Whenever someone tells you they know nothing about Poland, point them to the word ‘schmuck’. The pejorative for a douchebag-cum-moron is derived from the Yiddish word for the male genital organ, which in turn comes from the Old Polish word ‘smok’ (meaning grass snake).
To be fair to the Poles, there’s a lot more to them than schmucks and the stale old Polish Joke Books. The Wachowskis are a great advertisement for the country. The creators of The Matrix trilogy are of Polish descent. Their forefathers were from the Wachow village in south-western Poland.
If that didn’t impress you much, well, let me tell you that the country has produced 16 Nobel Prize winners—twice as many as India. Among the winners is Marie Curie, the only person to win two Nobels in two different sciences (physics and chemistry). Curie was born Maria Salomea Skowdowska. She was so proud of her nation that she named Element 84 as Polonium as her tribute.
That wonderful writer Charles Bukowski, he too has some Polish genes. His bookish sounding surname literally means ‘one who comes from the buk tree area’. For the botanically flummoxed, ‘buk’ is the beech tree.
If you’re the religious type, you might be glad to know that Pope John Paul II was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla and his Polish surname indicates he’s a descendant of an officer running a rural district.
Even music maestro Fredric Chopin and the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (born Mikolaj Kopernik) were of Polish origin. The adorable thing about Poland is that it is one of the few places in the world to celebrate name days. This is how it works: Catholics named after a saint will celebrate that saint’s feast day as their name day. For instance, May 30 is Joan of Arc’s day. So anyone named Joana would celebrate it as their day.
The Polish language is widely considered to be the hardest to master. With seven genders (three masculine, three feminine and one neuter) and seven noun cases, it is said that even a local gets fluent only after 16 years of effort. To give a glimpse of the difficulty level, try and pronounce Grzegorz Brzeczyszczykiewicz. If you were nowhere near Gye-ghosh B-zhench-sh-chy-kee-veech, you must hand it to the Poles for keeping their tongues from being tied, tangled and twisted.