Update: As of November 18, 2011, thanks to the help of the many people who did investigated this topic and wrote me about it, this article contains 31 Slovak words for potato.
Words for Potato
November 9, 2011
By Allan Stevo
It may come as no surprise to many that potatoes play a special role in Slovak culture. In some parts of the country a peasant meal of some potatoes, some fatty bacon, and some milk cooked together make for a comfort food on a cold wet, day. The “national dish” is aged sheep cheese mixed into potato dumplings with bacon and lard drizzled on top. Where there aren’t potatoes, there’s at least bread, and sometimes rice, but often enough, I’ve been served a little rice AND a little potatoes on one plate. Potatoes are a staple in these lands.
I believe potatoes are part of the reason I’ve felt a Slovak appreciation for the Irish. The impoverished Irish had their potato famine and many ultimately ran to America to escape the turmoil of home. How dire life would be if for years the potato crop were abysmal in Slovakia. Some cultures can empathize with the Irish, Slovaks can sympathize with them. They know how important a good harvest of potatoes can be to having a good year.
During the Cold War, the communists very effectively pointed out through a widespread propaganda campaign that Americans hated Slovaks and their strong potato harvests. They hated Slovaks so much that the Americans dropped an insect called a mandelinka from the sky onto the fields in order to destroy the Czechoslovak potato crop and impoverish the people in order to thwart their march toward the great communist society of Marx’s, Engels’s, and Lenin’s dreams. At least that what the propaganda campaigns said.
I am unable to say whether or not the U.S. government intentionally dropped these bugs in Europe, or if a “gift” of foreign aid contained these crop destroying pests, or if these bugs just magically appeared. What I do know is that even today, in the year 2011, there are Slovaks who have accept it as fact that this event took place. Reality or not, it is accepted as reality.
The bug has a variety of colorful names in former Czechoslovakia, including “the six legged ambassador of Wall Street” according to this book, or the “American beetle” in order to help remind one of its capitalist origins in the event that he or she missed the propaganda campaign, or “potato bug.” Pasavka zemiakova is the official name of this bug in Slovak, but the word mandelinka is a more popular word for it, probably because of the resemblance of the creature to the mandolin. “Colorado Potato Beetle” is what it is referred to in the U.S. People got worked up into a frenzy over the arrival of this creature in Czechoslovakia – how could the Americans be so cruel?
If the potato bug being dropped on Czechoslovakia and East Germany by American planes is a lie, then the potato bug ordeal of the 1950s teaches all free people around the world an important lesson of questioning the received wisdom that happens across our ears. The potato bug affair offers fascinating insight into the ways that the media was used to develop a lie among trusting people that then turned into a frenzy. Establishing the veracity of this claim seems to have escaped that vital step that all should engage in before believing another person and working oneself into a frenzy – critical questioning. The American government has surely done shameful things to other countries. I’m not challenging that bad things happen from time to time. I just think it’s good to be critical before working oneself up into a frenzy over those bad things.
If it was only a propaganda campaign based on a lie, then the communists chose a great subject for it, since potatoes are loved by Slovaks. Even today, many Slovaks have their fields in the hills behind their homes and harvest those potatoes toward the end of each summer, storing them carefully so that they will last throughout the winter and for the next 12 months until the next potato harvest.
Potatoes are such an important part of Slovak culture that the Slovak language has what I have identified as
13 31 distinct words or distinct regional pronunciations for the venerable potato. Each of these words is used to describe the edible tuber that is referred to as “potato” in English. On the land of the Slovak Republic, each of these may be thrown around in discussion and are likely be understood.
- Zemiak, Zemiaky
- Brambor / Brambory
I’m guessing there are at least another dozen words out there that are understood by Slovaks, but it’s hard to just walk up to a random person and as “how many words for potato do you know” and expect results. Collecting this list took some doing. Might you have any others to add to this list? If so, please share with the group – drop a note in the comments sections below.
If you are interested in where some of these words come from and how they are related to other languages in the region, here’s a very quick sketch of what I’ve been able to come across.
Zemiak / Zemiaky – Ziemniak is used in Polish. The Slovak word zem or “earth” is present in it.
Svapka – is from the Goral language / dialect of northern Slovakia / southern Poland. Martin on Slovak World points out in response to this article: “The Slovak words for the “potato” show clearly that it was a relatively recent
arrival and that the potatoes traveled from west to east in Europe, they reached the Slovaks from the German speaking areas. S~vabka is from Swabian, part of north-eastern Germany. The Czech brambor is from Brandenburg, as above.”
Grule, Kompere, Bandory, Švabka, & Švapka – I have nothing insightful to say about these interesting words.
Bandurky – Martin on Slovak World responded to this article: “Bandurky is probably from pandur, a noblemen’s guard (later also county policeman), among whose duties was to oversee people doing their compulsory work in the nobleman’s fields one or two days each week. The farmers may have started using it, pejoratively, for the new crop. But it’s just a possibility, there are several similar bandur- words with various meanings whose origin is unclear.”
Grumbir – Livia writes in the comments section below: “GRUMBIR is the term used in the region called Zahorie (close to the Czech border with Morava) where my paternal grandma lived. They have so many special words it’s almost a language of its own.”
Repa – is a general word for edible tubers, which can also be applied to potatoes specifically.
Burgonya – is a synonym for repa in Slovak, but is also used in Hungary to mean potato. It is used in Slovakia to refer generally to tubers and bulbous roots growing in the ground. Since I have never heard it used to refer to a potato in Slovak, I did not include it in the list above.
Brambor / Brambory – this term is used widely in Czech as well.
Bobale – Les writes below “In Myjava, Brezova pod Bradlom region the potatoes are called: Bobale.” Ivan in the comments section below follows up on Les’s comment: “Both of my parents are from Brezova pod Bradlon and most of the time a potato was either “bobal” (singular), “bobale” (plural) or zemiak (singular) or zemiaky (plural).”
Krumple – Krumpli is a Hungarian term, кромпир (krompir) is used in Serbian, krompirja in Slovenian, krumpir in Croatian.
Kartoška – is from Russian – картошка
Erteple – the Dutch use aardappel and in Afrikans the same is used as well. Erdapfel is used in Austria. The words are probably related, but the pronunciation differs in Slovak. All three of these words seem to be the literal equivalent of “la pomme de terre” used in French “apple of the earth,” or in the case of the three words above, “earth apple” seems a better way to express the roots of this word. Modern Hebrew is heavily influenced by European culture and in that language, the same way of thinking is borrowed “tapuach adama” literally translates as “apple of the earth.”
Martin on Slovak World, in response to this discussion points out “Similar to erteple, ertekle, as you describe them, Allan, the plurals grule, krumple, kromple, krumpole, krompele, kompere, krompachy, and the singulars grombir, grumbir, krumpir, are all from the German ‘ground pears’ (Grundbirne).”
Ertekle – Erteple is perhaps a corruption of the Germanic words mentioned, and Ertekle is probably a further corruption of the above Erteple.
Kartoffel – is used in German and is similar to the word used by Ukrainians – картопля (kartoplya) and Russians картофель (kartofelʹ). Kartofel can also be used in Polish, картоф (kartof) in Bulgarian. Romanians use cartof, Latvians – kartupeļu, and Estonians kartul. About the word kartoffel, Gustav points out below “Kartoffel is purely a German word, in Slovakia we use the derived version kartofel (singular) or kartofle (plural).” Martin from Slovak World states “Kartofel did come via German, which it entered from Italian (a corruption of
Belarussian uses a totally different word that most of the slavs in the area – бульба (buĺba). The word is also used in Lithuanian and Yiddish and might even be related to the Slovak phrase “Co si blby?” “Are you stupid?” While I know that comparing a person’s intelligence to that of a vegetable is a common insult in many languages and calling someone a “potato head” can’t be considered a distinction of intelligence, I think that connection between blby and бульба (buĺba) is sort of a stretch.
Do you have any others to add? I am sure that with the extensive knowledge of the people who read this site, there will be lots of variations on the above and with the fact that so many readers had families that emigrated from Slovakia throughout Europe and into the U.S. and Canada, there will be some fascinating words from the version of the Slovak language that their families left with. Please do share any of those interesting words for potatoes. How about the “mandelinka,” the “six legged ambassador of Wall Street,” any insight there? Did Americans really drop “bug bombs” on Czechoslovakia?
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.