What does gingerbread have to do with the windmill, or, why do Poles use gingerbread as an expletive?

Looking back at my blog stats at the end of last year, I came across an interesting search term that brought someone to my blog, namely –
“piernika swearword”. – I like to be sure that when people do find my tiny little Mishmashy islet amid the whole huge Internet sea, they can actually find what they were looking for. I think usually they do, and if they don’t, it’s most often because I can’t provide the info myself, but in this case, I think I can shed some light on it, so that’s what I’ll try to do today.

But what does that “piernika” thing even mean? “Piernika” is both dative and accusative case of the Polish word “piernik”, which means gingerbread, it doesn’t really make much sense on its own in such form, without some broader context. I think someone looking for something on the topic must have heard about the word gingerbread being used in Polish as a swearword/expletive but didn’t have a clear idea so just Googled whatever. There is neither such a swearword in Polish as “piernika” or “piernik”. However, we do have some rather light swearwords which do derive from this word, and that’s what I’ll write about today. I’ll also tell you about other Polish expressions with the word gingerbread, because we not only have famous and yummilicious gingerbreads from ToruÅ„, but also somehow really like to use this word.

I’d just like people to know that I am not a linguist, just a linguophile who is interested in all things language, so this may not be exhaustive, and that it is only Polish, not English, which is my native language, so some things are a bit awkward to explain in English, but if something isn’t clear let me know and maybe I can explain it differently. Also, there’s not really a whole lot of resources I’ll be working with, as I didn’t find a whole lot of information that would be satisfactory for me on this so very narrow topic. I am mostly writing this as a more rambly sort of postthat I thought could be fun and also interesting, perhaps somewhat educating even, rather than a really valid reference for someone that you can rely on without any reservations, my main resource here is actually a Polish YA book, so… yeah, don’t take it too seriously. 😀

I used the phrase “What does gingerbread have to do with a windmill?” in the title of this post, because it is a legit Polish saying, which is “Co ma piernik do wiatraka” in the original. It is used to point out that something is irrelevant to the conversation, or if you feel kind of confused or don’t understand a relationship between things. Let’s say Sofi and Bibiel are in the middle of a heated discussion about their favourite iPhone games, trying to establish what is better, BitLife or Among Us, and suddenly, out of the blue, Sofi informs Bibiel that she ate an ice-cream sandwich… No information about when she did this and why that would even be important! (real life situation 😀 ). So then Bibiel can ask: “Eh?! What does a gingerbread have to do with a windmill?”

But, actually, just think of it… doesn’t gingerbread have a whole lot to do with the windmill? When I was a child, there was such a radio station here in Poland called Polish Radio BIS (BIS was the acronym for Bardzo Inna Stacja which means Very different Station, and also I really liked how the word BIS sounded and the whole station was just so cool!). One of my favourite programmes on there was BIS-up, which was generally about all things language, but also travel, different cultures and the like. It was a station mostly geared at youth, like uni students or something like that I suppose, and in BIS-up they did language lessons and had a lot of interesting brainstorming questions and stuff. And one thing they once asked to make people think that I remember very vividly was exactly that – what does gingerbread have to do with a windmill? –
People came up with lots of things, interestingly, mostly linguistic, like that they both have an i as their second letter (even in English!), that they’re both masculine nouns and such… But, of course, they have much more in common. Windmill grinds the grain to flour, from which you can then make gingerbread. And you can make a windmill of gingerbread. 😀 So this expression doesn’t really make all that much sense. But doesn’t everything have something in common with each other, if you think long enough? A bit off topic but still on a similar note, we also have an expression that something fits like a flower to a sheepskin coat, meaning it doesn’t fit at all, kinda like a square peg in a round hole. But why do a flower and a sheepskin coat have to make such a dissonance and do they really do? 😀

Then there is “stary piernik” which literally means old gingerbread. Many people think that the older gingerbread, the better it is, but here this is definitely negative. Old gingerbread is a scornful or derogatory phrase used in reference to an elderly man. I’ve also come across people saying “old gingerbreads” in relation to elderly people of both genders, but because gingerbread is a masculine noun it seems more natural in reference to a man. Actually I’ve heard it used more often by older people themselves in a sort of self-deprecating manner, like when comparing themselves to someone younger, rather than someone saying this to an older person or describing them this way.

And now, expletives. So we have swearwords like pierdolić or pierdzielić. Some of our swearwords, especially the ones which are verbs, can have loads and loads of meanings, some more vulgar than the others, but generally these verbs, in any meaning, aren’t something you’d use in a formal way, or around children or somehow very language-sensitive people. I think their primary meaning though is very much like the English fuck. Most frequently, at least from what I hear, people use it as a way of expressing shock, anger or surprise: “Ja pierdolÄ™!/Ja pierdzielÄ™!”, so literally something like “I fuck”. )

We also have some other words starting with pier- which maybe aren’t really swearwords, but generally have a bit of a vulgar feel or aren’t considered appropriate language in a lot of situations, like pierdzieć (to fart).

And as you may remember, ginberbread in Polish is piernik. So I think the story behind the origin of Polish piernik-derived expletives is very much like with English heck, flip or shot. That’s how the word pierniczyć – a verb derived from piernik – most likely came to be.

Polish works in such a funny way that when you have a verb, you can add various prefixes to it and it’ll change its meaning, sometimes dramatically. And the whole versatility of the word pierniczyć is hidden in those prefixes. If you really want to use it all the time, I think you can do so with the right prefixes.

I must admit that I’ve always really liked this expletive. It’s not too offensive, it’s not an actual swearword, but it’s also not totally wishy-washy or smooth and can actually express strong emotions quite well, so you can express yourself to the point without offending someone, unless you’re like really steaming with rage then maybe it won’t feel quite satisfactory. I also like the way it sounds for some reason, there’s something funny about it, and have some nice associations with it, and yes, I love gingerbreads!

The word pierniczyć itself, on its own, with no prefixes may mean something similar to pierdolić/pierdzielić, only milder. I found one human Polish to English translation of this word and they said it’s an equivalent of the English phrase “to tell fibs”. I’m not sure I agree, because while the general meaning is of course the same – to tell something that is not true – I feel like to tell fibs is even milder than pierniczyć, though I may be wrong here. I’ve come across the expression to tell fibs in an English children’s book, where one child was accusing another of telling fibs, and in another book where an adult was telling a child that she thinks the child is telling fibs. I don’t think I would use the word pierniczyć to say this to a child in Polish. I think they could feel hurt or like I was really badly telling them off and it would sound a bit harsh and maybe even slightly vulgar. I could tell that to Sofi, because she is a teenager and I know her well and she’d know I’d probably use it not fully seriously, but with younger children, no. I also don’t think most parents would find it appropriate for younger children to use this word regularly.

Like with pierdzielić/pierdolić, pierniczyć can also be used in the exclamation: “Ja pierniczÄ™!” to express some disbelief, surprise, frustration, irritation and what not but in a more euphemistic way.

When I was thinking about how I should go about this post, I remembered a young adult book I once read called Klasa Pani Czajki (MS. Czajka’s Class), about secondary/junior high school students who all were in the same class, and their class teacher was the title character Ms. Czajka, who taught them Polish. She has a huge passion for the subject she teaches and doesn’t like any slang expressions (let alone such expletives like “Ja pierniczÄ™!”). She doesn’t even let their students use the word fajnie (fine), because it’s a relatively modern loanword.

One day, one of her students (KaÅ›ka), while sitting in Ms. Czajka’s class, looks out the window and sees a boy (Olek) strolling aimlessly around the school backyard, waiting for another girl. It was warm so he took of his jacket, revealing his muscular shoulders, which must have made a huge impression on KaÅ›ka, who exclaimed: “Ja pierniczÄ™!”

Of course that made her teacher very cross and call the girl out for it. But then one of the boys (Maciek), Ms. Czajka’s most eloquent student, spoke up and started explaining to her, that every language, including Polish, is evolving, and that pierniczyć is a word with many different meanings, and its analysis makes one learn grammar. He continues to explain to her that what she just wanted do was to opierniczyć (tell off) KaÅ›ka as a way of showing her disapproval. (you can also give someone opiernicz and it will mean the same, or you can opierniczać siÄ™, which will mean that you’re lazing around and not doing what you should). Then Maciek gives a whole very hilarious lecture, to the amusement of his class, and throughout the whole chapter we have the following phrases come up:

odpierniczyć siÄ™ (to bugger off), spierniczyć (to run away, but spierniczyć something will already mean something completely different –
to destroy or spoil something – ), podpierniczyć/zapierniczyć (to steal, but zapierniczać can also mean to run very fast, or do something very fast, that’s at least how my Dad uses it, I’ve also come across zapiernicz as a noun meaning a very busy, hectic time when you have a lot of work to do), wypierniczyć ( to throw away, and then wypierniczać can also mean to leave), wpierniczyć (to beat/spank, wpiernicz can mean beating – dać komuÅ› wpiernicz =give someone a beating – and wpierniczać can mean to eat, but implies that someone is eating fast and/or a lot), “PopierniczyÅ‚o ciÄ™?” (Are you crazy?, and popierniczony is crazy/nutty), pierniczony (flipping).

And I’m sure there must be some more that people use! Rozpierniczyć (to take something apart, to destroy), I’m pretty sure I heard someone using rozpierniczyć siÄ™ meaning to fall (from a bike for example, and wypierniczyć siÄ™ could also mean to fall), popierniczyć (to mix something up). Maybe there are even more…

To make things more interesting, we have more spicy expletives like that, involving pepper (pieprz) and horseradish (chrzan).

Pieprzyć is very much a synonym of pierdolić and pierdzielić, but one which definitely doesn’t have the euphemistic character of pierniczyć, most people think of it as rather vulgar. It also has gazillions of versions with different prefixes.

Horseradish is lighter, I think maybe even lighter than gingerbread. You can say that something is do chrzanu (for horseradish) means something like crappy. Chrzanić is very much like pierniczyć (to talk rubbish), and, again, there are many similar verbs with prefixes meaning mostly the same.

And then – although it doesn’t really belong in the expletives/swearwords category – we have cumin (kminek). There is a slang word rozkminiać (to wonder, to try to understand, to think deeply), similarly there are rozkminy (singular rozkmina, deep thoughts, attempts at understanding something, creative, sometimes weird, ideas). I really like this word. You can also wykminić something (come up with something) or kminić (think a lot and deeply, usually wondering about something or trying to come up with something).

I feel like my brain might have turned into a piernik by now. 😀 And thus I am having a rozkmina: will that make it get better and better as it gets older, as gingerbread normally does? Or will it end up totally popierniczony as a result?

What is your favourite swearword or expletive or any weird phrase in your language? And, what else do you think gingerbread could have to do with a windmill? 🙂

Ps: I’ve just had supper, over which we were talking with Dad about camper vans (he’s been wanting to buy one for ages and it’s his biggest dream and pretty much an obsession by now), and he said that the one his friend has is very “odpierniczony”, which was supposed to mean that he put a lot of care in it and that it’s very luxurious and neat and fancy etc. As you can see, the potential of gingerbreads is neverending.

Question of the day.

So the actual question for today is:

what was the last thing which made you swear out loud?

My answer:

Misha scared the shit out of me falling with his cartonboard from the wardrobe. I didn’t even realise what was going on for quite a while, was just so scared of the sudden noise and I just involuntarily swore in Finnish. Finnish is the best for swearing in case you didn’t know, and for me it’s a bit of an automatical reaction nowadays, which can be both good and bad depending on point of view or situation. My brain just kinda got used to swearing in Finnish. 😀 That was actually what I wanted it to do, but I wouldn’t expect to become such an automatic thing for me to do now when I want to swear or am scared or frustrated. Luckily I don’t have a habit of swearing a lot in front of other people, otherwise I think they’d be really scared and think I’m cursing them or something hahaha.

How about you? 🙂