We will come back to some descriptions/names of early Poland (including bin-Yakub‘s) in part III – but in the meantime we thought to take a detour (why not!?) describing some interesting etymologies of the name.
Some hypotheses as regards the name of Poles or Poland follow (we are trying to be complete and creative rather than trying to propose that each of those is equally likely). We also note that some of these hypotheses are complementary (e.g., Poles maybe named after Lachs but Lach was a reference to a type of a field – lęda – not to a person or they were named after Eastern Polans but those in turn were named after fields or after lędy, etc.):
Named After Fields
This is the most common interpretation of the name. This is also the interpretation given by Nestor in PVL to the name Polyane around Kiev (i.e., those Eastern Polans that would then become Rus, once the Rus took them over).
The serf overseer with his feared “skinny boomerang” – the bane of the fleeing peasant – doing what he does best – some good ol’ honest overseein’
On the other hand, at a minimum, this could not have meant “people who harvest fields”, i.e., it did not have an agricultural connotation but rather may have meant people who live in fields as in meadows or open fields. Further, it is a strange name to give to a people who lived in a heavily forested country.
Named After Forest Clearings
Could Polyane refer to “polana” a forest clearing? Initially, in Latin scripts Poland was many times referred to as Polania and to this day there is a Latin Polonia. Possible, but it makes little sense to refer to a people who live in such a large country on the assumption that most of them live in small clearings.
Polane celebrating having set themselves up in “just the right kind of clearing”
Further, etymologists tell us that we then should have seen a different form of the adjective polski – polanski. Also, the word Polak may come from pole but it is unlikely to come from polana.
Named After Lędy
Ledziny (or lędy, singular lęda) are fields but not in the sense of “pole” i.e., not the usual ones for cultivation of crops but rather fields that were were a result of the slash and burn agriculture allegedly practiced by the early Slavs. This was a theory advanced by Rostafinski (of the beech fame). (He also derives Vends/Wends from “wedzic”, i.e., to smoke fish, by drying them, i.e., to deprive them of water (i.e., wend)).
Thus, for example, the name of the Lendizi – a southeastern Polish tribe (aka Lędzianie) – would be the same as the Lachs or Polachs or Polaks or Poles. Such a tribe was mentioned in 844-845 by the Bavarian Geographer as Lendizi. This same tribe was mentioned by Porphirogenotos in De Administrando Imperio (Λενζανηνοί) as well as by Al-Masudi (“Landzaneh“).
Yo! That’s how we roll – gotta problem with that?
This etymology actually seems to make sense but only to explain the word Lachy which although applied originally with respect to the Lendizi, the Russians and others who lived next to the Lendizi then, in the same form applied to all Poles (and indeed to Pomeranians, Silesians, Mazovians and Polabian Slavs as well). (See PVL).
Named After Eastern Polans
A corollary of this is that, although the Eastern Polyane are mentioned by Nestor as the original inhabitants of Kiev, they disappear quickly after the Rus conquest of Kiev (about 882-885) (though Nestor mentions that some still live in Kiev as of the time of the writing of the PVL, i.e., in the early 12th century). At the time of the Bavarian Geographer’s writing about the lands East of the Frankish kingdom, no Poles existed on his list. Then they are there in Poland “ready to go” at least since mid-10th century.
Polyane – fleeing the Rus – only 50% would make it
Note also that while there is a Gniezno (nest) in Poland and that was the first capital of the country, there is also a Gnyozdovo in Russia just West of Smolensk.
So was Poland really a Russian venture? Or putting it less provocatively, are Poles a tribe (or some of the tribe) driven from Russia (specifically Kiev) by the Varangian Rus some time in the second half of the ninth century?
Named After Lech
One of the popular interpretations has been that the Poles are named Po-lechu, i.e., after Lech their original founder.
Lech (modern reconstruction based on DNA sampling)
As we have seen, however, the existence of Lech cannot be proven before the 12th century Dalimil Chronicle and there he was actually named Czech (i.e., Lech means a young man). Only, the later Greater Poland Chronicles and the Czech Pulkava Chronicle first mention Lech as the Urvater of the Poles. Note that the Kadlubek Chronicle, which came after Dalimil but before the other two, mentions Lechites and mentions a number of “Lestkos” as in “sly” but does not mention a tribal leader by that name as leading the Poles into Poland as is mentioned later (e.g., in GPCs and in Dlugosz where Poles arrive from the South).
Now, there was a Czech leader named Lech who perished fighting Charlamagne in 805… So were these Lechites (the alternative name for Poles) perhaps refugees from Bohemia? (There is an interesting, somewhat later, story that connects the flight of a certain Czech family from Bohemia, the Varshovtzi, to the founding of Warszawa or Warsaw in Poland).
Also there was a famous battle in 955 between Otto I and the Hungarians at Lechfeld (look – it’s got a field and a Lech (!)) named after the River Lech which was named after…
Otto I (on the right in the shorter shorts) and his most loyal knights celebrate their victory over the Hungarians
Named After Lech (but with Lech being a variation of the Norse “Lag”)
This is the theory that has Poland founded by Vikings. Allegedly Old Norse Lag means “companion”. Thus, the Viking companions would have founded Poland much like the Varangian Rus founded Russia.
“Dago, methinks it’s time to put away the flail and the attitude and start milkin’!”
There seem to be no facts that support this (a fact admitted even by Nazi scientists who sought to establish this during WWII after the occupation of Poland). In fact, what speaks against it the most is that the name Lachs/Lengiel was employed (and is employed) almost exclusively in the East by Russians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Hungarians but never by Germans or Scandinavians.
The theory of conquest was popular among the Polish szlachta (there is that Lach again… or Lech if szlachta is from Geschlecht) at the end of the 18th century to explain why the szlachta lived it up while the peasantry was so remarkably downtrodden (first they thought they were Vandals, then Sarmatians, then Norsemen). It was later of interest to Polish defeatists who saw Poland partitioned (Lelewel, Szajnocha) and thereafter it was picked up by German historians after WWI when reborn Poland threatened Germany’s Eastern flank.
(incidentally, some members of the Anglo-Saxon historiography establishment sought to prove that the venal szlachta were really Asiatic Sarmatians while the Polish peasantry was of Gothic origin…)
Named After Polanow, the Town
There is a town in Poland named Polanow (in southern Pomerania or northern Greater Poland, if you will). Already the Greater Poland Chronicles suggested that the country is named after that town.
(from the Polish National Library)
Incidentally, next to that town there is also the town of Pustow which sounds (a bit) like Piastow…
Named After Boleslaw the Great
So was bolaniorum really the correct version and Poland is named after Boleslaw the Great?Given the number of “P” polaniorum manuscripts we think unlikely. Interestingly, Poland with “B” as in Buluniia (no, not bulimia) also appears in Al-Idrisi‘s much later Tabula Rogeriana and in several other places…
Boleslaw Chrobry greets the young Otto III at Gniezno – A.D. 1000
Named After the Alans
It was named after the Alans as Poles are the remnant of the Scythian Alans (the “former Massagetae” according to Ammianus Marcellinus) most of whom went West with the Vandals and Suevi (and then onto Africa).
Alani on the Peutinger Map (in the far off grid 8A3)
After all Boleslaw is named pALANioru(m) duce above and we know from the Annales Vedastini about those “Alanos, quos dicunt Sclavos.” Here is that piece again:
We think unlikely – if anything the Polish tradition mentioned Vandals. (Although later it began to mention the Sarmatians who may have been Alans… hmmmmmm). And are Vandals just some conglomeration of Venethi and Alans – they did set out together in 406 or so… (we think this unlikely too).
Named After the North Star
A theory mentioned in 1745 by Benedykt Chmielowski has the name Poland derived from “Polo Arctico, that is the Northern Star towards which did the Polish Kingdom lay, just as Spain was named Hesperia from the Western star Hesperus.”
“No, not that one! The one on the left!!!!!”
Named After the North Pole
This is a variation on the above. We cannot recall who came up with that one though it seems to have merited at least some debate in Polish ethnographic circles.
The subfreezing temperatures made well functioning port-a-potties into highly coveted real estate (the “Polish” flag will be touched up in post production)
Named After a Colchian Field
The same Chmielowski also suggests another etymology, that of a Colchian field, with Colchis being a part of today’s Georgia which was visited by the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece (remember those Paphlagonians…).
Colchis – in all its pink glory
Named After the Baptism of Poland
‘Polac’ means to ‘pour onto’. Already the Czech Vaclav Hajek in his Kronyka Ceska (from 1541) suggested that Poles were those Slavs (or Lechites) who underwent baptism. They were “polani” (i.e., poured onto) with water. Apparently, Czech missionaries would ask “are you ‘polani‘ already?” If this “Catholic” or, rather, “Christian” etymology were correct then, by definition, only those Poles that were baptized were real Poles. This seems interesting if slightly preposterous.
966 A.D. – KQTZ brings it to you as it happened
Named After a Croatian City of Pula (or Pollentia)
After all the Poles (or Lech at least) supposedly came from Croatia (according to Jan Dlugosz) and there is a Krk island in Croatia so there should be a Polania or something in Croatia and, of course, there is: Colonia Pietas Iulia Pola Pollentia Herculanea or the modern city of Pula which was founded by “Illyrians” (or someone before them).
Eeeeee… if this is true, what were they thinking moving North!?
Oh yes, it’s also on the Peutinger Map!
Named After Vlakhs
Nestor writes in the PVL:
“Over a long period the Slavs settled beside the Danube, where the Hungarian and Bulgarian lands now lie. From among these Slavs, parties scattered throughout the country and were known by appropriate names, according to the places where they settled. Thus some came and settled by the river Morava, and were named Moravians, while others were called Czechs. Among these same Slavs are included the White Croats, the Serbs and the Carinthians. For when the Vlakhs attacked the Danubian Slavs, settled among them and did them violence, the latter came and made their homes by the Vistula, and were then called Lyakhs.”
The strange thing here is that the paragraph on the Lyachs follows a settlement by most of the other Slavs in their lands already. That is, the attack of the Vlachs (either the Romanized population of the Balkans or the Byzantines are presumably meant) seems to apply (or could be read to apply) solely to the Lyachs. Are Lyachs those who were driven out by the Vlachs? Or are they perhaps somehow the original Vlachs (in pursuit of Slavs)?
The most famous Vlach of all “No Slavs… you cannot get away!”
Named After Lany
A “lan” is a portion of a field. So if not the whole field, perhaps some of it? One of our readers suggested this and we thought worth including this etymology as well. Tell us what you think.
The Polish “lany” were a place where fertility cults thrived
The Plain Truth?
Although neither Linde nor Brueckner suggest this etymology, it is conceivable that the Polish word “plony” (as in harvest) derives from plain as in flat (they suggest its original meaning was simply “booty” both of fields and that taken from the enemy). However, the “pole” etymology was always tad suspect since by accepting it we were to accept that the forested Polish countryside was full of open fields – or at least more so than other areas of Europe. On the other hand, we do know that the Great Northern European Plain is well, plain – whether covered by forest or by fields or whatever else the area is flatland. In Latin the word us planum and means “level ground” i.e., plain…
Lech hunting “zubr” on the Great Plain of Poland [dramatization]
This would seem anecdotally supported by reports of Polish ethnographers who claimed that, e.g., Gorale claimed not to be Poles – when asked why that would be given they speak the same language, the Goral in question (a gazda – look it up) was confused because, he said, he is not a Pole as, of course, he lives in the mountains so how could he be a Pole… (Incidentally, the Nazis after their conquest of Poland exploited these kinds of musings by declaring a new “privileged” minority – the Goralenvolk – most of the leadership of this short lived “minority” were executed after the war). Similarly, by this logic Pomeranians were “not Poles” because they lived by the sea and Silesians by the Sleza mountain in the highlands.
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