Singulare et plurale tantum

Some words come only in plural. Here’s a list of some of them in English. This phenomenon is called plurale tantum. For example, “scissors” or “jeans”. In Polish it’s the same. There’s no door but rather “doors” — drzwi. Same with “birthday”, urodziny, or with holidays, ferie, a phenomenon that also appears in German (ferien), or skrzypce, “violin”. There’s many examples, can you come up with some?

What happens when you want to say “two doors”? You can say that — you just have to choose the correct “two” to use. In these cases, it will be the collective two: dwoje drzwi, dwoje skrzypiec (with the genitive, because the collective form always takes genitive).

There’s also singulare tantum, for terms only appearing in singular. Like “information”, “news” or “milk”. Often these are uncountable nouns. A typical mistake among Spanish-speaking people is to use “news” as a countable noun, “I have two news” — that’s because in Spanish, noticia is countable. In Polish, wiadamość is also countable.

Sometimes a word can be used both in both singular or plural, but then the meaning is different. In Spanish (at least in some regions) the plural lentes means “glasses”, but the singular lente means lens. Conversely, you typically say gente, “people”, but you can say gentes, “peoples” in some specific contexts — similarly (but not quite) as in English. (For another fun example to compare English/Spanish, consider “water(s)”/agua(s)). In Polish, glasses (lentes) are okulary, which are also plurale tantum. A lens (lente) is soczewka — which has appeared in this blog before.

We see that sometimes the plurale/singulare tantum carries across European languages, but sometimes not quite. Here’s a phenomenon that doesn’t happen in Spanish or English because of the lack of cases. If I want to decline a word, I need to know its gender, which in the case of plural it’s divided between “male” and “not-male” (the only distinction in plural). It’s often not obvious. You just have to know it. In the case of names of locations which occur in plural, it can even confuse native speakers. Should I say człowiek z Borków or człowiek z Borek, to mean “a person from Borki”? (It’s Borków.) I got this example of a book I got not long ago and of which I’m very proud: Etymological dictionary of cities and boroughs in the People’s Republic of Poland.

Dogs, more geese, and little bears

Words with animal etymologies have appeared here quite often: in fact, the last three posts contain hens, kites, and geese (all birds, actually). Let’s now look at three other words with animal connections.

First, psiakość, literally “dog’s bone”. This is just a swearword. Variations include psiakrew “dog’s blood” and psiamać “dog’s mother” (though using an old word for mother, mać, which is also how “mother” is said in Russian nowadays). Less common (though still in the dictionary) is psiajucha, “dog’s blood”, again, but using a word reserved for animal blood, jucha. It’s perhaps not surprising to see dogs featuring in swearwords, since many languages use “son of a bitch” as a common insult.

Then we have gąsior. Geese make another appearance in this blog, then, but this time it’s not about getting attention, rather about alcohol. Indeed, if gąsior can mean just “male goose”, it’s also a demijohn, presumably because of the shape of the bottle’s neck, akin to the goose’s.

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Demijohn is also a funny English word in its own right. The origin comes from French, dame-jeanne, literally Lady-Jane. Note that in French it’s a female name, “Jane”, which got into English as its male counterpart, “John”. The reason for the name Jane appearing in the original French word is not too flattery: “emploi humoristique du prénom féminin Jeanne p. allus. à la forme rebondie de cette bouteille”, namely, it’s a humorous allusion to the round shape of the bottle. Dame-jeanne got imported into other languages in more faithful ways: damajuana in Spanish, damigiana in Italian, damajoana in Catalan. All these being closely related Latin languages, this is perhaps not surprising, but we also find the term in other, farther languages: damešaani in Finnish, дамаджа̀на in Bulgarian, demizson in Hungarian and demižon in Czech, for example. It’s curious that the word appears in Czech but not in Polish, given the proximity.

And last but not least, widzimisię is a very cute word meaning “whim” or “caprice”. For some reason, English doesn’t have a special word for this type of whim, typically associated with pregnant women’s (but not only), whereas for example in Spanish you have antojo or capricho, whose roots are the same as for “caprice”, but the meaning is different. In Polish you have also zachcianka in common use for the same notion.

So why is the word cute? Well, because it sounds like “sees little bears”. The word miś also doesn’t have a good translation into English, though it seems to feature in many Slavic languages. It’s something like “a cute small friendly bear”. Not necessarily a plush toy, as in “teddy bear”, though it will also be used in that case. Anyway, a nice little word, and an undeclinable one, at that: all cases in both singular and plural are widzimisię. The origin is likely unrelated to bears, though. First of all, because if it was literally “sees little bears” it would be widzimisie, without the little tail (often unpronounced at the end of a word). And second, because one can separate the word as widzi mi się, “it seems to me”.

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Film poster for the Polish cult classic film from 1980


Swearwords are a staple of sorts for a given language. You may not know French but know “merde”, or not know Italian but know “che cazzo” or “va fan culo”. The Polish culture having less presence in its Western counterparts, this phenomenon is less likely to occur with Polish in Western languages, but I have met people who knew a single Polish word: “kurwa”.

As is often the case with swearwords, the word has many usages. It can mean “whore”, so unsurprisingly it can be used as an insult, but it can also be used to swear: o kurwa, is like “oh, shit”. It also very commonly used as a filler word, akin to “like”. It’s not uncommon to hear people utter many kurwas per sentence: among some people, this has a connotation of lack of culture or good manners. Finally, it’s also used to give emphasis: co ty, kurwa, robisz?, “what the fuck are you doing?”

Since among many people it’s considered impolite to use the word, there are ways to use it in disguise, just like “shoot” for “shit”, “mince” for “merde” in French or “miércoles” for “mierda” in Spanish. You can say kurczę (chicken), kurde, kurdesz (no other meaning)… there are many variations.

Now, the etymology of the word always intrigued me. It would seem to have the same root as “curve”, or “curva” in Spanish, for example. And what do curves have to do with prostitutes?

It turns out this is a red herring: the similarity is a coincidence. The word already features in Proto-Slavic (a reconstructed language), and its original meaning seems to have been “hen” or “moorhen”.

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So we see that the polite version of kurwa which is kurczę (chicken) has in modern Polish a close meaning to the one that kurwa originally had in Slavic languages.

Given that the etymology of the word goes so far back in time, it is not surprising to find it in most of the Slavic languages: Russian, Czech, Slovak, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Macedonian. But, interestingly, it also spread to other non-Slavic languages which are geographically close to them: Lithuanian, Hungarian, Romanian, Albanian.

Rain and dżdż

One of the first words that I really liked in Polish is dżdżownica — an earthworm. I never really wondered about its etymology, and today it appeared again out of the blue.

I stumbled upon the word dżdżysty — another funny word, which means “drizzly”. It turns out both words are related. In fact, it seems all Polish words starting with dżdż are related to each other, and what unites them is rain. Indeed, earthworms come out when it rains!

The word for rain is deszcz, so what’s going on? As it turns out, deszcz comes from deżdż — which up to the 15th century was the common word for “rain”. The linguistic phenomenon this word underwent is called ubezdźwięcznienie — devoicing.

In fact, the word deżdż survives today — in its declinations! It seems many people are unaware of this, but the word dżdżu is the genitive form of deżdż. It appears in sayings: pragnąć jak kania dżdżu, “to long for the rain like a kite”. Don’t confuse your kites: we’re talking about the bird, here. (For double the confusion, kania can also mean a type of edible mushroom — a “parasol mushroom”!)

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So how do you say “drizzle”, then? Well, mżawka. The word deżdż, undeclined, is not in use anymore. Actually… the word dżdża took its place (which is female instead of male), though it seems nobody really uses it or knows about it.

To finish this post, let me mention another related word bird. The kania like the drizzle, so do the earthworms/dżdżownice… And who eats the dżdżownice? The dżdżownik! (a kind of plover):

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Acting like a grey goose

Here’s a reflexive verb I found very funny: szarogęsić się, which literally would translate as: to grey goose yourself.

I had no idea what that could mean. It turns out it means to act bossy; to order people around, especially when unwarranted; to (attempt to) become the centre of attention.

The same Wiktionary page teaches me that it comes from the saying rządzić się jak szara gęś. The reflexive verb rządzić się has two possible translations. The root is the noun rząd, which can mean “government”. The first, more literal, translation of the verb would then be “to govern oneself, to manage one’s affairs”. The second meaning is something like “to boss around”. That’s the one in usage here.

But what’s up with grey geese? A dictionary of sayings leads me to this explanation:

The comparison is based on an accurate observation of nature – contrary to stereotypes, geese are intelligent birds, their extraordinary mind abilities is the reason why domestic geese so often cause man a lot of trouble – they go where we do not want them to go. “I didn’t invite you to our house to rule like a grey goose.”


It’s also the name of a fancy French vodka:


Characterizing your “thanks”

In English, the most standard ways of thanking consist of variations of the word “thanks”. You can say thanks, thank you, thanks a lot, thank you very much. You can thank sincerely, honestly, kindly or warmly…

In Polish, it’s similar. “Thanks” would be dzięki. The verb is dziękować (which you can in fact use, like that, without conjugation, as “thank you”, though this usage is informal). You can thank with a conjugation of this verb: dziękuję (I thank you), dziękujemy (we thank you, in case you’re speaking for a group of people, e.g. when talking to a waiter at a restaurant).

You can add an adverb to your thanks, and that was the motivation to write this post, because some of them stroke me as funny when I first heard them. The most common is bardzo, as in dziękuję bardzo — this just means “a lot”. Here’s a list of some other ones I’ve heard:

bardzo — a lot
serdecznie — sincerely
uprzejmie — politely
ślicznie — lovely, cutely
pięknie — beautifully (then it’s usually pięknie dziękuję, with order inverted)

All of these can be used with dzięki as well. In this case you can also use wielkie dzięki, great thanks. They’re all pretty common.


Don’t sit on concrete, you’ll get the wolf!

It was a hot summer day and my legs were itching from too many mosquito bites. I went to a pharmacy and bought some cream to alleviate the itchiness. I wanted to apply it right away, so as soon as I left the store I looked around for a bench to sit down. Not finding any, I sat down on some concrete steps on the street.

I started applying the ointment, hoping it would work right away. A lady passed by and remarked — don’t do that, it’s bad for your health!

It left me puzzled. Maybe she thought it’s not good to treat insect bites like that?

It turns out she was referring to the fact that I was sitting on concrete. The saying goes, nie siadaj na betonie, bo dostaniesz wilka! Which literally translates to “don’t sit on concrete, you’ll get a/the wolf!” The belief is that sitting on concrete (or on any cold surface, in general) is bad for you. Some people associate it to a bladder infection. Others talk about hemorrhoids, which gives one possible explanation for the etymology which I’ve found online: wolves bite you from behind…. just like hemorrhoids. But I haven’t found any reliable source on the etymology of the phrase.

Another related belief is that you cannot sit in the ground until ziemia jest ogrzmiana — until the earth has been hit with a thunder. The idea is that thunders mark the beginning of spring, so it means that the earth is warm again and you can safely sit on the ground.

If you google dostać wilka (to get the wolf) you’ll see several internet memes appearing. One seems to be a picture taken somewhere:


The legend says: “Please don’t sit on the little wall/parapet (because you can catch the wolf)”. The word “murek” is the diminutive of “mur” which means “wall”. The usage is very similar to Spanish: wall is “muro”, and “murito”, the diminutive of “wall”, covers the same concept as “murek” which doesn’t seem to have a good incarnation in English.

Cotton and wool

The Polish words for these two fabrics are very similar: wool is wełna and cotton is bawełna. I could never remember which one is which. Then I realized this trick:

If you know some German, you may realize that both words are very similar to their counterparts in that language. Indeed, wełna is wolle and bawełna is baumwolle. And the latter is literally “tree wool” — makes sense! In Polish, the words come from German, but the connection to trees gets lost, as tree is drzewo which is not obviously related to baum.

At any rate, if I think bawełna, I now think baumwolle, hence baum, hence tree, so it’s cotton.

When I started writing the post I realized that one can also just use English: wełna also looks like wool, so that one’s wool and the other one is cotton. But the nice explanation of the origin of “ba-” gets lost along the way.

To finish, a small note: in Czech, cotton is bavlna. Since in Czech they use “v” for the sound that the Poles and Germans denote by “w”, it’s less easy to realize that bavlna is related to baumwolle, than if you start from the Polish counterpart bawełna.


The Polish word for a bean is “fasola”. It doesn’t sound like a very Slavic word. When trying to guess from which language it came from, I was thinking something like Turkish. But I was wrong… It comes from Latin! The Latin word is phaseolus. I could have guessed if I had known the Italian word, which is fagioli. “Bean” is different, so is “haricot” in French. In Spanish, there are several words: frijoles, porotos, judías, alubias: the first two are used in Latin America, the second two in Spain.

The first one, “frijol”, actually has the same root, though at first glance it may look quite different from “fasola”. The Real Academia Española writes about its etymology:

Del lat. faseŏlus, y este del gr. φάσηλος phásēlos, infl. por el mozár. brísol o gríjol ‘guisante’.

From this, we learn that the Spanish word has Mozarabic influences, and that the Latin word comes from a Greek word, in fact. The modern Greek word has kept it: it’s φασόλι (fasóli). In other Slavic words, like Russian or Slovakian, the word is also close to fasola. In the southern Slavic countries, we see interesting phenomena: in Slovenian the word is fižol, so still Latin-derived, and quite close to the Italian. In Serbian, the word seems to be pasulj: here the f seems to have shifted to a p, similarly to what happens in Filipino/Pilipino. In Croatian, the word seems to be grah. Now that’s different… and clearly shares the same root with the Polish word groch, which means green peas!

It’s interesting to see that the word phaseolus also spread to the southeast: fasulye in Turkish, فاصوليا (faswlya) in Arabic. An Iranian person confirmed to me that the word did not reach Iran, where they talk about beans with a word that does not come from Latin.

Finally, let us not forget that in Argentina and Uruguay, faso means a joint (a marihuana cigarette). Given the tendency there to twist words but still attach them the same meaning, it should not come as a surprise that exactly fasola has been put to that same use, notably in this song from the nineties.



Semesters, irides, and lentils

In this post I will make some unrelated remarks about three words.

Take the word “semester“. It has a Polish analogue: “semestr”. They both mean the same thing, namely, half an academic year. It is worth noting that the root of the word comes from Latin and means “six months”, which is not exactly the same: typically a university semester lasts some fifteen weeks. In some Romance languages, like Spanish, “semester” still typically means “six months”, though in some countries it can also mean half an academic year, e.g. in Uruguay. In neighboring Argentina you will hear “cuatrimestre” instead. This makes more sense, because “cuatrimestre” and its Latin root mean “four months”. This word doesn’t have a counterpart in English or Polish.

However, the word “trimester” (PL: trymestr) offers an interesting example: here it happens to coincide that a third of an academic year consists of three months, and thus both the “academic period of time” meaning and the “Latin root” meaning coincide (which wasn’t the case with a semester: half an academic year is not six months). Not only academic years last 9 months, but also pregnancies, and thus both in English and in Polish you use “trimester” for a third of the pregnancy. In Spanish, again, it’s just a period of three months.

Let’s change topics and think about irides. (Note: I just learnt the following from the English Wiktionary: For the part of the eye, the usual medical plural [of iris] is irides. For the flower both iris and irises are in common use.) The word comes to us from Ancient Greek, where it meant the messenger of the gods; a rainbow; the iris (of the eye); the flower”. A rainbow? Not surprising, if you think in Spanish, where the word for “rainbow” is “arco iris”. But this is also unsurprising in Polish, where the word for “rainbow” is tęcza. How is this related, you ask? Well, the word for “iris” is… tęczówka! So they are related, just as they are related in Greek or Spanish. Finally, note that if “rainbow” doesn’t come from “iris” in English, “iridescent” does, just as “iridiscente” in Spanish or “tęczowy” in Polish.

Finally, a word about lentils. This is a pulse that humans like to eat. Where does the word come from? Well, it’s shaped… like a lens! “Lens” comes directly from Latin. Note that “lentil” is a noun, but it looks like an adjective derived from “lens”. Now, in Polish, both words are different, but they are related in just the same way: a lens is soczewka, and lentil is soczewica. It works similarly in Spanish (lente/lenteja), and I’d add that in some parts of the world, lenteja can be used as an honest adjective, in which case it’s a informal word for “slow”!