By Daniel Tilles
One of the joys of learning a language is discovering its idioms. You’ll probably never use them (and most locals won’t either). But they’re often wonderfully evocative, quirky, or both. And they can tell you a lot about a country’s society, culture and history.
Here, in no particular order, is a list of six of my favourite Polish idioms. For each of them I have provided a literal English translation in brackets, followed by an explanation of what they actually mean.
Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments section below or on social media, tagging Notes from Poland in your post. We’ll try to gather together the best of your suggestions.
1. Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy (Not my circus, not my monkeys)
Meaning: Not my problem
A perennial favourite among learners of Polish, this phrase reached an even wider audience after appearing in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black.
2. Nie rób wiochy (Don’t make a village)
Meaning: Don’t be an embarrassment
This phrase reflects the strong urban-rural divide in Poland, and in particular the tendency of some more cosmopolitan city dwellers to look down on their, as they see it, more backward compatriots in the countryside.
This is a division that runs deeply through Polish culture, society and politics. Another way in which it is manifested linguistically is in the derogatory term “słoiki” (meaning “jars”), used by urbanites, especially in Warsaw, to refer to those who have moved to the big city from the provinces, often returning from visits to their family carrying jars of homemade food.
3. Co ma piernik do wiatraka? (What does gingerbread have to do with a windmill?)
Meaning: Something is irrelevant (like the English phrase: What’s that got to do with the price of fish/price of tea in China?)
While appearing wonderfully abstract, many point out that this idiom doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Originally windmills actually did have a lot to do with gingerbread: they ground the flour that was used to make it.
4. Kiełbasa wyborcza (Electoral sausage)
Meaning: A campaign promise with popular appeal
While now a metaphor, this once had a literal meaning. The phrase reportedly emerged around the turn of the 20th century in the Galicia region of what is now southern Poland, where election candidates organised large feasts, offering the electorate free sausage and vodka in return for their votes.
While sometimes likened to the phrase “pork-barrel spending”, it is slightly different. The English term has the specific meaning of getting government money for a project in a candidate’s district, whereas the Polish one often refers to a more general election promise (like cutting taxes or increasing benefits).
The cartoon below translates (roughly) as “I was the biggest populist in town until this cretin came along”.
5. Można z nim/nią konie kraść (You can steal horses with him/her)
Meaning: This is a good, trustworthy person
This was one of the first idioms I was taught when I began learning Polish but, although it sounds great, I’ve never actually heard anyone use it.
Poland has an unusually large number of horse-based idioms. One thing I’ve always loved is that the Polish version of “I could eat a horse” is “zjadłbym konia z kopytami” (I could eat a horse with hooves). As if eating a horse would be perfectly normal, but you’d only eat it with hooves if really desperate (which in fact probably was the original meaning, given that horse meat was once widely eaten in Poland).
6. Odgrzewany kotlet (Reheated cutlet)
Meaning: An old issue someone is trying to revive
This one is actually used quite a lot – for example by politicians accusing the other side of trying to make capital out of an issue that has no substance and should long have been forgotten. It has a particularly Polish feel to it given that kotlet schabowy (breaded pork cutlet) and mielony (ground beef cutlet) are such staple dishes (even in vegan form, as I wrote about here).
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.