Hewlett-Packard’s reverse Polish epithet


Chris Alexander



Jan Lukasiewicz (1878-1956) was one of the most notable pioneers of Multi-Valued Logic (Smarandache and Christianto 2005); he became the Polish Minister of Education in 1919 and twice Rector of Warsaw University between 1920 and 1939. In the 1920s he developed a formal logic system that allowed mathematical expressions to be specified without parentheses by placing the operators before (prefix notation) or after (postfix notation) the operands. Hicks (2007) maintains that prefix notation also came to be known as Polish Notation in honour of Lukasiewicz and that Hewlett-Packard adjusted the postfix notation for a calculator keyboard, added a stack to hold the operands and functions to reorder the stack; Hewlett-Packard dubbed the result Reverse Polish Notation (RPN) also in honour of Lukasiewicz (Hicks 2007). Engineers at Hewlett-Packard then realised that RPN could be used to simplify the electronics of their calculators (Hicks 2007); the first calculator to use RPN was the HP9100A (1968[1]), which is now regarded by many as the first desktop computer (Hicks 2007). Moreover in the late 1980s, Hewlett-Packard developed a new series of extremely powerful calculators that needed a new programming language; Hicks (2007) holds that instead of using existing languages such as BASIC, Hewlett-Packard combined elements of RPN, Lisp[2] and Forth[3] and came up with a language called Reverse Polish Lisp or RPL.


But why does Hewlett-Packard continue to use the term reverse Polish? Why reverse? And reverse for whom? Some common expressions in Polish for instance may appear reverse or conceptually different in English, but that does not constitute reversal, for instance:




elbow pasta in Polish is translated as makaron kolanka, however kolanka in Polish is derived from the word kolano which in English means ‘knee’. This same conceptual distinction also applies to pipe terminology e.g. elbow joint which in Polish is kolanko (literally knee joint).









more or less in Polish is mniej więcej (literally less more).




 hammer and sickle in Polish is sierp i młot (literally sickle and hammer).




mother-tongue in Polish is język ojczysty which in Polish literally means language of the fatherland.  




Some common idioms appear conceptually poles apart, e.g.




carrot and stick in Polish is ‘kij i marchewka’ (literally ‘stick and carrot’). This example in Polish may suggest an alternative conceptual approach. Manifestly, the use of a carrot and stick approach or policy in English is defined (Sinclair 1995: 243) as offering “people things in order to persuade them to do something and punish them if they refuse to do it”. However in Polish it is defined (Wilson 2005) as używanie groźby i jednoczesne obiecywanie korzyścii.e. ‘the use of a threat (of punishment) and the simultaneous promising of benefit’.




Which came first, the chicken or the egg? in Polish is co bylo pierwsze: jajo czy kura[4]? (literally which came first the egg or the chicken).




a word is enough to the wise in Polish is mądrej głowie dość dwie słowie (Wilson 2005): this in English literally means to the wise, two words are enough.











There’s safety in numbers which in Polish means w jedności siła (Wilson 2005): this in English literally means united as one there is power.




to simmer with rage which in Polish is kipieć z wściekłości (Wilson 2005): this Polish idiom in English literally means to boil over with rage.


(f) Is the negative imperative more effective than the non-negative imperative?


Do unto others as you would have others do unto you (Mathew 7:120) in Polish is Nie czyń drugiemu co tobie niemiło (Świerczyńscy 1996) which in English literally means Don’t do to others what to you isn’t nice. Polish uses a negative imperative while English uses a non-negative imperative.


Other examples of proverbs that use the negative imperative in Polish first in a sentence are (Świerczyńscy 1996), the English translations use the positive imperative:


·         Nie chodź z bębnami na zające which in English is To catch a hare with a tabaret


·         Nie drażnij psa, to cię nie ukąsi which in English is It is ill to waken sleeping dogs


Proper nouns in Polish tend to place the main classifying category type first and sub-categories next. For instance, names of hotels in Polish generally have the word ‘Hotel’ first (main classifying category), and then the specific name of the hotel (sub-category) e.g. Hotel Royal, Hotel Browaria or Hotel Wilda[5], whereas in English the usual form is to put the sub-category first (name of hotel) and then the higher classifying category class (hotel) e.g.  The Ritz Hotel, The Park Lane Hotel. This same type of main category and sub-category classification in Polish is very common in two-word noun compounds.


With regard to addresses, Polish uses the name of a street first (main classifying category) and then the number of the street. For instance al.Niepodległości 4 in English would be 4 Niepodległości Avenue.  In English the number of the street (sub-category) precedes the name of the street (main classifying category). Compound nouns referring to countries also sometimes follow the above. For instance Stany Zjednoczone in Polish literally means States United; in English this would be The United States. Here it could be argued that the main classifying category is States and the sub-category is United. Another example is Arabia Saudyjska which in Polish literally means Arabia Saudi. In English this is Saudi Arabia.


Some well-known cartoon characters appear to follow the above mentioned categorization as well. For instance Bugs Bunny in Polish is literally Bunny Bugs i.e. Królik Bugs, Micky Mouse in Polish is literally Mouse Micky i.e. Myszka Miki, Donald Duck in Polish is literally Duck Donald i.e. Kaczor Donald. In Polish the main classifying type (name of animal) is followed by the name of the animal (sub-category).


Another example of where Polish differs from English is the expression good morning which in Polish is dzień dobry literally day good. This particular example however seems idiosyncratically Polish; even Poland’s Slavonic-language neighbours put the equivalent adjective for good before the equivalent noun for day in corresponding expressions as indicated in Table 1. 


Table 1  Translations of good morning in other Slavonic languages






Translations of good morning[6]





Dzień dobry  


Is dzień dobry true Reverse Polish?



Dobraha ranku

Dobraj ranicy


Dobro jutro


Dobro utro


Dobro jutro


Dobré jitro

Dobré ráno


Dobroye utro


Dobro jutro


Dobré ráno


Dobro jutro

Sorbian [Upper Sorbian]

Dobre ranje

Dobre spodobanje

Sorbian [Lower Sorbian]

Dobre zajts'o


Dobri ranok
Dobroho ranki







However, with regard to Hewlett-Packard’s now well-establish although, in my opinion, unsubstantiated reverse Polish collocation was Hewlett-Packard also possibly thinking of the eminent achievements of some famous Poles? For instance: Nicolaus Copernicus’ 1545 publication ‘De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’ ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’, an alternative model of the universe to the Ptolemaic system; Józef Piłsudski’s decisive and world-renowned 1918 battle strategy at the Battle of Warsaw[7] in which instead of ‘facing’ the Soviet frontal attack on Warsaw, a strike was made from behind Warsaw by withdrawing a main part of the Polish forces across the Vistula River and then cutting off and attacking the Soviet forces (under General Władysław Sikorski) from the ‘rear’ of the Soviet North-Western front; Leopold Godowsky’s (1870-1938) famed recasting of Chopin's ‘right-hand’ passagework for the ‘left hand’ in his notoriously difficult and truly transcendental 53 Piano Studies on Études of Frédéric Chopin; Roman Polanski’s 1958 film ‘Dwaj ludzie z szafą ‘Two men and a wardrobe’ with the film credits at the beginning of the film and not at the end.


The above examples however just indicate that Polish is at times refreshingly ‘different’. Thus, maybe reverse to refer to Polish should not be used as it is neither appropriate nor clear what reverse is supposed to mean.





Hicks, D. (2007). What is Reverse Polish Notation. Retrived August 25, 2007 from             http://www.calculator.org/RPN.html

McJones, P. (2007). History of Lisp. Retrived August 10, 2007 from       http://www.softwarepreservation.org/projects/LISP/

PC AI Magazine. (2006). Forth Programming Language. Retrived August 10, 2007 from                 http://www.pcai.com/web/ai_info/pcai_forth.html

Runner, J. (2007). "Good morning" in more than 250 languages. Retrived August 10, 2007 from                 http://www.elite.net/~runner/jennifers/gmorning.htm

Sinclair, J. (1995). Collins Cobuild English Dictionary.  London: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

Smarandache, F. & Christianto, V. (2005).  Multi-Valued Logic, Neutrosophy, and Schrödinger    Equation. Phoenix: Hexis

Świerczyńska, D. & Świerczyński, A. (1996). Przysłowia w sześciu językach.Warsaw: Wydawnictwo             Naukowe PWN

Wilson, P. (2005). Słownik angielskich idiomów i utartych zwrotów z indeksem polskim. Warsaw: Chanbers Charrap Publishers Ltd.




[1] RPN was first used in the instruction language used by English Electric computers of the early 1960's (Hicks 2007)

[2]LISP was one of the earliest high-level programming languages and introduced many ideas such as garbage collection, recursive functions, symbolic expressions, and dynamic type-checking (McJones: 2007)

[3] Forth, which was developed by Charles Moore in the 1960s and 1970s, is a structured imperative stack-based computer programming language and programming environment (PC AI Magazine 2006)

[4]Wilson (2005: 45)

[5]These hotels are in Poznań Poland.

[6]These translations were taken from Runner (2003) who translated good morning into approximately 250 languages.

[7]Sometimes referred to as the Miracle at the Vistula, in Polish: Cud nad Wisłą