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In the contemporary English language, the nouns Polack (/ˈplɑːk/ and /-læk/) or Polak are ethnic slurs, and derogatory references to a person of Polish descent.[1] It is an Anglicisation of the Polish masculine noun Polak, which denotes a person of Polish ethnicity and male gender.[2] However, the English loanword is considered by some to be an ethnic slur and therefore considered insulting in certain contemporary usages.


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).[3] 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, Shakespeare uses the term Polacks in his tragedy Hamlet to refer to opponents of Hamlet's father. A quote is given below:

Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated:
So frowned 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".[4]

On 26 July 2008, The Times featured a comment piece by restaurant reviewer and columnist Giles Coren (known for his profanity-strewn complaints),[5] which contained viewpoints that many Poles considered to be anti-Polish.[6] In a piece, entitled "Two waves of immigration, Poles apart",[7] 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, referencing the fact that his great-grandfather had left Poland for the United Kingdom:

"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".[8] 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.[9] 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 with the European Court of Human Rights.


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 or Norwegian, polack or polakk are inoffensive terms for a person from Poland.[10]

In Iberian languages, polaco is a mild slur for people from Catalonia,[11] though it is a completely neutral way of referencing Polish people in all Ibero-American countries except Brazil, where, much like galego[citation needed] (Galician), alemão[citation needed] (German) and russo[citation needed] (Russian), it became a politically incorrect term, and the noun used for Polish people is polonês (such term is absent from Spanish and other Portuguese variants).

In Ukrainian, the old exonym лях (lyakh, lyakhy) is now considered offensive[12] 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 "sh", and the sibilant-sounding speech (e.g., przepraszam ("excuse me") transcribed as "psheprasham") has been a target of mockery in Russian culture.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Polack – Define Polack at Dictionary.com". reference.com.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Polack". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  4. ^ The Educational Company, William Shakespeare's Hamlet edited with notes by Patrick Murray, ISBN 0-86167-003-5 p. 54.
  5. ^ Matthew, Moore (11 September 2008). "Restaurant reviewer Giles Coren abuses colleagues in leaked email". The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
  6. ^ "I have never ended on an unstressed syllable!" Media. The Guardian.
  7. ^ "Two waves of immigration, Poles apart"Times Online.
  8. ^ "Poland’s role in the Holocaust"Times Online.
  9. ^ Conlan, Tara (8 August 2008). "Giles Coren article in the Times prompts Polish complaints to PCC" – via The Guardian.
  10. ^ Sten Malmström & Iréne Györki, Bonniers svenska ordbok (Bonniers' Swedish dictionary), ed. Peter A. Sjögren (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1980), ISBN 91-0-042749-7, p. 249.
  11. ^ Why are the Catalans called 'polacos'? – Polska Viva (in Spanish).
  12. ^ (in Ukrainian) Ляхи (Lyakhy) in Ukrainian Wikipedia.
  13. ^ пшек, Словарь русского арго, ГРАМОТА.РУ. В. С. Елистратов. 2002.