Language curiosities – Polish idioms

Writing articles about Polish language always fills me up with joy. I love discovering my foreign students’ perception of the Polish language structure. On the grounds, I decided to explain merely a few Polish idioms. I would love to boost my student’s awareness of using Polish idioms.  Mysteries of communication lie in the right choice of idioms especially in everyday speech. I remember the words of my English teacher at High school: speaking another language is like having another soul. Nowadays, when I am also a teacher of Polish as a foreign language, I can’t deny it isn’t true. Moreover, the language along with history, art, culture is also an inextricable component of national heritage.

Polish is indeed a language particularly rich in idioms. Without them it would lose much of its specificity and humour. Those figurative expressions distinctive to Polish language frequently defy logical and grammatical rules. Sometimes, to understand  the meaning behind an idiom one has to know its etymology. Idioms mostly stem back from The Bible (like for example: manna z nieba, judaszowe srebrniki or siedem plag egipskich); others originate from Greek and Roman mythology (example: syzyfowa praca, stajnia Augiasza). The history and tradition also affect languages. Everybody has heard of the famed Cesar’s words he said, crossing the river of Rubicon: alea iacta est – kości zostały rzucone. Sometimes, foreigners come across a very popular idiom i.e.  mieć z kimś na pieńku. It refers to a punishment that was imposed on students for disobedience.

For those who have a thirst for knowledge I availed myself to include some examples of idioms from Polish literature. Polish poems along with novels are full of wonderful examples. From Słowacki’s works: nie czas żałować różgdy płoną lasy or from Żeromski – ogary poszły w las.

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For the purposes of this article I would like to focus on merely a few most popular Polish idioms. In my opinion, a sound knowledge of etymology of idioms can help my foreign students to become better speakers. They take a step towards fluency by using idioms in everyday communication without any hesitation. Forget about obsolete idioms which many native speakers find alien. Below you will find my list of the top 10 Polish idioms including their meanings and etymologies:

Mieć z kimś na pieńku – we can use this idiom when we argue with someone. What is pieniek (a stump of a tree) and why do Polish people use it in this idiom? Back in the days there was a popular habit taking place in schools and on farms. When a pupil,  a student or a slave did something wrong, then the teacher, headteacher or the land owner would use a stump of a tree and would impose a  corporal punishment.

Example: Mam na pieńku z moim szefem – I argue with my boss or more figuratively “I am at loggerheads with my boss”

Wyjść na czymś jak Zabłocki na mydle – we can use it when we make something without benefits or when we  incur a loss. Who is Zabłocki and why do you have him in the idiom? Cyprian Zabłocki (1792 – 1868) was an owner of a noble manor house. He produced soap that was sold across Europe. Once, to avoid paying taxes he hid his cargo from Prussian customs and dragged it behind the boat immersed in water. Those boxes were supposed to be water resistant but they weren’t. He didn’t pay the tax but then again the whole soap dissolved in water during the travel.

Examle: Wyszedłem na tym projekcie jak Zabłocki na mydle –This project was profitless.

Cisza jak makiem zasiał – if you arrive to a very silent place then you can say:  Jest tu cisza jak makiem zasiał. Why is mak/ poppy seed used in this idiom? Did you know that a poppy seed has a sleeping effect and it works as a drug? This is the reason why poppy seed is linked with silence.

Poszło jak z płatka – if you make something very fast without a great deal of effort then this idiom would be in place.

Example – I finished this project quickly and without much effort – Skończyłam ten project szybko /poszło mi jak z płatka”.  

What kind of płatek is meant in this idiom? There are a few meanings behind the word płatek (flake and petal) Is it the flake or the petal? It is neither of them. In the past women especially those living in villages wore large shawls to cover their heads and shoulders. Oftentimes, they used them to carry their children or other things. To make money those women would go to the town’s market to sell their goods such as milk, butter, cheese, eggs etc. When they sold it very fast then they would have said: poszło jak z płatka as they kept those products in the shawl (płatek).

Ogary poszły w las – the meaning of this Polish idiom is similar to Cesar’s words: alea iacta est /kości zostały rzucone/ the die is cast. We use it when something irreversible has happened.

Example: we took on this project and set the deadline for it. So basically, ogary poszły w las.

What is an “ogar” and why is it used in this idiom? The word originates from hunting. “Ogar” is a typical hunting dog which hunts animals like hares or foxes in the forest by scent. The dogs were unleashed before the hunting. Usually hunters were waiting for the hares or other animals to be driven to the glade.

Sam jak palec – this idiom is used to describe a lonely person. Why alone like a finger? Nowadays, the meaning of “palec” is different than it was in the past because now it means a finger. Back in the days people would call palec only one finger – a thumb. Every hand has got only one thumb therefore you are as lonely as a thumb in a literal translation.

Nie wywołuj wilka z lasu – in Polish folk tradition a wolf was always a symbol of evil and danger. People believed that every wolf heralds misfortune. So it is not surprising that when you want to warn someone to be careful lest something despicable should happen than you say: “Nie wywołuj wilka z lasu”. English version for this idiom is: don’t tempt fate. (let the sleeping dogs lie)

Rzucać grochem o ścianę – this idiom is a result of observation of everyday life. If you throw peas againts the wall, nothing changes. The wall will not break. The same situation happens when you want to  explain something to your student but he doesn’t listen: You could as well throw peas against the wall and it would have no effect. In this situation an English person would say; My teaching falls on deaf ears.

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The purpose of my article was to draw attention to idioms as a crucial aspect of a foreign language acquisition. The amount of idioms used in languages and their frequency in a discourse make them an important part of vocabulary. I remember one story which was being told by one of my Danish students about their idioms. Plenty of them have got their roots in Andersen’s fairy tales. If you want to speak Danish language – he said –  start your adventure from going back to your childhood when your mum read to you stories about The Snow Queen, The Swineherd, The Little Match – Seller and so on. It shows the idioms are part of the heritage of every country. During my Polish class I propose the dialogues in pairs and try to write role – play dialogues which provide situations for learners to practice  ordinary conversation. An ample practice in safe environment in the class amongst  classmates offer them opportunities to act out before encountering the real world. Thus, practice oral skill through role – play is a very useful method of teaching. It should be dynamic lest students get weary from studying. It should incorporate slow and steady implementation of new vocabulary, giving adjusted materials and monitoring progress of your students. It helps them be more competitive, increases their vocabulary and improves their informal language skills.

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