In this installment David demonstrates how any word, regardless of how obscure or entirely unlike any other word it might be, can be remembered by associating it in your own mind to something that sounds similar, or looks similar in another language. Anything goes, because it is your memory that you have to inspire to remember things, and noone else's. You may not be learning Polish, but I bet that by the end of this page you will not be able to forget the Polish word for "breast-harness".
Before coming to work in Brussels I toyed briefly with the idea of giving the UN a go, but they took one look at me and drew their own conclusions. I thought I’d done quite well at the tests but it was probably my schoolboy Spanish that let me down, or possibly my schoolboy French, or maybe it was the smirk and the catapult sticking out of my back pocket. In any case, they sent me a nice letter which I left on the mantlepiece for a day or two before daring to open it. You can read a letter in one of two ways. You can start at the top, admiring the letterhead and working your way methodically down to yours sincerely. Or you can go for option two, which I did, ripping the envelope open and scanning it as if you were trying to get the number of a getaway car. My eyes fastened instantaneously on the operative word, unfortunately, which was all I needed to know. In an idle moment I calculated that if I took the pages ouf of my Wielki Slownik (Great Dictionary) and laid them end to end, they would stretch dazibao-like the kilometre from Merode metro to Montgomery, which is bad news, because on every page there are little nuggets unconnected to the words immediately before and after, bearing no resemblance to anything in any language known to me, and you think, slow down, this is going to take time. At random, page 414, nothing to write home about except maybe the word szlaban. Immediately before it, szla, from szleja, a breast-harness, but that’s obviously like a one-horse open sleigh, it’s the same exact word. After it there’s szlachcianka, from szlachta, with four column inches of cognates, so it’s an important word, but it’s obviously from the German Geschlecht, like select, as in the chosen people, like elite, elect, the chosen few, the famous szlachta, with their liberum veto, their tassels and their Sarmatian kingdom from sea to sea. But strange to relate there’s nothing much else to worry you. There’s szkola which together with cognates takes up a whole half page. There’s szkwal which is obviously squall, there’s szlafrok, which you can just imagine. There’s szkorbut, which is obviously scurvy. There’s szkrab (tot, mite, chick), but you could guess that from a scrap of information. There’s also szkuta, meaning a barge, which could conceivably scud across the water, or scoot if it was going fast. Uh oh, and szkopek, a milk-pail, but you could probably scoop things up with that, or perhaps use it for excavations. But the problem is szlaban, with nothing before or after it to help you. I’m often accused of making up my own etymologies, which is probably a fair charge. Szczuply probably didn’t give us souple in French, swietny is probably not related to chouette, piekny no doubt has nothing in common with pequeno in Spanish, even if petite is not exactly a term of abuse, and a posse in the westerns no doubt does come from posse comitatus, which you’d expect from cowhands who are notoriously laconic, and not from poscig, although who better to turn to than a group of Polacks if you wanted to run a no-good sukinsyn outlaw out of town. But szlaban is a common word, meaning the barrier that has to go up before you can get through the toll plaza on a motorway.
I’ve yet to find a decent etymological dictionary in Polish, because they usually refer you to the Slovenian or Russian equivalents which is like a course in Slavonic studies and I’m used to neat little paper trails taking me through Norman French to German or ultimately Greek and Latin. But my guess is that it comes from Schlagbaum, which may not be accurate, but it’s a dead ringer (w sam raz). So I’m pretty happy with page 414 and szlaban, szkuta, szkrab, szleja and szkopek will be winking at me in fluorescent green when the dictionary next opens at that page so next time that page won’t detain me and I can go straight on to page 415. Oh bugger, how am I going to remember the word szlupbelka (davit)? dwalk
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