The legacy of the old friendship. Hungarian loan words in the Polish language

The legacy of the old friendship. Hungarian loan words in the Polish language

The Polish-Hungarian friendship is still present in the collective psyches of both nations. Although, contrary to popular opinion, relations between the countries were sometimes tense (it is enough to mention the politics of Gábor Bethlen or Imre Thököly), the state border between the two kingdoms was exceptionally peaceful. This was reflected in the mutual penetration of cultures.


From the Middle Ages on, Polish-Hungarian relations were dominated by the shadows of the strong regional powers: the Turkish state and Empire, ruled by Habsburgs. Twice during this period, Hungary and Poland were united in a personal union. For the first time in the years 1370-1382, when Louis of Hungary of the Angevin dynasty sat on the throne of the united kingdoms. The second time the union took place in 1440 when Władysław III reached for the Hungarian crown. Władysław’s reign ended prematurely – the king fell in a battle with the Turks at Varna, which opened the way for the sultan to capture Constantinople.

Poland-Hungary border, fragment of the map from the 17th century. Image source: Polona.pl

In the 16th century, Poland and Hungary had strong cultural ties. Kraków has become a place of political asylum for the Magyars, and many books in Hungarian have been published in the capital’s printing houses. However, the most important event was the election of Stephen Báthory ( Báthory István), the prince of Transylvania, as the husband of Anna Jagiellon, and thus his ascension to the throne as the king of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Batory, who is remembered in history primarily as a king-warrior, started many reforms in the army. He introduced new types of infantry into the army: “chosen infantry” (piechota wybraniecka) and the Hungarian infantry, known as hajduks. He also remodeled the cavalry, relying on the winged hussars. Batory also did not neglect the improvement of artillery.

The legacy of these contact between Poles and Magyars are Hungarian loan words. They mainly concern three categories: war, clothing, and food. There is an interesting story behind many of them. Below is a subjective selection of a few loanwords.

#1 Huszár → husarz 

Although in the scientific and popular circulation we can find many theories related to the etymology of the name of the most famous military formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, one thing is certain: this word came to us from the south. Hungarian word huszár is a variation of the Serbian word usar/gusar which meant robber, rider, or raider. In the old Polish language, the most common forms were usarz and usaria.

Initially, hussars were mercenary light cavalry, recruited from Hungarians and Serbs. In the first half of the 16th century, references to Polish hussar units appeared in the primary sources. However, hussars still did not resemble the winged warriors immortalized in our collective memory. It was the reforms of Stephen Báthory that opened the way to the greatest victories of the hussars. The nature of this formation also changed: it becomes a heavy cavalry. The necessary equipment of the hussar was a copy, a hussar saber (again – we owe it to Báthory!), and hussar mail. Feathers and animal skins on armor plates have also become legendary. Hussar wings were not a mandatory element of armament. If they were used in battle, they were attached to the saddle.

Fragment of the so-called Stockholm roll from the 17th century, depicting the entry of Sigismund III to Krakow. Source: The Royal Castle in Warsaw

This is how the hussars were described in the 18th century by priest Jędrzej Kitowicz in his Description of the customs during the reign of Augustus III:

 Hussar and armored companions, apart from the saber by the side and the gun in the saddle, to the need and parade they used spears with little flags, longer for hussars, and shorter for armored companions; the color of these flags was most often red with white, although some flags, such as a uniform, were used. (…) Hussars from the lower ranks used wolfskin instead of leopards. Instead of ostrich feathers, the lower ranks of Hussars had wooden wings bolted to the armor (…) with the rows of painted feathers, which resembled branches of laurel or palm tree. But not all banners used that honor sign…

Hungarian rider, Abraham de Bruyne, 1577. Image source: Rijksmuseum

#2 Köntös → kontusz 

With the emergence and development of the concept of Sarmatism, dress became an inseparable part of noble identification in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. National fashion, personified in oriental clothing, a head shave, and a magnificent mustache, celebrated its greatest triumphs in the second half of the 17th century. The old Polish canon of fashion included a delia, a belt (preferably from Słuck!), żupan (A long garment with a lot of buttons), and, of course, a kontusz. Aleksander Brückner described this item of clothing in a short sentence: an outer dress, worn on the żupan, with cut sleeves-outlets, a color different from the żupan, girded with a belt.

King Augustus III Wettin in Polish costume. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In the modern Hungarian language, köntös means … a bathrobe. However, in the past, this word meant a dress or a robe. Most likely, this word came to Europe along with the Turks, which is why, according to some researchers, the Hungarians and Poles adopted the köntös / kontusz independently of each other. The invaluable Dr. O’Connor left this image of a nobleman in the reign of John III:

They have all their Hair cut round about their Ears like Monks, and wear The Habits furr’d Caps, large Whiskers, and no Neck-cloths; a long Coat hangs down to their Heels, and a Wastcoat under that of the same length tied clofe about the Waste with a Girdle : Their Sleeves are extream close, like those of Mariners, coming down to their Wrists, with a Flap on the back of the Hand, which reaches as far as the middle Nuckle, which they turn up in hot Weather, and let down in cold, for they never wear any Gloves. This long Coat is of strong Cloth, and is lin’d in the Winter with rich Fur, but in Summer only with light Silk, tho I have seen at Court some of the Persons of Quality wear Furs as they us’d to do in Winter, for it is a fine Ornament: under this Wastcoat they wear wide Shirts like Womens Smocks, tied loose about their Necks, with wide Sleeves coming down to their Wrists. As to their Breeches they are likewise very wide, and with their Stockings make one continued piece.

#3 Rákos → rokosz

The Rákos field near Pest (today within the administrative boundaries of the Hungarian capital) is a very important place in the history of the whole country. In the Middle Ages, it was here that the Magyar knights gathered to choose their ruler: this was the case, for example, for Charles Robert or Władysław II Jagiellończyk. Here, too, the knights gathered under banners to go to war. The gatherings on the Rákos field became an important chapter in the history of Hungarian parliamentarism.

Originally, also in Poland, the rokosz meant a meeting of the nobility, and more broadly: a meeting, negotiations, agreements, or an assembly. Over time, the rokosz changed its meaning. This term was used to describe the armed rebellion of the nobility against the king. The nobles formed such confederations for fear of losing their numerous privileges or to exert political pressure. One of the most famous revolts is the Sandomierz rokosz (1606-1607), headed by Mikołaj Zebrzydowski. The members of rokosz opposed alleged attempts of the king to reach for absolute power and transform the Commonwealth into a hereditary monarchy. There was also a demand to reorganize the political structure. Although the king suppressed the revolt after the victorious Battle of Guzowo, his plans were torpedoed.

Portrait of the Stephen Báthory , 19th century. Image source: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie

#4 Agár→ ogar

The Hungarian word agár means a greyhound, especially a Hungarian greyhound (magyar agár). This loanword appears already in works printed in Poland in the 16th century. The first Polish cynological textbook by Jan Ostroróg, published in 1618, was entitled Myślistwo z ogary (Hunting with hounds). Inside, the author posted a lot of practical information:

And when you see that dog can be infected with rabies:

1. Give him a piece of scabiosa, four times more as you give it to the healthy dog as a prevention.

2. Give him a live cricket or two, preferably in pork fat.

3. Bleed him a bit, and that’s the must. If it helps overnight, give him half a spoonful of oleum philosophorum the next day.

Dogs were kept not only in noble estates but also in cities. To this day, one of the streets of Gdańsk, the largest city in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, is called Ogarna – Hound Street (Hundegasse in German).

The first mention of Hound Street (platea canum) dates back to 1378. Where does the doggy name of Ogarna come from? Two theories about the origin of this name are mentioned in the literature. According to the first of them, the name of Hound Street could have come from the name of a hypothetical patrician living here (however, we do not have any mention in primary sources that would confirm this).

Hound Street in /Gdańsk – a fragment of the view from 1600. Image source: Riksarkivet

According to the supporters of the second, much more interesting thesis, the name came from the dogs that were driven along the street from the City Court (where the stables and coach house were located) to the Granary Island, where they were to guard valuable goods against theft. They could also warn people about spreading fire with their barking.

So leaning towards the latter theory – what dogs could run on medieval Ogarna Street? We can make an educated guess that most of them did not belong to any noble breeds – perhaps some mastiffs or molosses appeared among them. The dogs serving the townspeople probably could not boast of noble origins – so packs of various-shaped and multi-colored dogs were rushing towards the Granaries.

#5 Terefere/ tereferék → tere-fere

Tere-fere: most people in Poland know this taunt, which is intended to mock or dismiss allegedly preposterous claims. And this saying came to us from Hungary in the 16th century! In Hungarian, this expression means gossip, chit-chat, jibber-jabber. In Old Polish, this expression was to dismiss something unwise, to emphasize nonsense. It also appears in the form of tere-bzdere. We find such form in the Sejm from Hell in 1622. The axis of this anonymous satire is that Lucifer convenes the council of his followers. The Prince of Darkness collects reports from his devils that have been sent to Earth to lead people away from God. This work is also an excellent source of learning about folk customs from the 17th century. At some point…

Asmodeus, the tavern devil, enters drunk, in a wreath, holding a mug of yeast in his hand, and another one in front of him, drinking to Lucifer.

Tere-bzdere, Lucifer, my gracious lord!

I got drunk as a pig, gave nothing for it.

I was not in the church, I came straight from the inn,

But after all, my actions will bring great benefit to you.

I made people drunk with wine, beer, honey.

Among the other popular Hungarian loan words are:

bootcsizmaciżma
drummerdobosdobosz
esquiregyermekgiermek
bugle callhajnalhejnał
rowseregszereg
bell pepperpaprikapapryka
stewgulyásgulasz
tokaytokajitokaj
head shepherdbácsbaca
landholder in Podhale regiongazdagazda
young shepherdjuhászjuhas

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