If I said to you, “She’s pulling my leg”, you wouldn’t immediately think a female companion of mine was tugging on my limbs, or, if before a particularly testing encounter, I wished you would “break a leg”, that I was being unnecessarily and uncharacteristically (I promise) malicious. That’s because we are speaking in idioms, short phrasal combinations of words that, over time, have gained a figurative meaning in English, and there is no shortage of them in Polish either.
Just like English, Polish idioms have evolved to have their own meaning, and while many of these reflect the meaning of an English idiom, and many even sound the same, there are also a whole host of unique and new idioms in the Polish language. Not only can they be great fun to learn, but using them can give your speaking a real twist that will impress the native speaker no end; in-fact, language teachers often use idioms as an indicator of an advanced language level in their students.
Some Polish Idioms
Below are a list of common (and some not so common) Polish idioms, their literal translations (in ), their closest English counterpart (if there is one!), and, if it might be needed, a hint towards their meaning.
Jak sobie pościelisz, tak się wyśpisz. [The way you made your bed is the way you will sleep in it] (You made your bed now lie in it, you reap what you sew).
Nudne jak flaki z olejem. [Dull as tripe in oil] (Dull as dishwater): Meaning something is extremely boring.
Jasne jak słońce. [Clear as the sun] (In English we could say either ‘Clear as day’ or ‘crystal clear’).
Kopnąć w calendar. [Kick the calendar] (Kick the bucket).
Jest to cnota nad cnotami trzymać język za zębami. [The best virtue among all virtues is to keep one’s tongue behind one’s teeth] (Silence is golden).
Darowanemu koniowi w zęby się nie zagląda [Don’t check the teeth of a horse you received as a gift] (Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth).
My personal favourite: Zrobili mnie w konia [I was made into a horse] (I was taken for a ride)
Zimny jak głaz. [As cold as stone] (As cold as a cucumber)
Złej baletnicy przeszkadza rąbek u spódnicy. [A bad ballerina blames the hem of her skirt] (A bad workman always blames his tools)
Nie wywołuj wilka z lasu. [Do not call the wolf from the forest] (Let sleeping dogs lie)
Widzieć świat w różowych okularach. [See everything in bright colours] (Always look on the bright side of life)
na lewą stronę. [With the inside on the out] (Inside out)
Tonący brzytwy się chwyta. [A drowning man clutches at a cut-throat razor] (The drowning man clutches at straws)
Porywać się z motyką na słońce. [To jump at the sun with a hoe] (To bite off more than you can chew)
Raz na Ruski rok. [Once in a Russian year] (Once in a blue moon, or once in a while)
It is all very well learning these by heart, but it’s also important to understand where and when they are appropriate. Imagine using an idiom like ‘kick the bucket’ during a funeral speech in English; it definitely wouldn’t go down to well, and it’s important to remember register – the tone of your language – when you try to use idioms in Polish.
One good way I have found to practice these with close Polish speaking friends, who, when you say something out of place or inappropriate, will usually find the whole thing fantastically amusing.