Warsaw, Poland – Potato may be the most popular vegetable in Poland, and the base ingredient for any proper Polish meal (and drink, obviously), it can also turn into a divisive topic among Poles.
For if anyone can agree on the marvelous properties of the all-mighty potato, of which more than 120 varieties are currently grown in Poland, the proper way to actually describe it may cause some friction, depending on which part of the country you find yourself in: some say ziemniak, others kartofel, while a third group of potato-enthusiasts prefer pyra. So, which form is correct?
French soil and German truffles
First things first: the word ziemniak has been the most popular one since the 20th century, as everybody in Poland understands this term even though not everyone uses it. Ziemniak is used in every region of the country, but particularly in central and eastern Poland.
The word comes from another Polish term “ziemia”, which means “ground”, “earth” or “soil”. The etymology is fairly straightforward in this case, dating back to the French word “pomme de terre” (“earth apple”) and its Polish equivalent “jabłko ziemne”.
More prevalent in the 19th century before being overthrown by ziemniak, the term kartofel is favored by people who speak in the Silesian dialect, although it may also be heard all over Poland.
Those familiar with the colourful language of Goethe will easily recognise the German roots of the word, itself linked to the Italian word for truffle, “tartufo”. Silesians use it because their regional history has a lot in common with the German nation and language. A little-known 1821 poem by Polish poet Adam Michiewicz, for instance, is called Kartofla.
Hommage to Peru
Pyra is especially popular in the Poznań dialect in the Greater Poland region. The word comes from perek, a more ancient dialect term to describe potatoes and itself possibly related to the south-American country of Peru, where potatoes originally come from and were first cultivated before being brought over to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century.
If we take an even closer look at the issue, the situation gets more complicated. Kashubians say “bùlwa”, which means “bulb”, while the Lemko minority uses the word “kompera” and the inhabitants of Poland’s southernmost Podhale region prefer using “grula”.
In other words, there isn’t any single appropriate term to say potato in Polish. Be sure to have this in mind next time you’re venturing across Poland, as you won’t go very far if you can’t get your potatoes straight…
By Szymon Grzegorzek