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 have 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 Levis 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?

UPDATE: Worth dipping into Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776. For here we come face to face with 'to combine' as used in the Polish sense. In the passage below, consider the verb 'combine' as kombinować, and the noun 'combinations' as kombinowanie:
"We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform, combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate [...] Masters, too, sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy till the moment of execution; and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people". In contrast, when workers combine, "the masters call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen."


Decoy said...

The closest I can get to translating it into English (from my experiences of course) is 'to make do with' although this never covers kombinować 100%, perhaps only 70-80% of the time.

An official explanation of 'to make do with' says "Accept something less satisfactory because there's no alternative" - and in my mind this seems to sum up the sort of adapt-to-survive attitude during communism which would have been a good starting point for kombinować.

Paddy Ney said...

Perhaps the American verb "to hustle" would be appropriate?

A very similar verb used in Auschwitz occured to me as I was reading this: organizować, used there for stealing/"hustling."

I wonder if this was a word that also existed prior to the camps? As far as I am aware this term did not survive the camps, but correct me if I am wrong.

Pacze Moj said...

In English: ...maybe something like finagle?

jan said...

I have no clue whether or not the word kombinować existed in pre-1795 Poland, but the practice of kombinowanie certainly did. Just read Władysław Łoziński's informative and higly readable "Prawem i lewem. Obyczaje na Czerwonej Rusi w pierwszej połowie XVII wieku".

(Online version available from http://delibra.bg.polsl.pl/dlibra/docmetadata?id=96&from=pubstats)

Pan Steeva said...

Machinate/wangle/finesse. Hustle and finagle also seem good. There must be something from 'Only Fools and Horses', which seems to be about the same activity, but I can't think what.

Paddy Ney said...

On the bus earlier I also thought of the adjective, "canny"

careful; cautious; prudent: a canny reply.
astute; shrewd; knowing; sagacious: a canny negotiator.
skilled; expert.
frugal; thrifty: a canny housewife.
safe to deal with, invest in, or work at (usually used with a negative).
gentle; careful; steady.
snug; cozy; comfortable.
pleasing; attractive.
Archaic . having supernatural or occult powers.

The etymology of canny is interesting: "1630s, Scottish and northern England formation from can (v.) in its sense of "know how to." Often used superciliously of Scots by their southern neighbors, implying "thrift and an eye to the main chance."

student SGH said...

Not a first post on the topic, Polandian has once beaten it to you.

Maybe just "fix sth up", "come by", "wheel and deal"? Much depends on the context in which it is used, therefore you won't find one English verb but should try to understand the concept behind each use of kombinować and find a suitable word.

pinolona said...

never heard of the word 'finagle' (is that even English?!) but wangle sounds quite good to me...

adthelad said...

Not sure how I missed this post :o and I seem to be getting a deja vu regarding the word wangle.

Perhaps the Only Fools and Horses answer is wheelin' and dealin' (someone who does this is a wheeler dealer). Maybe there's a better word from that series - but it doesn't come to me at the moment :(

Pacze Moj said...

"Finagle" is English, but it's American English, not your Euro-kind.


Jacek Koba said...

Remember Walker in Dad's Army? He was the spiv, and 'kombinowac' is what he did. Them days were the times of austerity, too. So what did Walker do? The ultimate UK equivalent of 'kombinator' to me today is another fictional character: Eddie Grundy in the Archers, whom I secretly revere. What does Eddie do? Answer with a verb and you will have the answer to your question.

Sigismundo said...

Bankowski's etymological dictionary of Polish (2000) states that Kombinować came into Polish in the 2nd half of the 19th century, from German Kombinieren and French Combiner (where it is attested in the 13th century), presumably in the word's original sense, i.e. to combine. It goes back to Latin 'coniungere bina' (to join two?).

The German Kombinieren does strangely seem to give more of the Polish spiv sense, and I wonder if that too is not a borrowing from the Krauts? Bankowski doesn't seem to mention the Del Boy meaning, but he comments that the word acquired a transferred meaning in Polish: 'to cannily extract practical conclusions' (wyciągać sprytnie wnioski praktyczne), which is sort of halfway there.

Pan Steeva said...

Looking through this and the Polandian post, it seems that the fundamental difference between English and Polish here is the Polish positive view of theft, corruption and profiteering during the communist period, whilst the equivalent 'spivs' in Britain when there was shortages and rationing were viewed much more negatively. I've no idea who Eddie Grundy is, but English comedy (St Trinians, Carry On ... something or other, Dad's Army) has spivs as positive characters, but the joke was that such people were basically unacceptable, whilst the character in the film/TV series really had a heart of gold. English equivalents to 'kombinować' therefore describe innocent activities, but hint at illegality. The Polish word is known to refer to (acceptable) illegality, but is used to refer to innocent activities.

student SGH said...

Now can somebody enlighten me? What did that character do? What's the verb??? AFter all kombinować has so many meanings that there's more than one correct translation probably?

Jacek Koba said...

The Dad's Army characters page describes Walker as a 'wide boy' - Wikipedia does a good job of explaining who a wide boy was. Eddie Grundy is a character in the fictional village of Ambridge in the longest running British radio soap opera. Eddie and his father Joe have always got a scam going. He is your man if you need a Christmas tree, a turkey, a bag of compost, some dodgy meat, a brace of pheasants, small jobs around the house, etc, walking the thin line between the shady and the sunny side of the law. Eddie could be found flogging stuff at car boot sales, doing small favours to paying customers at cattle markets, running a book on virtually any event, and dispensing home-made cider to neighbours in their moments of weakness from a shed in his field.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Pacze Moj. Finagle is the nearest single word I can think of to use as a replacement for kombinować.

It not only has a close direct meaning but is also similar in that the underlying sentiment is more mischievous and cheeky than it is criminal or nasty.

I always had the idea that finagle was an Irish American word and there is some evidence for that although the real etymology of the word is not clear.

Thanks for reminding me of the word finagle, Pacze Moj. It's a fine word and one I shall try to hold on to a while longer now I have it back!

Anonymous said...

I usually use the word tinker

Isa said...

As an academic in a Cambridge College this post makes me rethink the common (in my context) use of 'combination'. We have Junior and Senior Combination Rooms, describing the undgeraduate and lecturer communities respectively, and after weekly formal dinners we must choose whether or not to 'combine' (stay on for fruit, petits fours, Port, coffee etc.) I had thought of it simply as 'mixing socially', but the Polish use, along with the A. Smith quotation reminds me of the questions of power and action associated with such structures and networks.

Michael Dembinski said...

An 'almost there' word in English - to scheme. "He was forever scheming how he'd make his first million." Yet schemes and scheming suggests plans that may or may not come into fruition...