with Eastern and Central Europe. Most etymologies would derive gherkin from the Dutch 'gurken' (the plural of 'Gurk'), which was borrowed in turn from the German 'Gurke'.
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It is well established that the German word goes back to the Polish 'ogórek', which first appeared in East Middle German around 1500. But 'ogórek' is also a loan word. It came to Old Polish from the Medieval Greek word 'angourion'. Tracing the word even further back would land us at the Persian 'angarah', or, should we follow a different etymology, to such early Greek adjectives as 'aguros' (meaning 'green, not ripe') – and even further back to 'aoros', which means 'premature' or 'untimely'. So, is 'gherkin' a Polish word in English? You decide...
Vodka vs Wódka
While 'vodka' was first recorded in English in 1802, the Polish word 'wódka' had been attested in Polish as early as the 16th century. It may seem like another instance of a generic food word (for a kind of highly alcoholic beverage), one which has made it into global English but retained its sense of foreignness. Nevertheless, it definitely elicits a more heated debate. This goes back to the rivalry over the disputed priority in the invention of vodka – the two major contestants being Poland and Russia.
Unfortunately, no good arguments are to be found here, and vodka continues to play an important role in both cultures… And yes, it's a diminutive of 'woda' (water) in both languages, so it’s not helpful in determining which language and culture produced this devilish drink first. Considering the stake of this rivalry – the potential primacy in drinking – let’s just leave this one to the Russians and turn to other words.
One of the most interesting cases of words that have really traveled into English from Polish is the word 'horde'. Unlike the earlier examples, horde is not a generic term, and it has gained full usage in English, describing (usually in a derogative manner) a crowd or swarm of people. The other meaning, that of a nomadic tribe or army, usually of Asian origin, better represents the word’s etymology.
In fact, while it is very likely that this word came to English via Polish, its origins are in Turkey. The original Turkish-Tatar word meant ‘military camp’, but also 'army' or 'military' in Ottoman Turkish. Poland had a long history of contact with Turkish peoples – in fact, for many centuries Poland’s eastern borders formed the last frontier of the Western Christian civilisation.
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'Horde' is a testimony to this close contact, and the word was documented in Polish as early as 1535, some 20 years before it was first recorded in English. It was first used in reference to the Tatar army (the Tatars were originally a Mongolian tribe, which over time, adopted the Turkish language and culture). From the Middle Ages, the Tartars plundered Eastern Europe in a repeated series of military raids, but it soon became a pejorative term, denoting a barbaric or uncivilized gang or swarm – which is pretty much how it is used today in both Polish and English. The initial ‘h’ has been seen by the linguists as a sign that the word really came into Western languages via Polish.
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19th-century Uhlans of Saxonia; the word became the term for 'light cavalry' in Russia, Prussia and Austria; photo: CC / Privatarchiv Gert Jubisch
Another word which you can find in most lists containing words of Polish origin in English is 'uhlan'. Although this is a specific military term, and its usage is restricted to this specific historical meaning (a body of European light cavalry), the word is very closely connected with another interesting aspect of Polish history.
Uhlans were very specific military forces typical of Polish warfare as late as the 18th century, and in fact, some of their traditions were taken into the 20th century (at which point, however, it was obsolete). Polish uhlans were light cavalry. The title was later used by lancer regiments in the Russian, Prussian and Austrian armies.
But while 'uhlan' might have come into English via Polish, its real origins lie in the Tatar language – that of an important ethnic minority living in the Eastern parts of the Polish Commonwealth from the 14th century, known for their great contribution to the Polish military. In Tatar, it is simply a word for a young, brave man.
Another word associated with Poland is a name denoting a lively folk dance – think Chopin. With 'mazur' its more original form, 'mazurek' is a diminutive and was first recorded in Polish in 1780. The term goes back to the word denoting the inhabitant of Mazovia, the central region of Poland where Warsaw is located, and has nothing to do with the Mazury (another nearby region, famous for its lakes).
But things will get really complicated when we follow one of the etymologies of the ethnonym 'Mazur;, which considers it a late Ruthenism (1596) – that is, a word coming from the Ruthenian vernacular of Ukraine. In this interpretation, the word is closely connected with the Hungarian word 'Magyar', meaning a Hungarian... Explaining how this is possible is beyond our current scope.
Another problem with 'mazurka' is that the English word differs substantially from the Polish 'mazurek' (which is masculine). In fact, it may be a hint pointing to Russian as the intermediary in taking 'mazurka' to Western languages. It is very likely that the Polish accusative form mazurka, as in 'tańczyć mazurka' ('to dance the mazurek'), was interpreted in Russian as a feminine affix, hence the -ka ending.
Speaking of dance and music, 'Polonaise' may seem like a word with a nice Polish story to it – but it's not really. A French word meaning ‘Polish’ in French, it denotes a slow dance in triple metre in the supposedly Polish style – in other words a la Polacca. Obviously, such a word could not be of Polish origin.
'Polonaise' was used in European languages as early as the 18th century (think of the slow movements in Bach’s suites named Polonaises), before it entered Polish in the 19th century. The musical aspect of the Polonaise was used by Chopin, who turned it into a melodic masterpiece. A word of French origin, polonez, did eventually take root in Polish language and culture – it is a traditional first dance at studniówka (the Polish equivalent of a senior prom) today.
This word really has nothing to do with Poland – despite the fact that the word could mean 'Polish woman' (in Polish). Apparently, the name of this Czech dance goes back to its measure, pol-takt (half-bar), in reference to the original metre of the dance being 2/4. Another possible etymology links it with a variation of folka, as the dance was propagated as the tschechischer Volkstanz (a Czech folk dance).
Speaking of Czechs, while the name 'Czech' itself may be Czech after all, one has to note that the English orthography used in writing this word seems curiously Polish (the Czech words for Czech – country and adjective – are 'Česko' and 'Český', respectively). How did that come to be?
As it turns out, 'Cz' has been a common Latin transcription of the Czech (Slavic) č-sound since the Middle Ages. In fact, it was a common way to write Czech names in Latin texts long before Czechs started to write Czech texts in Latin script. This orthography was only dropped by the Czech language in the 16th century, being eventually replaced by č by the end of the century (changing the name of the country from 'Czechy' to 'Čechy'). Find out more here.
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In the meantime, the traditional spelling permeated other languages, most notably German and Polish. It is probably from German that the word made it into English. It turns out Polish may seem exceptional here only in the sense that it has retained the old Latinised orthography, while other languages like Czech or German (where cz became tsch) have dropped it over the years.
Polish in Yiddish & English
By now, it may seem we have to concede that Polish had little impact on the most influential language of the world – but let’s not give up just yet. Looking for Polish words in English may require investigating other languages. If any of them absorbed Polish words at some point (as in the case of 'gherkin'), those languages might have brought them – or better still, smuggled them into English.
The perfect candidate for that kind of contraband is Yiddish. Spoken for many centuries in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, Yiddish absorbed a whole trove of Slavic vocabulary. In fact, Slavic (along with Hebrew vocabulary and the German substrate) have become key components of modern Yiddish. Transported to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, Yiddish has made a great impact on American English – even developing a variety of its own, known as Yinglish.
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Could it be that Polish words somehow made it into global English with the help of Yiddish? Let’s take a look...
While you may not find this one in all English dictionaries, there are speakers who find it indispensible. Schmatta is a good example of 'Polish in Yiddish in English’. The word goes back to the Yiddish word 'שמאַטע' ('schmate'), which in turn comes from the Polish 'szmata'. As in Polish, it also means a rag, but it could also mean ‘junk or low-quality merchandise’. For example: 'Don't buy from Silverman; all he sells is schmatta'. But, as Marek Widawski, a scholar specializing in Yinglish, notes, 'schmatta' could also pertain to a person, and in that case, it’s a derogative term synonymous with ‘scoundrel’ ('That schmatte steals from me'). The Polish 'szmata' likely comes from an older word, not attested in Polish – its close cognate can be found in the Czech 'chmatati', which means 'to touch, grope'.
Another sch- word is 'schlub', which turns out to be an even more surprising find. 'Schlub' is a slang word used for a person regarded as clumsy, stupid, or unattractive – a 'worthless oaf'. It was first recorded in English in 1964. One highly plausible etymology refers the Yiddish 'schlub' to the Polish 'żłób', a word for 'trough' or 'manger', but it could also describe a primitive and dull person, one lacking manners, which is very close to the English meaning of 'schlub'. As for the Polish, 'żłób' is related to the verb 'żłobić', meaning 'to carve'.
Next we come to 'schmuck', which in English is a rather vulgar definition of a contemptible or foolish person – in other words, a jerk. In Yiddish the word 'שמאָק' (schmok) literally means 'penis'. A possible etymology derives 'schmok' from the Polish 'smok' ('dragon') (to my knowledge, the Polish word smok doesn’t refer to penis, but who knows?).
From sch to tsch… 'Tchotchke' is basically a Yinglish word that refers to a ‘knickknack, trinket, curio’. It is a Yinglish version of the Yiddish 'צאַצקע' (tsatske), which goes back to the Old Polish 'czaczko', itself derived from 'czacze' – the contemporary Polish word is 'cacko', which has essentially the same meaning as 'tchotchke'.
Yiddish stands behind a whole series of English words with an -ik suffix, the most famous of them being beatnik, healthnik, peacenik, nogoodnik or nudnik. While the suffix -ik itself may be more characteristic of Russian than Polish (where it is certainly more productive), the root nudn- definitely goes back to Polish. We can trace it also in such other Yinglish words as 'to noodge' or 'nudzh', meaning ‘to pester, nag, whine' (as a noun, a 'pest' or 'whiner'). All of those go back to the Yiddish 'נודיען' ('nudyen'), and eventually must be linked with the Polish 'nudzić'.
It looks like we've found some Polish words in English – even though they form a rather unflattering collection, with a rag, dragon, trough, a cacko and someone boring. But if you aren't satisfied yet, here’s one more – quite convoluted – example of how Polish may have trickled down into other languages.
Most everyone is familiar with the phrase 'Get lost!', which is a rather impolite way of dismissing someone. The phrase was first used in English in the 1940s. Some etymologies suggest that this phrase actually is a calque from Yiddish. As Marek Widawski suggests, this language has a similar expression, namely 'Ver farvalgert' or 'Ver farblondzet' (both are literally suggestions that someone 'get lost'). The Polish eye will discern in the latter word, farblondzen, a Polish (Slavic) root – błądzić (literally 'getting lost', or more precisely: 'being actively present in the process of getting lost').
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Thus, after many operations and detours, Polish may be found somewhere near the heart of contemporary American culture after all.
Polish in 'Finnegans Wake'
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Can you find Polish words in this picture? The 'Finnegans Wake' business cards (above) are part of the 'Finnegans Meet' project, a consistent attempt at translating Joyce's idom of the Wake into language of images. Photo: Bartnicki&Szmandra
Having searched for Polish words across the great expanses of contemporary English – and having established that it is surprisingly difficult to find real Polish words – why not take a look at yet another linguistic cosmos, and plunge ourselves into the abysmal depths of the English language of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.
Finnegans Wake is sometimes described as the ultimate text of the English language and Western culture. As a matter of fact, speaking of English here may be a stretch, as the language of the novel is an amalgam of many other languages which many would argue constitutes a new, invented language, one which some critics would prefer to call the language of Finnegans Wake.
The question is then: Is there Polish in te language of Finnegans Wake too? And if so, what Polish words were interesting to Joyce enough so that he would have them immortalized in his magnum opus and the ultimate text of Western culture. Will the Polish list of the Wake correspond with the Polish words in English we’ve already discussed? And what would it tell us about Polish language seen from the Joycean perspective pitched on the final linguistic frontiers?
'Mazourikawitch or some other sukinsin of a vitch'...
Well, surprisingly or not, of some 100 words identified by the scholars of Finnegans Wake as quasi-Polish, one of the first is ‘wodka’ (wodkar, 063.06). Here again, as with our examination of Polish words in Yiddish, we encounter the same problem – is it Polish, Russian, or some other Slavic language? And again, as with Yiddish – the task of determining which one it is may be simply impossible.
In the Wake, we’ll find also the word mazurka hidden in the name Mazourikawitch – 'or some other sukinsin of a vitch' (437.29), as Joyce describes him using another Polish word. A more curious example from our list is uhlan, which we find hidden in the word ‘nuhlan’ (352.16) – the Polish sense of uhlan being suggested by the word bron (the Polish word for 'weapon' is broń) in the same line.
Jaja, jajce, Joyce...
Some Polish/Slavic words used in the Wake seem to cover specific fields, like food: there’s mleko, bułki, herbata, and jaja – which all together would make a nice breakfast, had they not been dispersed across more than 600 pages and disfigured through Joyce’s amazing literary talent. The word jaja maybe particularly interesting, as its written form (or rather some of its Slavic variants like jajce or jojce) apparently interested Joyce, as it looked to him like a version of his own name. Well, let’s just say it may look like it, but it definitely doesn’t sound like it.
Other Polish words in the Wake could provide us with a fixation theory. For example insects: in the text we’ll find pszczoła (and pszczelarz), pchła, mrówka, and wesz – which are, respectively, words for bee (beekeeper), flea, ant and louse. And yes, there are Polish curse words: Joyce went for gówno, dupa, and, of course, kurwa – probably the most popular Polish curse word today and a synonym for 'whore', of which Joyce must have undoubtedly been aware. There’s prącie and pizda - and śmierć too, all of them nicely camouflaged.
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A Wake reader interested in Polish geography could be surprised to find in the text the city of Lublin, which could have had a special charm to Joyce as it differs only with one letter from Dublin. There's also Karkonosze, the name of a mountain range in Sudety – a name definitely interesting to the Polish ear, but who knows what it meant for Joyce?
Obviously there are many more Polish things to find in this little book – and in English too.
Quarks, twaróg & the nature of reality
Speaking of food... As we know, 'quark' is a term from theoretical physics denoting an elementary particle – a fundamental constituent of matter. The word itself was first used around 1963 by Murray Gell-Mann, one of the two physicists who posited the quark model. Gell-Mann later recollected that he had come across the word ‘in one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce’. He found it in the phrase 'Three quarks for Muster Mark' (p. 383) and adopted it for his own theory. As he later recalled, 'the allusion to three quarks seemed perfect', as originally, there were only three subatomic quarks.
Interestingly, the scientist preferred to pronounce the word as 'kwork' – for which he had his own good argument:
From time to time, phrases occur in the book ['Finnegans Wake'] that are partially determined by calls for drinks at the bar. I argued, therefore, that perhaps one of the multiple sources of the cry 'Three quarks for Muster Mark' might be 'Three quarts for Mister Mark', in which case the pronunciation 'kwork' would not be totally unjustified.
Gell-Mann may have been right, in his own way, in linking the origin of the Joycean phrase with the call for drinks made at the bar ('quark' <- 'quart'). Joyce scholars, however, suggest that it may have been an altogether different cry that had inspired Joyce in this fragment of the Wake – one heard at a German marketplace. The vendor’s cry, according to this theory, was something like ‘Drei Mark für muster Quark!’, which can be translated as: 'Three Marks for excellent curd cheese!'
Quark is a German word for 'curd cheese'. It also just happens to be one of the very few early loan words in Old German taken from some Western Slavic language, very likely Polish (twaróg also means 'curd cheese') – its present German form explained through a change from tw- to qu- (twarog -> quark).
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The etymology of this Polish word goes back to Proto-slavic *tvarogb, which in turn goes to *tvoriti (= Pol. tworzyć), meaning 'to make, create, form'. It seems that this, in the end, isn't the worst etymology for a word that denotes the very basic element forming our reality. It would also mean that the Polish language and Polish twaróg are more at the core of English lexicon and nature of reality than one would have thought – and at this, on a very elementary level.
We conclude at a strange crossroads of sorts – where Finnegans Wake meets theoretical physics, the English language meets Polish and German, and twaróg meets Quark, or quarks.
words of Polish origin
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Jun 2015