The Origin of the Word “Polka”
by Robert Pula
Much confusion has developed over the meaning of the term "polka" and the origin of the dance the term represents. In both instances, the prime contenders for the origin
of both the term and the dance are the Poles and the Czechs, counterclaims that are not sufficiently explored even in contemporary works such as Victor Greene’s recent A Passion for Polka: Old-Time
Ethnic Music in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
Supporting the Polish origins in the fifth edition of Grove’s (1954, Vol. III, p. 333), the noted musicologist Czeslaw R. Halski states that "The polka [Polish girl] is undoubtedly of Polish origin. This dance is extremely popular throughout the country, though in some regions it goes under different names such as szot, przodek, or oryl. In the majority of regions, however, it is so dearly beloved that some odd and descriptive sobriquets are added to its name, such as ‘polka-kokietka’ [coquette polka], ‘polka w szafliku’ [bucket polka] or ‘polka-figurowa’ [figure polka]." Halski quotes the Swedish musicologist Tobias Norlind who, writing in a Hungarian journal, noted that "the dance polka is not of Czech origin. It was originated by the Poles domiciled in southern Hungary." He supports his contention further by referring to the Standard Dictionary of Folklore (New York, 1950, Vol. II, p. 876) which says, "Polka,
a ballroom step and couple dance of Polish origin wholeheartedly adopted throughout central and western Europe, the United States and Middle America."
The Czech scholar Gracian Cernusak maintains that the polka "was probably the last in a long evolution of peasant dances into a type of social dance. This transformation may
have been influenced by several dances of foreign origin which became domesticated in Czech society, particularly by the ecossaise and the krakowiak. The name ‘polka,’ which has been erroneously
explained either as a corruption of the Czech work ‘pulka’
(half), the characteristic feature of the dance being its short heal-and-toe half-steps—or as a derivation from the word ‘pole’ (field), in fact goes back to the
Czech term ‘polka’ for ‘Polish girl’..." (Grove, 5th ed., Vol. VI, p. 839).
The strictly linguistic line of exploration is echoed in the recent scholarly entertainment by Nicholas Slonimsky in his Lectionary of Music (NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1989, pp.
376-377): "Despite its name suggesting a Polish origin...the polka is a Bohemian dance in rapid 2/4 time. It originated in Prague about 1847 and almost immediately spread all over Europe. In this process it
lost its specific Bohemian characteristics and became a popular salon dance. Johann Strauss wrote a famous Pizzicato Polka and many other composers followed suit. Stravinsky wrote a Circus Polka for a dance of elephants in an American circus."
An article by Professor Cernusak, assisted by Andrew Lamb, in the New Grove (1980, Vol. 15, pp. 42-44) in which he disclaims the Bohemian origins, stating that the name "more
probably comes from the Czech term for a Polish girl, either as a title to a vocal accompaniment to the dance or in reference to the krakowiak dance-songs which the Bohemians adapted to their polkas."
More recently, Philip D. Morehead’s The New International Dictionary of Music (NY: Meridian/Penguin, 1992, p. 417) states that the polka is "a lively couple-dance in double time of Polish origin consisting of three steps and a hop." Indeed, it appears that the polka became the Czech national dance in a process similar to the way in which the mazur (mazurka), traveling under the name "polska," became established in Sweden as "one of the most markedly national of all the Swedish folk dance" (Grove, Vol. VI, p. 848).
Polskas became and remain popular in all the Scandinavian countries, as the "polska" in Sweden and Finland, the "Pols" in Norway and the "Polsk dans" in Denmark. The polska figures prominently in such well-known works as the Swedish Rhapsody No. 1 by Hugo Alfven.
In Poland itself, the polska in its many folk versions gave rise to the modern polonaise, which is simply French for "Polish." The French term was subsequently
adopted by the Poles and added to their own language as "polonez." The polska also migrated to the Lusatian Sorbs (Serbs) or Wends in the environs of Dresden and to the territories of the Slovaks, Moravians and Bohemians (Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1992).
Given all of the above, I suggest that we can best understand the Czech polka as a domesticated krakowiak which, in its Czech and German forms, accompanied by its sturdy Polish
"cousins," spread throughout Europe and the Americas.
Robert P. Pula edited the General Semantics Bulletin from 1977-85 and served as Director of the Institute of General Semantics from 1983-86. He has recently written the Preface
for the Fifth Edition of Korzybski’s Science and Sanity. His collected writings in general semantics, Knowledge, Uncertainty and Courage was published in late 1994.
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