Iwona's Sources - Old Polish Proverbs

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Old Polish Proverbs

Iwona Dakiniewicz, Lodz, Poland <genealogy@pro.onet.pl>

[with translation assistance from William F. Hoffman]

This time I decided to present to my readers a handful of old Polish proverbs that have enjoyed immense popularity throughout the history of the Polish people. Their use in daily life was widespread and related to all spheres of life: customs, so­cial relations, interpersonal relationships, health, the clergy and religion, weather and seasons, beliefs, and rituals. These brief, pithy sentences, created by astute observ­ers, mostly anonymous, not only reflect universal ideas in allegorical and moralistic form, but also represent a broad palette of old Polish folklore.

The oldest collection of Polish proverbs, published in 1618 by Salomon Rysiński (original title: Proverbiorum Polonicorum,* Latin meaning "of Polish proverbs"), assem­bled 1,800 entries. We find there numer­ous figures of modern everyday speech, for instance, Co ma wisieć, nie utonie, "What's meant to hang will not drown," and Nie tak szpetny diabeł jak go maluja, "The devil is not as ugly as they paint him." In ancient times, the devil appeared in a wide variety of semantic configurations. An interesting example is this living relic from 1527: Panu Bogu świeczkę, a diabłu ogarek, "The candle for the Lord God, the candle-end for the devil." This refers to the attitude of op­portunists, and its genesis lies in an anec­dote about King Jagiełło, a very supersti­tious and cautious ruler, who ordered one candle burned on the altar in homage to Christ, and two for the devil so he would do Jagiełło no harm.

*Rysiński's collection can be seen here: <http://www.dbc.wroc.pl/publication/26150>.

Another range of proverbs originated on the canvas of our native literature; it settled for good under the so-called thatched roof and is nurtured in the school curriculum. A well-known saying is the quotation Polacy nie gęsi, iż swój język mają, "Poles are not geese because they have their own lan­guage," from the 1562 poem of Mikołaj Rey with the title Do tego, co czyta, "To the one reading this" (a standard entry in the re­quired reading). With this saying the author exhorted the people to forsake Latin and speak their own language, not that of the Church.

While on this subject, obviously, we can not overlook the bard, Adam Mick­iewicz, who gave rise to many wise say­ings. Prawdziwych przyjaciół poznaje siew biedzie, "When in need, you get to know your true friends" [comparable to the Eng­lish saying, "A friend in need is a friend in­deed"]. Another famous saying comes from Potop [The Deluge], by Henryk Sienkiewicz: Kończ ... Waść! wstydu .. oszczedźt, "End it ... Your Grace! Spare me ... the shame!" With these words, the powerful bully Kmicic ended his duel with the smaller knight Wołodyjowski, whose artistry with the sword he had underestimated, and now he preferred to die than burn in shame. What is interesting is that this saying has recent­ly become fashionable in political rhetoric!

Another pearl from literature: Miałeś chamie złoty róg.....ostał ci sie ino sznur, "You boor, you had a golden horn ... now all that's left you is a rope." It's from Wyspiański's Wesele [The Wedding], and this phrase has taken on symbolic coloring of the fatherland's freedom, tragically lost.

From the dusty drawers of history I pulled a proverb fading away but with an interesting genesis: Pisz Pan na Berdyczów, "Write to me at Berdyczów." This hamlet in the eastern part of the Kingdom of Poland teemed with life; there were over 100 tav­erns and inns there. Every sort of merchant traveled to Berdyczów during the time of its market fairs, which lasted the whole year. Sending correspondence to Berdyczów had a purely practical aspect; you could write to a merchant there with certainty that he would sooner or later show up and receive the letter. With time, however, this saying has come to have a completely differ­ent meaning. When one has no desire to make contact with another, he can tell him,"Write me at Berdyczów!" because no one will ever get that letter.

Many Polish proverbs have their roots in ancient culture; for instance, Kto pod kim dołki kopie, sam w nie wpada, "He who digs pits for another will fall into them himself'; Czym skorupka za młodu nasiąknie tym na starość trąci, "What the shell absorbs in youth, persists in old age" [compare English "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree"]; and Muzyka łagodzi obyczaje, "Music soothes manners," popularized by Jerzy Waldorff ( 1910-1999), who was inspired by Aristo­tle's thought, "Music has the power to en­noble manners."

Popular proverbs typically combined the functions of education and enjoyment. Peasant humor was bursting with adages for every occasion: births, marriages, church festivals, harvests, the saints' days of the calendar. Very widespread were sayings about the weather, for example, Kwiecień-plecień bo przeplata trochę zimy, trochę lata, "April is a patchwork, with a little winter and a little summer"; 16 listo­pada deszcz w Marka, ziemia w lecie jak skwarka, "16 November, rain on St. Mark's day, the earth in summer will be scorch­ing."

Let me end with a bouquet of the most popular folk proverbs that have resisted the bite of time because of their aptness.

Bez pracy nie ma kołaczy - Without work, no kolache. *

*Many Americans are more familiar with the Czech kolach than the Polish kołacz. But they are similar pastries, and this translation is not too inaccurate. The saying itself means more or less the same as English "No pain, no gain."

Biednemu zawsze wiatr w oczy - The wind always blows in a poor man's face.

Brzuch tłusty łeb pusty - Fat belly, empty head.

Jak Kuba Bogu, tak Bóg Kubie - As Kuba to God, so God to Kuba.

Chłop potęgą jest i basta! - The peasant is power and that's that!

Dobry trunek na frasunek - Drink is good for worry.

Gdzie diabeł nie może tam babę pośle­ - Where the devil can't go, he sends a woman.

Gdzie dwóch się bije tam trzeci korzysta - Where two fight, a third profits.

Gdzie kucharek sześć tam nie ma co jeść - Where there are six cooks, there's noth­ing to eat. [Compare "Too many cooks spoil the broth.]

Jak sobie pościelisz tak się wyśpisz - As you make your bed, that's how you'll sleep. [Compare English "You made your bed, now sleep in it."

Jak trwoga to do Boga - When there's worry, then [you turn] to God.

Kogut myślał o niedzieli a w sobote łeb ucięli -The rooster was thinking about Sun­day, but on Saturday they chopped off his head.

Krowa która dużo ryczy, mało mleka daje - The cow that moos a lot gives little milk.

Kropla goryczy beczkę miodu zepsuje - A drop of something bitter will spoil a bar­rel of honey.

Kto rano wstaje temu pan Bóg daje - God gives to him who gets up early. [Com­pare "Early to bed and early to rise / Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."]

Kuj żelazo póki gorące - Strike the iron while [it is] hot. [Compare with the almost identical English saying, "Strike while the iron is hot."]

Lepiej z mądrym zgubić niż z głupim znaleźć - Better to lose something with a wise man than find it with a fool.

Niedaleko pada jabłko od jabłoni - The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Nie wszystko złoto co sie świeci - Not all that glitters is gold.

Pańskie oko konia tuczy-The master's eye fattens the horse. [This means things go better when the person in charge keeps an eye on them.]

Raz pod wozem raz na wozie - Sometimes under the wagon, sometimes on it.

Trafiła kosa na kamień - The scythe hit a rock. [This means even something hard and strong sooner or later runs into something harder and stronger.]

Wilk syty i owca cała - The wolf is full and the sheep is safe. [Said of a win/win situation.]

Zgoda buduje, niezgoda rujnuje - Harmony builds, dissension ruins.

Editor - There is a Polish Wiktionary page that links to discussions of many Polish proverbs, including equivalents in English and other languages, where ap­plicable: <https://pl.wiktionary.org/wiki/ Kategoria:Polskie_przys%C5%82owia >. ~

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Last Updated on March 1, 2018