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 words of (supposedly) Polish origin that have made it into global English lexicon (here's a full list...) – often not very reliable, and at times really confusing. We decided to examine potential Polish words that are used in one of the most popular languages of the world, and see what stories they really tell us. But the search for Polish words in English can be testing, so prepare for a trip to unexpected and exotic linguistic destinations – and eventually beyond language and into the realm of the Finneganian (see...).
Polish in Yiddish in English? -learn more here
Where should we look first for Polish loan words in English? Food, of course. While it seems like 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 isn’t even interesting: so let’s just dismiss all this borshch, pierogis, and pączki.
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, and it doesn’t necessarily seem to come from Polish at first glance (even if the tradition of pickled cucumber is associated with Eastern and Central Europe). Most etymologies would derive gherkin from Dutch gurken (which is plural of Gurk), which in turn was borrowed from German Gurke.
It is well established that the German word goes back to the Polish ogórek, which first appeared in East Middle German around 1500. But Polish 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, take us to such early Greek adjectives as aguros, meaning green, not ripe, and even further back to aoros, which means premature or untimely. So is it a Polish word in English after all? 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, its 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 and the palm of alcoholism – let’s just leave this one to 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 Osmanic 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 civilization.
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 Turkish language and culture], which from the Middle Ages plundered Eastern Europe in a repeated series of military raids, but it soon became a pejorative denoting a barbaric or uncivilized gang or swarm – which is pretty much how it is used today in 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.
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, which was the language of an important ethnic minority living in the Eastern parts of the Polish Commonwealth from the 14th century, and 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 (think Chopin) – in its more original form mazur is a name denoting a lively folk dance (mazurek is a diminutive) and was first recorded in Polish in 1780. The term goes back to the word denoting the inhabitant of Mazovia, a central region of Poland where Warsaw is also located, and has nothing to do with 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 Hungarian... Explaining how this is possible is beyond our scope.
Another problem with mazurka is that the English word differs substantially from 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 nice word with a nice Polish story to it. but not really. Polonaise, which is a French word (meaning ‘Polish’ in French), denotes a slow dance in triple metre in the supposedly Polish style, that is, 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, and 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 word for Czech – country and adjective – is 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 dropped by the Czech language only 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 more here.
In the meantime, the traditional spelling penetrated to 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 Latinized orthography, while other languages like Czech or German (where cz became tsch) have dropped it over the years.
Polish in Yiddish in English
OK, although it seems that by now we have to concede that Polish had little impact on the most influential language of the world, let’s not give up. 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/cucumber), those languages might have brought them, or better, 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 German substrate) have become key components of modern Yiddish. Transported to America at the beginning of the 20th century, Yiddish has had a big impact on American English, it also developed a variety of its own known as Yinglish.
Could it be that Polish words made it somehow 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 that think 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 Polish szmata. Like in Polish it also means a rag, but it could also mean ‘junk or low-quality merchandise’, as in this 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’ (“The schmatte steals from me”). Polish word szmata comes probably from an older word, not attested in Polish, its close cognate can be found in Czech chmatati, which means 'to touch, grope'.
Another sch- word is schlub and it turns out 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 Yiddish schlub to Polish żłób, which is a Polish word for trough, or manger, but it could also describe a primitive and dull person, lacking manners, which is very close to the English meaning of schlub. As to Polish, żłób it is related with the verb żłobić, meaning 'to carve'.
Next we come to , which in English is a rather vulgar definition of a contemptible or foolish person, a jerk. In Yiddish the word שמאָק (schmok) literally means 'penis'; a possible etymology derives schmok from 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 Yiddish צאַצקע (tsatske) which goes back to 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 definitely 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 Yiddish נודיען nudyen, and eventually must be linked with the Polish nudzić.
It looks like we have found in English some Polish words, even though they form a rather unflattering collection, with a rag, dragon, trough, a cacko, and someone boring. But if you were not satisfied and were looking for more, here’s one more – quite convoluted – example of how Polish may trickle down into other languages.
Probably everyone is familiar with the phrase “Get lost!”, which is a rather impolite way of dismissing someone. The phrase “Get lost!” 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 for someone to get lost). The Polish eye will discern in the latter word (farblondzen) a Polish (Slavic) root błądzić (lit. getting lost, or more precisely: being actively present in the process of getting lost). Thus – after many operations and detours – Polish may be found at the heart of contemporary American culture after all.
Polish in Finnegans Wake
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 kind of 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 or Russian, or some other Slavic language? And again as with Yiddish – the task of deciding 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) – its sense of Polish uhlan being suggested by the word bron (Polish word for weapon) 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 over 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 been undoubtedly aware. There’s prącie and pizda - and śmierć too, all of them nicely camouflaged.
A Wake reader interested in Polish geography could be surprised to find in the text the the city of Lublin, which could have had a special charm to Joyce as it differs only with one letter from Dublin, and Karkonosze, a name of the mountain range in Sudety – a name definitely interesting for the Polish ear, but who knows what it meant for Joyce...
But obviously there are many more Polish things to find in this little book – and in English too.
Quarks, twaróg and the Nature of Reality
Speaking of food... As many of us may know quark is a term from theoretical physics denoting an elementary particle – a fundamental constituent of matter. The name 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 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 arguments:
From time to time, phrases occur in the book [i.e. 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 might 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), however Joyce scholars suggest that it may have been an altogether different cry that had inspired Joyce in this fragment of the Wake - a one heard at a German market place. 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, but 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 curd cheese) – its present German form being explained through a change from tw- to qu- (twarog -> quark).
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 like this, after all, is not the worst etymology for a word that denotes the very basic element that forms our reality. It would also mean that the Polish language and Polish twaróg are more at the core of English lexicon and allgemein reality, than one would have thought – and this on a really elementary level.
We are at a strange crossroads where Finnegans Wake meets theoretical physics, the English language meets Polish and German, and twaróg meets Quark, or quarks.