Cowboys and Clowns!

What a multi-purpose headline that is! Seems a pity to waste it on just a small observation about how Poland treats foreign words.

This was prompted by seeing a sign I saw on the side of a stretched Cadillac parked on Emilii Plater today, it said KLOWNI, that being the plural of KLOWN (clown in English). Being deliberately provocative I announced to my colleagues “Aha! Klovni in a Cadillac!”. “No no nie!”, they said, “Not klovni but klowni”. “Not klovni?”, I mused, “So what’s wrong with cowboys then?”. This drew blank faces so I explained “Well a cowboy is a kovboy (kowboj) so why do clowns get to be klown?”. Nobody knew the answer.

I love this totally random approach to the incorporation of foreign words into the language. You’re average textbook will give you lists like;

Words borrowed from French
– agrafka (agrafe, staple)
– bilet (billet, ticket)
– butelka (bouteille, bottle)
– ekran (ecran, screen)
– biuro (bureau, office)
– meble (meuble, furniture)
– kanapa (canapé, sofa)
– rekin (requin, shark)
– krawat (cravate, tie)
– konfitury (confiture, jam)
– plaza (plage, beach)
– zonkil (jonquille, daffodil)
– walizka (valise, suitcase)
– portfel (portefeuille, wallet)
– fotel (fauteuil, armchair)
– koszmar (cauchemar, nightmare)
– fabryka (fabrique, factory)
– broszka (broche, brooch)
– serwetka (serviette, towel)
– adwokat (avocat, lawyer)
– kolia (collier, necklace)
– makijaz (maquillage, makeup)

Words borrowed from French by the English and the Poles
– alergia (allergie, allergy)
– kabel (cable, cable)
– banan (banane, banana)
– garaz (garage, garage)
– rezerwacja (reservation, reservation)
– uniwersytet (universite, university)
– wakacje (vacances, vacation)
– recepcja (reception, reception)
– tulipan (tulipe, tulip)
– character (caractere, character)
– seler (celeri, celery )
– kreatywny (creatif, creative )
– dentysta (dentiste, dentist )
– lampa (lampe, lamp)

and words borrowed from German;
– handel (Handel, commerce)
– kelner (Kellner, waiter)
– malarz (Maler, painter)
– stal (Stahl, steel)
– metal (Metalle, metal)
– punkt (Punkt, point)
– kac (Katze, hangover)

However, none of these lists ever include the interesting ones such as; kowboj & klown, adidasy (why not nijky or pumy?), dżinsy (pronounced like ‘jeansy’). Then there’s my all time fave annoyance – kola (cola), which does not mean cola at all but means Coca-cola (Coke) because if you ask for kola and they don’t have Coke they’ll ask if Pepsi is okay!

Then there are the cute ones that don’t originate from English at all but sound like they could do. My favourite here is ‘relaksy’, which my wife assures me were all the rage in communist days! I’ve even got a picture;

I’m sure there are even better examples but in the meantime, if in doubt, add a Y to the end of the foreign word, e.g laptopy, komputery, palmtopy!


52 thoughts on “Cowboys and Clowns!

  1. …there are of course hundreds of other words borrowed from French, English and German…toaleta, szeslong, traktor, befsztyk, pidzama,….

  2. why would you say that ‘metal’ comes from german ‘metall’ and not english ‘metal’?
    anyway how do you know these words aren’t originated from polish and were borrowed by the other nations? ;)

  3. A lot of similiar sounding words simply have a common proto-indo-european ancestor. Pidzama, just like pijamas, was borrowed from India, just like shampoo, or veranda.

  4. Scatts, that would explain why Polish consists of unpronounceable words only. You took all the good ones!

    Anyway, have you ever noticed how plural forms of English words turn into singular forms in Polish? Komandos is a single person. A whole bunch of commandos is komandosi. Polish is essentially English squared.

  5. I think there attested English loans in Polish from German (that is German borrows an English word, changes its meaning and then the changed meaning is borrowed into Polish). I think one example might be ‘body’ (a kind of female underwear).
    Playback for canned music (and lip synching) might be another.

    Clown is actually a very international word now. I have no idea why since the languages that borrow it have native words already in use with the same meaning. Usually it’s used alongside the traditional words. The closest to a local word in Polish is ‘pajac’ but it looks suspiciously like a borrowing too (from French?)

    What’s also interesting is that cowgirl is kowbojka (just as barmaid is barmanka). Some years ago the word cowgril came up in class and the students thought it was odd (apparently they’d never made the connection between the word boy and its appearance in cowboy).

    Finally agrafka is not staple (which is zszywka) it’s safety pin.

  6. Clown in Polish is used to denote a circus clown in particular. “Pajac” is usually either “someone who makes a fool of themselves publicly and inadvertently” or just “an idiot”. “Pajacyk” (a diminutive of pajac) is closer to clown, but it refers to a kind of wooden doll rather than people. The word “błazen” is, I think, the closest to clown, but has a broader meaning. It means someone who provokes laugher and/or anger and/or thought by saying or (less typically) doing ridiculous things. “Błazen” can be one’s social role. Clown is a very specific occupation that involves wearing colorful clothes and a lot of makeup.

    As for barmanka – words are incorporated “phonetically”. A Polish person who doesn’t speak English doesn’t know that “barman” is a bar man. It’s just a collection of six letters that just happen to mean a guy who works at a bar.

    Generally, when you need to create a new meaning in Polish, you don’t glue two words together, but use a noun-adjective pair. Also, many words are created by adding a suffix or prefix to an existing word. In English, there is a “light-bulb”. In Polish, the hypothetical word “światło-bańka” would seem very artificial and unlikely, but “bańka świetlna” is allright (bańka being the noun and świetlna being the adjective). However, in reality, the word for lightbulb is żar-ówka (żar stands for “incandescence”, and “-ówka” is a suffix that doesn’t mean anything on its own). So when a Pole hears a foreign word, it often just doesn’t occur to us that it might actually be a bunch of smaller words pieced together.

  7. I still don’t get clown (since presumably circuses first appeared in Poland before the word was borrowed and since if pajac is a borrowing (probably French maybe through German) it also referred to the circus kind of clown (and/or commedia dell’arte figures). One of those mysteries I’m doomed to never understand.

    I do note that the spelling klaun (which I prefer in Polish) also exists though I suppose ‘clown’ has the greater snob appeal.

  8. Well, I’m no linguist, but the way I see it, when the word “clown” arrived, the word “pajac” was already there, so the new word took a more specialized meaning, while the old one kept its more broad usage.

    As for spelling, using phonetic spelling of foreign words is often considered cheesy. There used to be a tendency to polonize everything, including names of people (e.g. Jerzy Waszyngton instead of George Washington). This rather odd custom is no longer fashionable, and I think we’re currently undergoing a process of overreacting to it.

  9. This reminds me of Plac Wilsona, Wilson Square, in Warsaw, Żoliborz district. When the Metro station opened there, there was a quarrel about what the right pronunciation of Wilson was and by extension how the name of the station should sound when announced as the next stop in the Metro. There were some voices that advocated that it should be pronounced as in English, i.e. with an [w] at the beginning but in the end, the supporters of a more Polish pronunciation won, i.e. a [v] at the beginning, arguing that this is how the name of the square is pronounced since it was established in the late 1920s. I can’t say that I disagree with that decision.

  10. borrowed from french?

    so you say before poles knew french they had no words for nightmares or the beach?

    interesting approach – you should write a book about slawic linguistics *rofl*

  11. Most of these words are origin just from latin – mother of most of european languages.

    Please write polish words in correct polish! :D

  12. My german teacher used to say: “what is it english?”.
    They had gone to the island and german stop developing. :D

  13. I love czech! I was down on my knees when I saw in Prague a poster with big letter:

    Tonight TINA TURNEROVA!!! :D

  14. Experts claim that about 10% of Polish words is native, the rest is borrowed from Russian, German, French, Latin, Greek, English (the last group would be the smallest one, borrowing from English really started in 1990s, when Steel Curtain broke). I find it quite convenient, e.g. it is very easy for me to understand French, even’ though I never studied it. For Russians it’s impossible.
    My favourite borrowed’ word is ‘wihajster’, which is some sort of universal name for small object, that you use when you don’t know the real name of this object. It comes from German ‘Wie heisst er?’, which means: ‘what’s the name of that thing?’
    Anyway, we’re not as bad as Japanese: they transformed most of borrowed words in such a twisted way that English speakers don’t recognize those words any more. ‘coffee’ turned into ‘koohi’, ‘cola’ – ‘koru’, ‘Poland’- ‘Poorando’, ‘English’- ‘Igirisu’ etc.

  15. It’s totally mystifying this way of seeing things – why do Poles, whose own language is ‘phonetic’ say blek and not black, epl and not apl (apple)? Is it so as to sound ‘not polish’ or is it the teaching of ‘a’ (ej) for apple?

  16. I think it’s partly bad teaching, partly the huge influence of American way of pronouncing things, which is anything but phonetical.

  17. Margot thanks for explaining this ‘wihajster’ word :)
    I was always wondering where did it come from and now it’s gonna be even funnier while using this word :D

  18. Ad (and indeed Margot) it’s not to do with bad teaching or Americanisation but to do with the way these borrowed words fit in with the phonology of the host language. Similar is German ‘handy’ (pron. ‘hendy’) (meaning mobile phone). Polish is a lot more phonologically consistent than English since there are fewer variants, so you have fewer allophones to a single vowel phoneme. It’s not that American English speakers are not ‘phonetical’, more that their vowel system is different to that of British (or indeed Indian or Australian) English speakers and yet we all use a common system of orthography.
    In fact the Poles are spelling these words phonetically- it’s just their phonology and not ours.

    Scatts, where did you source this from? I have this great book published by OUP called ‘English in Europe’: the Polish chapter is written by Elżbieta Mańczak-Wohlfeld and it’s very interesting.

    I have yet to find anything on French in Europe yet although I’m sure there’s plenty of material.

    While we’re here, I really like earlier French borrowings which have assumed Polish prefixes and declensions:
    ‘zbulwersowany’; ‘zaangażowany’ etc. Anyone know any others like this?


  19. French eh? So here’s more Indian ones:

    Punch – the magazine
    Nirvana – the band
    Jungle, mongoose, panther, swastika……….

  20. “Please write polish words in correct polish! :D

    It was definitely written “Klowni” on the side of the car.

    Pinolona – sourced primarily from my head but with some help on the lists from a web page. Forget where but it was a very short essay, not much more than in the post.

  21. Scatts,

    I restore your honour. I’ ve just checked in polish dictionary

    klown – see klaun
    so it’s possible, although not recommended.

  22. Scatts,

    some words have common latin stem, and most probably were borrowed directly from Latin (at least in Polish); this would be especially true for adwokat (advocatus), punkt (punctum), uniwersytet (universitas), wakacje (vacationes).

    Charakter, according to Kopaliński, comes directly from Greek.

    I like also other borrowed words – pomarańcza came to us, I think, from /add sounds of traversing various wikipedias/ Persian (نارنج, nāranğ) via Italian (pommo d’arancia, and I think that wiktionary, reporting that the source is French pomme orange is dead wrong here). Pomidor – also from Italian…

    At least gherkin could come a long way from Polish ogórek, via the German Gurke. Also, what other is a quark (via German Quark) if not terribly barbarized and proudly white twaróg? ;-)

  23. Jubal,

    german teacher said me that Gurke comes from polish ogórek and it’s proved!

    But zasmażka have to be typical polish, how “daj ać ja pobruszę a ty pocziwaj” (first polish words written as I remember from high-school). hahaha

  24. yes, I also read that (according to Wikipedia though…) the English ‘gherkin’ is from Polish ogórek.
    I heard that food words borrowed from or through Italian (pomidor, pomarancza, cebula?, cukinia etc) came from the queen Bona Sforza, who brought her own cooks with her to Poland (wikipedia again… and various Polish friends with a lot of spare time).

  25. Yest, that’s the popular belief. Also, the blanket term for the whole set of vegetables used as ingredients for soups etc. is “włoszczyzna” (literally – “all things Italian”).

  26. I just found mistake, I think. You wrote that Katze (regular cat) in German means hangover. I think is should be Kater (male cat). But I’m not 100% sure. Cheers

  27. Isn’t the German for hangover “katzenjammer” (as referenced by our friend Phlojd) and exemplified by Fran Katzenjammer, late of Black Books?

    My favorite is the phrase “w weekend.” Now tell me “Polish is a beautifully phonetic language, you can tell how something should be pronounced from the way it’s spelled.”

  28. Jubal,

    yes, indeed in polish drinkers slang. Everybody know what’s going about, even not drinkers (like at least some women) had sth similar – migraine.
    My neighbour has she-cat, in march we have really amazing concerts, when cat’s suitors come.
    Did you see what I recommended you before, at masakra malborska?

  29. Dont forget about “Chuligan” ;)

    This is the most odd borrowing ever. In english one writes “Hooligan”, but in polish we write “Chuligan”. WTF?

  30. ooh i love etymology! some Polish words from other languages you may have not suspected:

    Turkish: arbus / karpuz (Watermelon), stan (State/Land) [can’t verify stan 100% but remember someone once explaining it to me]

    Persian: raj / rey (paradise), wiara / ver (faith) [also from veles – the chief slavic god], bog / bag (god), piorun / perun (lightning / slavic god of the sky)

    actually most of religious/spiritual/esoteric words in most slavic languages come from persian/farsi or what today would be pashtun since they are the closest genealogical cousins of slavic people including poles. We also used to have a very similar religion and belief system before the christians came from the west and south.

    actually the Polish language holds a lot of secrets of our pre-christian cultural past, often more than our slavic neighbours. Wielkanoc (Easter) literally means ‘Great Night’ since it was the beginning of the year according to the slavic calendar which was lunar based. there’s a lot more but i gotta get back to work… cheers for the fun post!

  31. Pingback: Today’s snapshot of blogosphere « Lamus

  32. i always wondered why New York is the only city/state that is Nowy York in Polish, but you would never say Nowy Hampshire or Nowy Port or Nowy Jersey…

  33. By the way, has anyone of you ever heard of Tomasz Morus, Karol Linneusz, Karol Monteskiusz, Jerzy Waszyngton (I really like this one) or Wolter?

  34. Hi! I write quite late, but I always wondered the origin of word “pierscien” (ring, like in the lord of the rings). When you divide it in a half you will get piers-cien (breast-shadow) so is it a shadow of breast?! We laughed so hard on one boring lesson with friends, trying to find out THE TRUTH :D :D :D

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