The Other Poland

May 3, 2010

It’s been some time since I posted here. My computer broke down and my time online was vastly limited. I’m slowly coming back, catching up, and thinking of new stuff.

I don’t know if people know, but I have several WordPress blogs. (Must be something with the cool WordPress themes. Whenever I can’t decide on one I begin another blog!) One of them is brand new, and it’s meant to be about the Old (First) Republic of Poland that existed up to the late 18th century.

While I’m likely to ramble around the eras, I don’t mean for it to be a blog about the 19th and 20th centuries misery, but rather an attempt to show where we, as a nation, are coming from.

There was a very long time when Poles self-governed via democratic measures, and when many of our present attitudes were created. Since our history considerably differs from that in other European countries, often our present attitudes are misconstrued when being seen via the prism of those elsewhere.

I mean to begin with general stuff, like the borders, laws, the political system etc, but, in the end, I hope to focus on the society, which should explain how we see ourselves today. I want to write about women too, and how their lives differed, about our literature and culture, and about the various historical events or the lack of them. Incidentally, I think that Poland’s history is pretty uneventful, but I want to show the reasons behind it.

The blog is partly inspired by new historiography, in Poland and abroad. The way we see history of various nations is a mixture of world histories, political ideologies, and myths. Many myths about Poland are being deconstructed now. For one, because history often serves as a kind of appeasement, justification, and inspiration. Poles needed another kind of history when they fought for their independence, and they need another one now when they’re free again and they need to self-govern rather than complain. Similarly, more and more Jewish scholars turn to the Early Modern period in Poland, because the borders are open and archives are available, and because they too want to have a richer history of their nation than the short story of the Zionist movement (a pretty marginal development when one looks at the whole).  Lithuanians, too, begin to change their mind about the period, with the May 3 Constitution being now officially celebrated in both countries. Tatars, the only ancient Muslim minority in the Christian Europe, publicise their history too.

Revisionism in the domain is not limited to Poland. There are Brits who take a Whiggish or non-Whiggish approach for example, but it’s a new thing for Poland, and in a way more fascinating, because, while in the West only people’s motives are revised, the entire shape of Europe is being changed here, as well as various nations’ role in it.

In other words, what happens nowadays is a very interesting development in the academic approach to Poland’s history, with a broader and more impartial view than what was done before. It’d be a shame to miss it!

Go to Res Publica to read more.

It’s something I’ve been wondering about for some time. There’s an argument about the double standard based on the language and custom. I.e. while there are words denigrating women – comparing them to prostitutes – there are no male equivalents.

It’s not true, at least not in Polish. While a man may aspire to having many women, and other men may envy him, women and some other men may call him words. I’ve seen it done many times, and those words aren’t new, which means it was done in the past, long before women were granted equal rights. Moreover, those words tend not to have their female equivalents, so their target were always men.

Some of the mildest ones are bawidamek and flirciarz.

Bawidamek is someone who entertains the ladies, or rather too many of them. It’s not yet said that he sleeps with them, but his judgement is scorned for lack of discernment. At the same time the word is a diminutive, which is condescending in itself.

Flirciarz means ‘flirt’, and this one has a female equivalent flirciara. Both denote the same kind of behaviour, however, I think it’s less scornful in case of a woman. She is only not serious in her feelings and may be deceiving men without giving them anything, while he is laughed at for taking too much effort and lowering himself to a level a real man would not stoop to. Words like donżuan from Don Juan, and kasanowa from Casanova can have the same meaning.

Pochlebca – flatterer – deprecates for lack of dignity. Its female form pochlebczyni is rarely used if ever.

Alfons – pimp – is a really harsh one, and its diminutive alfonsik is pure derision.

Then there are these that are counted on undermining a man’s sexuality and potency directly.

Lowelas from Lovelace – the fallen hero of Richardson’s “Clarissa” – took on its own life in Polish. Clearly the rapist was laughed at here, as to be called a lowelas in Poland means to be an impotent, indolent libertine. A man who brags of his contests and fancies to be very successful with women, but in fact both his contests and prowess are imaginary. Lowelas is a ridiculous fop no woman would ever go to bed with. Likely Poles assumed that if Lovelace were a man he wouldn’t have to stoop to rape in order to have sex at all.

Which also brings another interesting notion to mind. There are no sexual predators in the Polish classical literature (or at least I really cannot think of one Pole abusing a woman in a Polish novel, drama or poem from the 18th or 19th century), while there are plenty of them in the English one.

Jebaka is a man who has sex for sex’s sake. That is one who’ll engage in a sexual intercourse with about anything.

Gawędziarz-jebaka is a mixture of jebaka and lowelas. A man who has sexual adventures one would rather not hear about and they exist only in his own tales.

Przydupas – ‘near one’s arse’. That’s a truly sore case – a man taken by a woman in order to provide her sexual satisfaction. This one shows that the double standard might not be as universal. For example two contemporaries – Maria Walewska and Stanisław August Poniatowski, king of Poland – were met with an exactly opposite treatment. Maria Walewska is a national heroine for becoming Napoleon’s mistress, Stanisław August is Poland’s disgrace for becoming a przydupas of Catherine the Great. Walewska’s story is romanticised, Stanislaw August – well, Poles didn’t even want to bury him properly, and that in Poland speaks volumes. Even though the king is applauded for many other things. We never speak of the tsarina as the king’s lover. It’s always he who submitted himself to her.

Kochaś – although generally meaning ‘love stricken’ can also be used in the sense of przydupas.

Utrzymanek is a male equivalent of ‘kept mistress’.

The above three are fairly often used by women gossiping among themselves, so men, beware!

Finally there’s also męska prostytutka – male prostitute. This phrasal noun, although not a diminutive, is especially denigrating by not granting men the male form of it. In Polish, where every word can have either its male or female form it’s not a problem to call a man of this profession simply prostytut. Yet this female form doesn’t allow men to escape any of the connotations the word might carry in reference to woman.

All the above words refer to the image of proper masculinity. True, a man could have even 10 lovers, but he should be at least discreet about it, and a contest alone is not enough – he should show some discernment, because the choice of his lovers speaks about him.  He should not allow a woman to use him without being offered at least partnership, and his courtship should be limited to one woman at once. He should also be able to provide for himself. Otherwise a man becomes a boy, is emasculated, and his dignity and reputation suffer.

I don’t encourage anyone to undermine men’s masculinity, but, for example, lowelas is an archetype in the Polish literature. Pumpkin from Aleksander Fredro’s “Zemsta” (The Revenge) is so famous a character that when Andrzej Wajda proposed the role to Roman Polański he accepted it at once.

Are there English equivalents? What do they mean and how are they supposed to be offensive? Is the image of man the same? And why on earth the English invented the archetype of sexual predator? Even vampires and aliens are sexual predators in the Anglo-Saxon culture. Whenever English speaking people talk about libertines they put emphasis on any promiscuous sex, including rapists as well. How the word came to be so misconstrued?

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In answer to Pinolona in the thread My Friend Is Not My Przyjaciel I wrote so much about the differences between znajomy, kolega and przyjaciel, that it called for its own post rather than a reply in a comments’ thread. I’ve been trying to find a good analogy, because the words aren’t the same species. So let’s compare them to cloths.

Przyjaciel is like one’s shirt – “close to your body”. The word jaźń means ego, self, so przy-jaźń is “near your self”, and ciało is body, flesh, so przy-ja-ciel is “the body near your self”. In Polish it’s really safer to think of friendship as a love without the sexual aspect, because it encompasses all of its elements, with the exception of eros.

Kolega is like all of the cloths of the same kind. All shirts, skirts or all trousers, or sometimes an intermediate between them, i.e. if someone fancies that kilts are either like skirts or trousers. So it can be anyone with whom one’s on equal terms in some domain. It can be friendship – the equality of minds, but it can be school, work etc. When a parent says to his 14 years old daughter “zaproś kolegów” he means that she should invite her schoolmates – people in the same age. If an 18 year old boy shows up the father might say the boy is too old to be her kolega. However, at work age doesn’t matter, so one can say koledzy z pracy, or address them all as Koleżanki i koledzy meaning Ladies and Gentlemen in reference to the narrow group. Kolega po fachu is someone doing the same kind of job, no matter where. Every translator all over the world is Pinolona’s kolega po fachu even if she doesn’t know them.

Znajomi is like all cloths, no matter their kind. When one uses znajomi in plural it’s because one’s koleżanki and koledzy rarely are from the same group. I.e. one can go to the movies with three people: one from one’s school, one from work, and one – a private friend. The first would be kolega ze szkoły, the second koleżanka z pracy, and the third just koleżanka or even przyjaciółka, but they can’t be all grouped as trousers or skirts. And there’s always a chance that one of them brings someone new, and then one wouldn’t call him kolega at all. On the other hand one would say that one went there with koledzy ze szkoły. In this case one doesn’t even need to like them all. They just happen to go to the same school.

Znajomy is also anyone one barely knows. If a lady who sells obwarzanki tells me a story, and I repeat the story to someone else, I’ll say that znajoma sprzedawczyni told me…

Literally znajomy means “someone I know”.

All three have their verbs. One can poznać, zakolegować się or zaprzyjaźnić się with someone else. There’s also zaznajomić się that is rarely used in reference to people, although would be well understood. It usually means that one learns the content of something, a book for example. One can “zaznajomić się z tematem” meaning one knows what a topic is about, without necessarily going into any detailed knowledge. The English equivalent is familiarize. Poznać kogoś means to get to know someone, without stating the level of the knowledge. Zakolegować się means to create an equal relationship on a certain level. Zaprzyjażnić się means to become friends, and must include liking the other person, not just knowing him or her.

The word znajomy doesn’t hint on one’s closeness to the person at all. It can be one’s best friend as well as someone one met only once. One’s hairdresser is one’s znajoma, as well as one’s mother’s neighbour, and someone one has known for years and been close to, and one’s lover can be one’s znajomy too. The use of the word depends not only on one’s relationship with the person who is the subject of the conversation, but also on one’s relationship with the person one is talking to. It’s a defence against “kiss and tell”, or “too much information”, because if you’re speaking to someone you barely know you don’t really want to inform them that this guy is your lover, and that girl is your life enemy. You simply conceal the relationship and the emotional part of it, because it’s an umbrella word that can mean either your pants or your overcoat.

When talking to a stranger one uses the word znajomy most often, and defines the various relationships referred to more narrowly only when one wishes to or feels safe to do that. When someone asks you where did you get that great painting from, you say that your znajomy is a painter. Now, it’s Poland, so it means that znajomi znajomych do favours to each other, but one can refuse a znajomy, while one would never refuse a przyjaciel, so you say znajomy because you don’t want to hear in the next sentence “Super! Możesz mi taki załatwić?” (Great! Can you get me one?) If you said przyjaciel there’d be no return. Znajomy gives you the buffer, so you can come up with a white lie, and say you don’t know the painter that well, and it was given to you in return for some favour or on some special occasion etc. Or even you can suggest to ask the painter how much a painting like that would cost. Something you wouldn’t propose between two przyjaciele, because money in friendship is a taboo. However, even from your kolega the person you’re talking to would expect some discount. Otherwise one can go to a gallery and just buy one. And if they ever discover they didn’t receive a discount they’ll consider it your failure. So znajomy is safer for all purposes, especially with people who assume their own relationship with you is closer than you think it is.

Yet, if the person you’re speaking of is present you’ll use kolega, because you won’t pretend you don’t know them. That of course refers only to people with whom you’re on first name terms. Pan/Pani means a deference existing, no matter one’s age, genre, or common work. You’ll always call him znajomy, and you’ll always speak of him in his presence as Pan Tadeusz, Pan Kowalski etc. Note also that we use koleżanka instead of using the first name. I.e. when I’m talking to Pani Kowalska about my friend Małgosia who stands beside us, I’ll use koleżanka instead of Małgosia or I’ll add Pani before her name, because Pani Kowalska is not on first name basis with either of us. It doesn’t matter much when one’s very young, and so one’s addressed by their first name by everyone anyway, but it begins to matter with time, when one begins their professional career and doesn’t want to be addressed in a too familiar way anymore.

Then there are the stages of narrowing the meaning. Per rule Poles won’t narrow it if they can help it. So znajomy is safer than kolega, and kolega is safer than przyjaciel. However, there are situations when one has to narrow it like the one above. And most likely a good friend will always be called koleżanka in a conversation with another friend, although she might be dubbed znajoma in a conversation with a stranger.

The word przyjaciel is used when the conversation calls for giving your motivation. I.e. you say that you’re tired, but your znajomy throws a party and you have to go. Someone asks whether you can refuse, and you say no, he’s my przyjaciel. You might never call him that in other circumstances, and he may be even unaware that you consider him your przyjaciel, but in this case this one word is enough for all of the reasons why you can’t refuse. If he’s not your przyjaciel, but you have other reasons, you’d say that he’s your good kolega and he helped you in other circumstances, and you know that he really cares that you came, so you need to go. You don’t want to disappoint him. That takes much longer, but if he’s not your przyjaciel, you need to have other motivation in order to put yourself under the torture.

The narrowing stages are:

  • znajoma sprzedawczyni is a seller you know – you know her only as a seller, but not privately
  • znajoma ze sklepu is a seller with whom you’ve had some private chats, but you still know her mostly as a seller
  • znajoma, która pracuje w sklepie is someone you know privately and happens to work in a store – your relationship can be slight, or she can be your best friend, you keep the person you’re speaking with in the dark
  • koleżanka ze studiów is someone you know from your university, but you don’t say how well, and you can always call her znajoma ze studiów as well; koleżanka suggests that she’s at least your fellow student, while znajoma could be a secretary from the rector’s office
  • koleżanka alone is someone you know privately, and you hint that she’s closer than znajoma or koleżanka z… but still leave some details unsaid
  • so koleżanka, która pracuje w sklepie can help you find some great stuff but she doesn’t need to be your dobra koleżanka
  • bardzo dobra koleżanka is practically a friend for all purposes only that you don’t use the word przyjaciółka, and usually she’d be called just koleżanka anyway, but you can say it when you want to add your motivation and still avoid the word przyjaciółka
  • and przyjaciółka is the word used rarely, either to add motivation to your choices, to tell a story about your special relationship, or to let your best friend know that you consider her your best friend, but overusing it is like bragging, and your friend may not wish to be bragged about; it’s especially tricky when your friend is of the opposite gender and your repeating that he’s your przyjaciel to others can ruin his love life designs along with your friendship

A stranger who sees you with someone else will refer to her as your koleżanka, without assuming any closer relationship. If a stranger sees you with a man and speaks of him as Twój chłopak, it means he crosses the line, unless he saw the two of you kissing. Saying przyjaciel would be only one step less, but still too much.

However, people who are in a love relationship are usually open about it, so you could call your boyfriend mój chłopak even while talking to a stranger, and certainly you should do that while talking to people you know better. He might take offence if he ever learns you did not, assuming that you downplay the relationship.

Here Polish is short, because it lacks the English word partner in reference to people living together. While the words partner or partnerka can be used in this meaning, it might be confusing, because partner can mean a partner in business, dance or sex. It’s the same as in English, but I think that English is more accustomed to the use of the word in the meaning of concubinage than Polish is. People will often say narzeczony or narzeczona (fiancé or fiancée) no matter whether they’re engaged, or even mąż or żona (husband or wife) when they’re not married.

The first can be done in a humorous way while talking to friends even when the two people don’t live together, but the latter is used only while talking to strangers. Similarly to the case with znajomy it’s a simple way to define one’s relationship without going into details. I.e. a man can say that his wife will be home to deal with everything in his name, meaning she has all of the permissions needed, without explaining whether they’re legally married or not and why. When you rent a room for a weekend in mountains and the hostess asks if the man is your husband it’s not to make sure you two are one flesh in the eyes of God, only to ask you whether she should put you in a double bed without enquiring whether you’re actually shagging the man.

The narrower words are used more often when someone wants to scorn you. “Ale z Ciebie przyjaciółka!” means that someone considers you have no right to refuse. “Ale z Ciebie koleżanka!” means that someone thinks you haven’t played fair. “To mają być przyjaciele!?” means that a third party thinks that you invested in those people much more than they deserve. “Koledzy!” said with derision, means that they’re mean pigs who tell on you to your boss.

Generally Poles aren’t very eager to familiarize too quickly, because once they do there’s no return. It’s just safer to take the longer path. One can always become one’s przyjaciel later, but one cannot revert to being his znajomy without becoming his enemy. Similarly, while talking to someone else they don’t open all of their cards at once. They wait and see how much they want to tell.

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The Polish Cabaret is something entirely different than the French one. It’s more like Monty Python or Rowan Atkinson’s stage shows. It’s full of cultural references and it’s a commentary on politics and the society. Poles love laughing at themselves, and approximately 90% of jokes are at their own expense.

Although it’s not easy to translate something so culturally specific, Maciej Stuhr’s “Lektor” should be understood to anyone who knows even very little of Polish.

Lektor in itself is particular. The majority of foreign films in Polish TV are neither subtitled or dubbed, but read aloud by a ‘lektor’.

This show parodies the fact that English swearing words tend to be omitted in translation, which, in itself, is a curious cultural occurrence, since Poles are much more lenient in censuring sex and nudity than Americans or even Brits, but much more strict when it comes to curses and violence.

(In case you need a translation from Polish it’s provided below.)


– This show is dedicated to translators of dialogues in American movies.

– Brooklyn, NY, 11:48 pm.

– Gosh, man!

– What the heck are you doing here?

– Not your snotty business.

– Silence, silence!

– Go away.

– Terefere.*

– Terefere you too.

– &*V@! The text is unreadable.

* Terefere dudki is something children say in a silly banter about who’s right or wrong. Perhaps an English equivalent would be when someone puts one’s hands against one’s ears, saying “I can’t hear you”.


Last summer my American friend visited me in Poland. Eight months later I learnt that there occurred a misunderstanding between us that quite spoilt both her fun and her trust in me.

We sat in a small restaurant in Białowieża when I translated from Polish my short conversation with a waitress:

– What will you have?

– Pancakes for me and a salad for my colleague.

ingres_d_henrietteharveyandelizabetMy friend asked why I didn’t call her “my friend”, to which I began explaining the difference between przyjaciółka and koleżanka in the Polish language, and as it appeared just now I quite failed in it.

Thankfully I found this post at Polish Blog that quite proved my innocence, but I could lose a friend over a language incompatibility.

Poles almost never use the words przyjaciel or przyjaciółka, but all dictionaries translate them as friend – a word used in English so liberally it almost means nothing.

There are only three people I’d call my przyjaciele in an intuitive way: a girl whom I’ve known from sandbox (longer than my conscious memory ranges in fact), a classmate from my primary school and a girl who’s a year older but also from my primary school. All three are closer to me than 99% of the people I’m related to.

There was one more person but he got scratched from the list some ten years ago.

Then there are the people I met in lyceum out of whom two might be called my przyjaciele at one point, but one got scratched from the list some ten years ago as well. So the overall list consists in 4 names.

When in my 20s I met another boy who might be called my friend, but since I’ll never have an opportunity to go with him through so much as with the others I apply the word much more carefully.

And then there is my American friend with whom I’m very close, and we’ve been talking on IM daily for several years now, and yet I called her koleżanka.

In truth, due to our frequent communication, for several years I’ve been closer with my American friend than the remaining five Poles, but a Pole needs several years to even apply the word przyjaciel. When I go to cinema with my przyjaciółka and her boyfriend, I’ll say that I went there with znajomi (acquaintances) even though I’ve known her boyfriend for years and I like him a lot. We just don’t use the word so easily.

Moreover, people don’t usually say that someone is their przyjaciel while talking to strangers, so even if I sat in the Białowieża restaurant with my childhood przyjaciele I’d still use the word koledzy. Przyjaźń is an intimate relationship, even though platonic, so boasting of it to strangers is like boasting of sex.

There are also other aspects. For a man to call a girl his przyjaciółka implies that there’s more than just friendship between them, and although he can do that to emphasise the existance of a deep friendship, most likely he’d have to add tylko przyjaciólka – nothing more than a friend, or people would assume there’s a sexual relationship as well. Some men call their female friends by the masculine przyjaciel in order to avoid the confusion.

My American friend took it to heart, as apparently it’s offensive not to be called a friend by someone who’s close to you. I made an impression of a person who wants to keep her at a distance. At the same time, the majority of Poles will thank you for not calling them your przyjaciele. It just comes with such a huge responsibility people don’t want the burden apart from very few exceptions. It’s more than a loan, it’s like usury. You get a lot of dough, but you may be sure you’ll never be able to pay back.

Why then dictionaries translate such a loaded word into English as something used so commonly as “friend”? If I didn’t learn the word as such back in my teen years I’d never make the blunder. It should be said that the word doesn’t have an English equivalent, while friend should be translated as kolega/koleżanka which it really is. In English one can’t call too many people one’s friends, in Polish one can’t call przyjaciel too few of them.

And don’t even get Poles started on the word ‘love’!


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