Tuesday, 7 December 2010
"What's the English for kombinować?"
Yesterday in the office Ewa and Mariola were reminiscing about the old communist days, when obtaining consumer goods was several orders of magnitude more difficult that in is today. Mariola was talking about getting a washing machine, and how one had to kombinować in order to get one.
Teasingly I asked "What's the English for kombinować? Quick as a flash, Ewa replied 'to combine', which left the entire office helpless with laughter for several minutes. But such is the nature of etymology, that indeed, there must be some truth in Ewa's rejoinder. Kombinowanie, the gerund from the infinitive kombinować, is about seeking combinations, putting together several elements in a none-too-straightforward puzzle.
Getionary has kombinować as 'to be involved in shady business'. Kombinowanie may well (hurrah!) have been pushed back to the fringes of acceptability in today's Poland. But back in communist times, the practice was mainstream. Kombinuj or starve.
Yes indeed. Though my English upbringing spared me the privations of communism's consumer hell, I a vicarious cognisance of everyday life in those days. Example: my cousins in Wrocław lived in a block of flats. One day, a consignment of lawnmowers appeared in a nearby shop. Immediately, a queue formed to snap them up. Most of the people in the queue did not have a lawn. But they knew the power of physical goods in a deficient consumer market. My cousin's husband swapped his newly-acquired lawnmower for a large number of windscreen wiper blades for the ubiquitous Maluch (Fiat 126P), obtained via unofficial channels. These were readily exchangeable currency - for meat, tights, toilet paper.
A joke of the 1980s stated that the worst sentence a court could mete out to an offender was '20 years without contacts'. To survive you had to kombinować. To kombinować you needed contacts. Someone working in this factory or that warehouse, someone working on contract in Libya, someone with an uncle in Chicago. You had to know who could be trusted (for as we now know know from the IPN, many Poles were sneaking on their neighbours to the security apparatus), who you could offload the latest Mud, Smokie, Deep Purple and Abba LPs on in exchange for Levi jeans or Marks & Spencers knitwear from Bazar Rózyckiego.
A final question remains. Is kombinowanie a product of 45 years of communism - or did Poles kombinować between the wars? If they did, was kombinowanie the result of 120 years of foreign rule and oppression? Does the verb kombinować appear in Polish literature prior to the 1790s in the current context?