Friday, February 17, 2012

Polish Proverbs - Part One

Proverbs and sayings are like psychology, sociology, history, and economics books condensed to one sentence statements that make it easy for us to remember the essence of the story. Proverbs often contain old knowledge, something that was observed to be generally true for hundreds of years, across villages and towns. It may no longer be true in our curent world, or it may have never been true in another culture or in another place, but sometimes it's eerily adequate today.

Here is a collection of proverbs and sayings that I remember from my youth. I grew up in a small town in the Mazovia region of Poland and I heard these mainly from my grandparents throughout the 1980s.

1. Kto pod kim dołki kopie ten sam w nie wpada. He who digs holes under another, falls into them himself. He who plots against somebody, falls himself the victim of that plotting.

2. Kto mieczem wojuje, od miecza ginie. He who fights with a sword, dies from a sword. This one was supposed to make you think before you use "the sword". Is it worth attacking? You may meet with retribution in kind.

3. Do odważnych świat należy. The world belongs to the brave. You must take action, or risk, to achieve something.

4. Nie święci garnki lepią. It is not the saints who glue (form or make) pots. Making pots from clay was probably seen at one time as a very complicated process, maybe almost magical. The proverb is encouraging us to believe that we - the regular folks - can do it too. It is not "the saints" (people who can make miracles) who make pots, it is people like us.

5. Lepiej z mądrym stracić niż z głupim znaleźć. It is better to lose something while in a company of a wise man, than to find something while in a company of a fool. Stay away from fools.

6. Z kim przestajesz taki się stajesz. You become like those you hang around with. Pick your friends, collegues, and in the broad sense everything around you carefully, because it will affect you. You will adjust, regardless of if you want it or not, and become like the ones you spend most time with.

7. Nie rób drugiemu co tobie nie miłe. Don't do to the other, what you don't like done to you.

8. Jak Kuba Bogu, tak Bóg Kubie. As Coby (Jacob) to God, so God to Coby.

9. Nie chciała góra przyjść do Mahometa, to musiał Mahomet pójść do góry. The mountain didn't want to come to Mahomet, so Mahomet had to go to the mountain. Sometimes you have to make the first move.

10. Upiec dwie pieczenie przy jednym ogniu. Make two roasts with one fire. A much gentler version of the English equivalent: Kill two birds with one stone. Use one event, or thing in a clever manner to achieve two goals.

11. Lepszy wróbel w garści, niż gołąb na dachu. Better a sparrow in the hand, than the pigeon on the roof. Settle for less. Having something now, even small, is better than trying to get something bigger, which is visible, but not achievable.

12. Do wesela się zagoi. It is going to heal before wedding. Usually told to a small child when he or she is crying after suffering a small injury. The said wedding is probably at least 15 years into the future, so yes, it's probably going to heal.

13. Czas leczy rany. Time heals wounds.

14. Gość w dom, Bóg w dom. A guest enters the house, the God enters the house. Treat the guest as if it was Jesus Christ himself. The source of this one is probably in the teachings of the Catholic Church. Jesus is supposed to test us by showing up as a beggar, or some other needy person, and we pass the test if we help him, not recognising him for being God.

15. Pies ogrodnika: sam nie zje i drugiemu nie da. Gardener's dog: it will not eat something, and it will not let another to eat that. Meaning: a person, who doesn't share despite that he or she has no use for the thing in question.

16. Odpłacić pięknym za nadobne. Pay back with beautiful, for the pretty. This one has a strange, ironic meaning. It is used when you do something bad to a person who did something bad to you earlier. You are paying back with an "ugly" deed, for an "ugly" deed.

17. Prawdziwych przyjaciół poznaje się w biedzie. You learn who your true friends are when you are poor (in need).

18. Z rodziną najlepiej wychodzi się na obrazku. This one is difficult to translate literally. It means something like: you look best with your family in a family picture. It is used when the family hurts you or in some other way disappoints you. You all look fine in the photo, but in reality, you aren't.

19. Z głupim się nie dyskutuje. You don't argue with a fool. It is a waste of time to argue with a fool, he won't understand you anyway.

20. Baba z wozu, koniom lżej. Old woman off the cart, the horses have it easier. Used ironically or with anger to come to terms with the fact that we lost something or someone, or that someone abandoned us.

21. Gdzie kucharek sześć, tam nie ma co jeść. Where you have six cooks (female form), there is nothing to eat. You need one boss, not six, to get things done.

22. Dla chcącego, nic trudnego. For someone who really wants, nothing is difficult.

23. Bez pracy, nie ma kołaczy. Without work, there is no sweet bread.

24. Jak sobie pościelesz, tak się wyśpisz. You will sleep well if you make your bed well. If you don't prepare, don't expect a good result.

25. Diabeł tkwi w szczegółach. The devil is in the details. Used when something looks easy at first glance, but isn't.

26. Łatwiej powiedzieć, niż zrobić. Easier said than done.

27. Ten kto daje i odbiera, ten się w piekle poniewiera. He who gives and then takes away, roams in hell. Never take away what you have given.

28. Dwa razy daje, kto szybko daje. He who gives promptly, gives twice. If you give something without hesitation, it can do more good.

29. Zastaw się, a postaw się. Take a loan, but meet put food on the table. You may need to go into debt to do what is expected from you. The thing in question that you need money for, may not be really important, it may be a matter of hosting your guest lavishly.

30. Jak się nie ma co się lubi, to się lubi co się ma. When you don't have what you like, you like what you have. Try to like what you have.

31. Zamienił stryjek siekierkę na kijek. A cousin exchanged an axe for a stick. Used when you do something stupid, especially exchange one thing for another that is cheaper.

32. Gdy się człowiek spieszy, to się diabeł cieszy. When a man makes haste, the devil is happy. Rushing things will cause something to go wrong.

33. Spiesz się powoli. Rush slowly. Don't make haste.

34. Gdyby kózka nie skakała, to by nóżki nie złamała. If the little goat had not been jumping, it would not have broken her leg. Told to a little child, when it hurts itself jumping or climbing.

35. Kochajmy się jak bracia, liczmy się jak Żydzi. Let's love each other like brothers, let's count ourselves (keep our finances) like Jews. Let's be friends, but when it comes to money let's keep it business-like, let's keep it fair, so we can stay friends. The purpose of this proverb is to remind people not to take any financial advantage of their friends.  Note: like all generalisations, negative or positive stereotyping by nationality, religion, gender, profession, etc. allows us to turn on the autopilot... and drive right into the ditch.

36. Niedaleko pada jabłko od jabłoni. Not far from the apple tree, an apple falls. Children are similar to parents. Used when the child in question does something bad, and the parent is known to be a bad person.

37. Czego Jaś się nie nauczy, tego Jan nie będzie umiał. What little Johnny doesn't learn, the big John will not know.

38. Zgoda buduje, niezgoda rujnuje. An accord builds, a discord ruins. Cooperation, compromise builds. Disagreements, quarrelling destroys, ruins. Family or neighbourly feuds had a long history in Poland. This proverb reminds that making mends and living in harmony is better than fighting.

39. Na pochyłe drzewo, każda koza skacze. Any goat can jump on a leaning tree. When something is easy, anybody can do it.

40. Nie ma dymu bez ognia. There is no smoke without a fire. When there is an effect, there must be a cause.

41. Darowanemu koniowi nie zagląda się w zęby. Don't look at teeth of a horse that you received as a gift. Be glad for any gift you receive, regardless of its value. Apparently, when buying a horse you can tell its age and health by checking the state of its teeth.

42. Jedna jaskółka nie czyni wiosny. One swallow doesn't make Spring. To be sure, sometimes you need to wait for multiple confirmations.

43. Nie od razu Kraków zbudowano. Kraków wasn't build at once. English version: Rome wasn't build in a day. Things take time, be patient.

44. Kuj żelazo póki gorące. Forge iron while it is hot. Continue promising endeavours promptly.

45. Co się odwlecze to nie uciecze. What is delayed, is not gone. Some things are inevitable. I think this one would be said by someone who was late in doing something, but wanted to assure another person that the thing in question would be done.

46. Ciasne, ale własne. Tight (small), but your own. It is better to own your house or apartment, however small it is, than to rent or share.

47. Szlachcic na zagrodzie równy wojewodzie. A noble man on his farm is equal to a statesman. Every member of mobility, and that was a relatively large class in Poland, was equal regardless of personal wealth or position. For a few centuries Poland had kings elected by nobles.

Follow-up: Polish Proverbs - Part TwoPolish Proverbs - Part Three


  1. Thanks for taking the time to post these. I heard only a couple of them growing up. Seeing them here, with their explanations, only makes me smile more.

  2. Thanks Phillip, have you seen Part Two?