English words that come from Poland.

Word Stories: Poland in English

3 This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode that looks at English words that came from Poland.

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Hello and welcome to the English with Stephen podcast. My name’s Stephen Greene and today we are talking about Poland.

My first ever job teaching English was in Poland. I had a great time there, met some amazing people and had the opportunity to travel around most of that wonderful country. If you ever have the chance, I would seriously recommend visiting the country.

For today’s episode, we are going to take a look at some English words that come from Poland. I have done similar episodes in the past with words that have come from Brazil and India, so if you like this episode, make sure you go to my site, EnglishwithStephen.com, where you can find links to them and all my other episodes.

So, Poland. Coming up, after this.

In a previous episode, I talked about how podcasts are great for learning English. I mentioned that one of the things you can do with a podcast is to start your own. SO today, I would like to ask you to go listen to the Rambling Rasperry podcast. It is a podcast by a Polish woman who is making the most of this excellent medium to talk about herself and practise her English. Go and give her experiment some love, you will not be disappointed. You can find her podcast by searching for XXX or I will post a link on my site EnglishwithStephen.com.

What do you think of when somebody says “Poland”? Do you think about how the country had one of the first written constitutions in the world?

Or maybe you think of how the country disappeared when it was taken over by the Prussian and Russian empires?

What about the capital Warsaw? Or the port city of Gdansk that was so influential in the Solidarity movement that helped overthrow the Communist government? Or how about Krakow, one of the most beautiful cities in the world?

No, I know what you probably think of: vodka. I did an episode that talked in detail about the word “vodka” called “Water of Life”, but in brief, the word is a diminutive of the Polish word for “water” so it kind of means “little water”. Which is cool.

Along with vodka, something else that I had a lot of during my time in Poland was “borsht”. Borsht is a type of soup made from beetroot, and it is delicious. Really, if you ever see borscht on a menu, go for it. You won’t be disappointed.

File:Borscht served.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Beetroot Soup! Mmmmm.

Another type of food from Poland that I had a lot is “pierogi”. Pierogi is a type of dumpling that can have a variety of fillings. Most of the ones I had were amazing. Incidentally, the city I live in now, Curitiba in the south of Brazil, has a lot of people who are the descendants of Polish immigrants, and you can still find pierogi for sale here in street markets and in restaurants.

Moving away from food and drink, we find the spruce tree. A spruce tree is a type of evergreen fir tree that looks like a type of pine tree. The word comes originally from Polish and means literally “from Prussia”. Prussia was part of modern Germany and was a neighbour, and not always a friendly neighbour, of Poland.

Now, where this gets interesting is that in medieval England, Prussia had reputation for producing expensive and luxurious goods. In particular, there was a type of high-quality leather called “spruce leather” because it came from Prussia. Very quickly, the word “spruce” came to be associated with anything that looks good, neat or trim. Today, for example, we can say “My bedroom is looking old and tired. I need to spruce it up a bit,” with the meaning that we need to make my bedroom look better.

spruce | Description, Species, and Uses | Britannica
A spruced up tree

Over the years, there have been many Polish scientists and inventors. The most famous is probably Nicolaus Copernicus who realised that the planet earth was not the centre of the universe and that, in fact, the earth goes around the sun. He gave his name to the Copernican Revolution that followed this insight.

The words we have looked at so far came to English directly from Polish. There are also other words that came to English via a third language. A good example of this is the word “quartz” which is a type of hard, white stone. It comes from the Polish word “kwardy” and then became “quartz” in German before moving to English. For me, the first time I saw the word “quartz” was associated with watches and clocks. These timepieces are very accurate and are governed by how the quartz rock oscillates. I tried to find out how this works, but after a few searches in the internet my head started to hurt, so I leave it up to you to discover for yourself.

Another example of a word coming from Polish to German and then to English is “horde”. Today, “horde” means a large group of people. For example, “hordes of people turned up for the free concert”. It can also be used to talk in a negative way about invaders in a military context, as in the Mongol Hordes. And this gives us a clue as to its original meaning in Polish which was for nomadic tribes who would swarm or invade an area.

And finally today, one of my favourite words ever, which is “schmuk”. This is a Yiddish word that has entered general English and means something like a stupid or a silly person. The Yiddish language is spoken by the Jewish community of central and eastern Europe and was heavily influenced by both German and Polish. A lot of this Jewish community emigrated to the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries and a lot of their words have entered English. I love the sound of the word “schmuck” as it really does seem to be a sound that suggests an idiot.

That’s about all from me for today. Don’t forget to visit my site EnglishwithStephen.com where you can find the transcript for this episode as well as photos to illustrate some of the things I have been talking about. And also don’ forget to go and check out Raspberry podcast to hear more about life in Poland from a fellow English learner.

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