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Title: Potrzebie  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Mad (magazine), Alfred E. Neuman, Polish words and phrases, Running gags, Mad magazine
Collection: In-Jokes, Mad (Magazine), Polish Words and Phrases, Running Gags, Units of Measurement
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


In Bernard Krigstein's "From Eternity Back to Here!" (Mad 12) the word "Potrzebie" made an early Mad appearance, flying over Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, and a caricature of Jacques Tati in Mr. Hulot's Holiday. The issue is dated June 1954, the same month the 1953 Tati film had a U.S. release.
Wallace Wood illustrated Donald Knuth's "Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures" in Mad 33 (June 1957)

Potrzebie (; Polish pronunciation:  dative/locative of potrzeba, "a need") is a Polish word popularized by its non sequitur use as a running gag in the early issues of Mad not long after the comic book began in 1952. Its Eastern European feel was a fit for the New York Jewish style of the magazine.


  • Origin 1
  • Appearances 2
  • System of measurement 3
  • Other media 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Mad editor Harvey Kurtzman spotted the word printed in the Polish language section of a multi-languaged "Instructions for Use" sheet accompanying a bottle of aspirin, and Kurtzman, who was fascinated with unusual words, decided it would make an appropriate but meaningless background gag. After cutting the word out of the instruction sheet, he made copies and used rubber cement to paste "Potrzebie" randomly into the middle of Mad satires.


Potrzebie was first used in a story in Mad 11 (May 1954), where it was the exclamation of a character who spoke only in foreign languages and song lyrics, in "Murder the Story," a parody illustrated by Jack Davis. It was used again in Bernard Krigstein's "From Eternity Back to Here!" in Mad 12 (June 1954) on an airplane advertising banner. With the same type font, it reappeared in Jack Davis's "Book! Movie!" in Mad 13 (July 1954), pasted into a panel as the title of an abstract painting seen in the background. In the same issue the word appears as POTS-REBIE, emblazoned on a cauldron in which Robinson Crusoe is roasting a frankfurter. This piece reappeared in one of the earliest Mad paperbacks, Bedside Mad[1] It was illustrated as a rebus in "Puzzle Pages!" in Mad 19 (January 1955). These stories, like others in Mad comics, were written by Harvey Kurtzman. Frequent repetition gave it the status of a catch phrase or in-joke among the readership which continues to the present day. In the first Mad Style Guide, edited by Bhob Stewart in 1994, the word was made available for display on T-shirts and other licensed Mad products. It also sees occasional use as a metasyntactic variable by hackers.

Fourth appearance of the word in Jack Davis' "Book! Movie!" (Mad 13)

A typical appearance of the word is exemplified by the Mad version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (from Mad 43, December 1958), which begins:

"Whon thot Aprille swithin potrzebie,
"The burgid prillie gives one heebie-jeebie.

System of measurement

In issue 33, Mad published a partial table of the "Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures", developed by 19-year-old Donald E. Knuth, later a famed computer scientist. According to Knuth, the basis of this new revolutionary system is the potrzebie, which equals the thickness of Mad issue 26, or 2.263348517438173216473 mm. A standardization in terms of the wavelength of the red line of the emission spectrum of cadmium is also given, which if the 1927 definition of the Angstrom is taken for the value of that wavelength, would equal 2.263347539605392 mm.[2]

Volume was measured in ngogn (equal to 1000 cubic potrzebies), mass in blintz (equal to the mass of 1 ngogn of halavah, which is "a form of pie [with] a specific gravity of 3.1416 and a specific heat of .31416"), and time in seven named units (decimal powers of the average earth rotation, equal to 1 "clarke"). The system also features such units as whatmeworry, cowznofski, vreeble, hoo and hah.

According to the "Date" system in Knuth's article, which substitutes a 10-clarke "mingo" for a month and a 100-clarke "cowznofski", for a year, the date of October 29, 2007, is rendered as "To 1, 190 C. M." (for Cowznofsko Madi, or "in the Cowznofski of our MAD." The dates are calculated from October 1, 1952, the date MAD was first published. Dates before this point are referred to, tongue-in-cheek, as "B.M." ("Before MAD.") The ten "Mingoes" are: Tales (Tal.) Calculated (Cal.) To (To) Drive (Dri.) You (You) Humor (Hum.) In (In) A (A) Jugular (Jug.) Vein (Vei.)

Google's calculator and Wolfram Alpha can perform conversions between potrzebies and other units.

Other media

The word made an impression on many readers, for example jazz guitarist Jimmy Raney, who recorded the tune "Potrezebie" [sic] on the album The Dual Role of Bob Brookmeyer (1954; reissued on compact disc in 1992). In the late 1960s, "Potrzebie" was a Jeopardy category.

"Potrzebie" became the default password for the #1 (which is "God" or the root account) user account in several MUSHes and MUCKs (e.g., PennMUSH, TinyMUCK, Fuzzball MUCK, TinyMUSH, and TinyMUX).

Bill Griffith's Zippy (February 27, 2007)

Other odd words favored by Kurtzman and popularized by him through their use as running gags in Mad were veeblefetzer, axolotl, hoohah, furshlugginer, Moxie, ganef and halavah. Many of these are of Yiddish or Jewish origin.

In the Bill Griffith comic strip Zippy for February 27, 2007, Zippy and Zerbina mention both potrzebie and axolotl in a panel captioned, "They like to use out-of-date words and catchphrases."

In "Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess," the second of the novelizations of Phil and Kaja Foglio's "Girl Genius" webcomic, the character Herr Doktor Potrezbie Spün is one of the many footnoted references.


  1. ^ Bedside Mad. E.C. Publications, New York, 1959, p173
  2. ^ DONALD KNUTH - The Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures

External links

  • potrzebaWiktionary entry
  • : Jimmy Raney's "Potrezebie" (sic)The Dual Role of Bob Brookmeyer
  • : "The Art of Don E. Knuth" by Mark WallaceSalon
  • Potrzebie System on Google Calculator
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