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In the contemporary English language, the noun Polack (/ˈplɑːk/ and /-læk/) is a derogatory, mainly North American, reference to a person of Polish origin.[1][2] It is an anglicisation of the Polish masculine noun Polak, which denotes a person of Polish ethnicity and typically male gender.[3][4] However, the English loanword is considered an ethnic slur.[5][6]


According to Online Etymology Dictionary by Douglas Harper, Polack meant as "Polish immigrant, person of Polish descent" was used in American English until the late 19th century (1879) to describe a "Polish person" in a non-offensive way (1574).[7] Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1) based on the Unabridged Dictionary by Random House claims that the word originated between 1590 and 1600. For example, in Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet, the character Horatio uses the term Polacks to refer to the opponents of Hamlet's father:

Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated;
So frown'd he once, when, in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.

In an Irish-published edition of Hamlet by the Educational Company, Patrick Murray noted: "Some editors, however, argue that Polacks should read as pole-axe, and that Horatio is remembering an angry Old Hamlet striking the ice with his battle-axe".[8]

On 26 July 2008, The Times featured a comment piece by restaurant reviewer and columnist Giles Coren which contained viewpoints that many Poles considered to be anti Polish. In a piece, entitled "Two waves of immigration, Poles apart", Coren used the ethnic slur Polack to describe Polish immigrants who can "clear off", in reference to Polish immigrants leaving the United Kingdom in response to low-paying construction jobs drying up. He went on to articulate his views about the role of Poles in the Holocaust in occupied Poland, referring to the fact that his great-grandfather had left Poland for the United Kingdom:[9]

We Corens are here, now, because the ancestors of these Poles now going home used to amuse themselves at Easter by locking Jews in the synagogue and setting fire to it.

The piece prompted a letter of complaint to The Times from the Polish ambassador to the UK, Barbara Tuge-Erecińska. She wrote that "the issue of Polish–Jewish relations has been unfairly and deeply falsified" by his "aggressive remarks" and "contempt".[10] Coren's comments caused the Federation of Poles in Great Britain to attempt to demand a published apology from The Times under threat of an official complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, which has the power to force an official apology.[11] After the Press Complaints Commission rejected their complaint because the criticism had been of a group rather than an individual, the Federation of Poles in Great Britain lodged a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights.[12]


The neutral English language noun for a Polish person (male or female) today is Pole (see also: Naming Poland in foreign languages). In some other languages such as Swedish, Norwegian or Scots, polack or polakk are inoffensive terms for a person from Poland.[13]

In Iberian languages, polaco is a mild slur for people from Catalonia,[14] though it is a completely neutral way of referring to Polish people in all Ibero-American countries except Brazil, where it became a politically incorrect term, and the noun used for Polish people nowadays is polonês (such term is absent from Spanish and other Portuguese variants).

In Ukrainian, the old exonym лях (lyakh, lyakhy) is now considered offensive[15] In Russian the same word, formerly often used with negative connotations but not generally offensive, is obsolete. In both languages it was replaced by the neutral поляк (polyak).

Another common Russian ethnic slur for Poles is пшек (pshek), an onomatopoeia derived from Polish phonology: prepositions prze- and przy- are quite common, with rz corresponding to the sound of "zh", and the sibilant-sounding speech (e.g., przepraszam ("excuse me") transcribed as "pzheprasham") has been a target of mockery in Russian culture.[16]

In Polish, term polaczek (sometimes capitalised as Polaczek; plural: polaczki) is seen as a disrespectful or offensive term for Polish person. In Polish-language media, it is usually also used as a direct translation for English term Polack.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stevenson, Angus, ed. (2010). Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford University Press. p. 1373. ISBN 9780199571123.
  2. ^ "Polack – Define Polack at Dictionary.com". reference.com.
  3. ^ (in Polish) Definition of Polak in PWN dictionary:"polak". Retrieved 17 November 2022.
  4. ^ Some sources connect the feminine form Polka to the musical form and genre of that name; others link the latter to Czech pulka, meaning "half" and likely referring to the half steps performed by the dancers or the dance's 2/4 as opposed to 4/4 time signature.
  5. ^ "Polack". merriam-webster.com. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 26 February 2022.
  6. ^ Sánchez Fajardo, José A. (2022). Pejorative Suffixes and Combining Forms in English. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 53. ISBN 9789027210609.
  7. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Polack". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  8. ^ The Educational Company, William Shakespeare's Hamlet edited with notes by Patrick Murray, ISBN 0-86167-003-5 p. 54.
  9. ^ "Two waves of immigration, Poles apart"The Times.
  10. ^ "Poland’s role in the Holocaust"Times Online.
  11. ^ Conlan, Tara (8 August 2008). "Giles Coren article in the Times prompts Polish complaints to PCC" – via The Guardian.
  12. ^ "Poles take Coren fight to European Court". The Jewish Chronicle. 2009-03-05. Retrieved 2023-11-03.
  13. ^ Sten Malmström & Iréne Györki, Bonniers svenska ordbok (Bonniers' Swedish dictionary), ed. Peter A. Sjögren (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1980), ISBN 91-0-042749-7, p. 249.
  14. ^ Why are the Catalans called 'polacos'? – Polska Viva (in Spanish).
  15. ^ (in Ukrainian) Ляхи (Lyakhy) in Ukrainian Wikipedia.
  16. ^ пшек, Словарь русского арго, ГРАМОТА.РУ. В. С. Елистратов. 2002.
  17. ^ Nazwy członków narodów, ras i szczepów. In: Wielki słownik ortograficzny. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN. (in Polish)