Where is Poland? There are Poles all over the planet, and lots of them in the U.S. and the U.K., but the geographic boundaries of the country can be elusive, confusing and difficult to follow—unless you are Polish, or interested in Poland’s often tragic history. Poland has changed shape and size and has moved towards or away from all the points of the compass at various times, depending on wars, conquests, or defeats. It is said to be the only country to lose the Second World War twice—once in 1939, when the Germans invaded and conquered in the space of a few days, and again in 1945, when it underwent its most recent remodeling, including a westward move of the border at Stalin’s command. The Poles then living in the western reaches of what is now Ukraine were ethnically cleansed and resettled in what had been eastern Germany.
In the distant past, Lithuania and Poland were joined in a political union that at times extended its sovereignty from the Baltic all the way to the shores of the Black Sea. On the other extreme, at one point Poland vanished from the map of Europe completely, partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary. Such turbulence was endemic in central and eastern Europe, but perhaps more severe in Poland than elsewhere. And as the Polish state expanded and contracted over the centuries, multicultural influences added their idiom to the language.
Na pohybel is one of those offerings stranded within the Polish vocabulary by the ebb and flow of the country’s often stormy relationship with Ukraine. Imagine, if you will, a gathering of my compatriots around a table arrayed with ample supplies of vodka, each shot thrown straight down their gullets in the course of innumerable toasts, with fervent repetitions of na pohybel punctuating the commotion.
Here’s to misery!
Perhaps the nearest English equivalent of na pohybel would be “break a leg,” but this does not nearly convey the intimation of death it implies, achieved by any of a variety of unpleasant methods, but always resulting in sudden demise. In Ukrainian the tag means ruin, ruination, doom, perdition, misfortune, calamity. There is a suggestion of death, destruction or annihilation. Na means “on”—as in “on your head”—and pohybel means—well, all the things I just listed, but really it is untranslatable and that is why it is here.
Not that this expression implies hostility to the recipient: it is more a manifestation of hangman’s humor, ironic and cynical acceptance of fate, companionship in adversity, the metaphorical shrug of the shoulders, Clark Gable’s last line as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”—how fabulous would it have been if he’d said, “Eeeeehhh, na pohybel,” before marching out the door?). Na pohybel carries an echo of resignation, but also more than a hint of defiance.
There are many shades of meaning, a veritable gamut of emotions conveyed by intonation and body language. Na pohybel can surface in thought, speech during solitary confrontation with everyday frustrations—like finding a parking ticket on the windscreen—or it can punctuate a failed deal in business, or a bad hand in a poker game. It is still used at appropriate junctures even by Poles who, like me, do not speak Ukrainian. But I would use it when speaking Polish, not when speaking English.
Na pohybel can also convey the helplessness of an individual confronted by overwhelming or anonymous hostile forces—name your own government, official or bank. So much more expressive and satisfying than “break a leg,” no?