I grew up as the grandson of four Polish immigrants.
By the time I was born, my family was well integrated into American culture and language. My sisters and I were not taught to speak Polish, although we heard our relatives use Polish to speak to each other, especially when they were talking about something they didn’t want us to hear. Still, certain Polish traditions were faithfully celebrated and a few Polish words were integrated into our language as firmly as if they were English words.
Most Americans are familiar with the Polish words kiełbasa (sausage), and pierogi (dumplings). These Polish words are listed in many dictionaries of the English language, and were certainly part of my family’s vocabulary.
At family gatherings, other Polish words for food occasionally crept into conversations that were otherwise in English – ziemniaki (potatoes), kapusta (cabbage), bułki (rolls or buns), piwo (beer), and gołąbki (stuffed cabbages).
Still other Polish words and phrases entered my family’s vocabulary, and my family uses those words and phrases to the present day.
We use the Polish word dupa meaning one’s anatomical bottom, even though most four-letter English words are carefully avoided. I can still remember hearing my father or my sister call out to me when I dawdled or was slow getting ready for Mass: “Get your dupa over here!”. For my sisters and me, the word is an acceptable alternative to the English equivalent. My family uses the word with relatively wild abandon, although our Aunt Helen still blushes and giggles whenever she hears it.
My family uses the word pieniężny, the Polish word for money, especially when referring to being particular rich or poor (Oh, I wish I had more pieniężny! Boy, he’s just rolling in pieniężny!). When my family visited my Grandmother Danko, grandmother would give each of my sisters and me pieniężny – a clean, crisp dollar bill which, it turned out, she had recently washed, ironed and sequestered under her mattress just for such occasions. She just detested dirty pieniężny.
Speaking of Grandmother Danko: she always called me Staś, the Polish diminutive of the name Stanisław (Stanley). I don’t know if she thought my name really was Stanisław or if she just decided that my name should have been Stanisław, regardless of what my parents named me. My father and sisters still call me Staś, especially when they’re nostalgic or affectionate.
And when our visits with Grandmother Danko were over and we were leaving for the night, my sisters and I would wish grandmother “Dobranoc!” – “Good night!”.
Written for the 54th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy – The Family Language.
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen J. Danko