A Semantic Study of Yiddish-Origin Lexemes in English icon

A Semantic Study of Yiddish-Origin Lexemes in English

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4.6.6. shm-

The most frequent pattern of Yiddish mock-language is the addition of the consonant /_/, occasionally /_m/, before the first vowel in the root word; the root word is generally used first without change, followed by the deformed version. Thus we derive the type libe-shmibe (love shmove), sport-shmort and the like. (M. Weinreich 1980: 623)

Weinreich presents some theories as for the history and the spread of these consonantal additions. One possibility is that this phenomenon could have occurred in eastern Yiddish of itself, just as similar consonantal additions arose of themselves, not through adoption, in Turkish, Persian, Arabic, modern Greek, German and other languages. According to another theory, the ancestor of this Yiddish phoneme must be sought in west German dialects where _m and similar consonantal additions were used to avoid taboo words.

In his article ^ Labio-Velarity and derogation in English: a Study in Phonosemic Correlation (1971: 123-137), Roger W. Wescott developed the idea that "labiality as well as velarity connotes derogation and that this derogation is almost as evident in terms for tabooed objects and actions as in names for racial, national, and ideological groups that are targets of xenophobia." As examples he gives words like Nigger, Spic, Kike, Pig, etc.

He also includes /_/ as a functionally velar and as evidence he provides the pejorative meanings of such American Yiddishisms such as shlock 'junk', shnook 'dupe'. He also maintains that the derogatory force of the irregular sequence /_/-plus-consonant (/_m/ as in Oedipus-Schmedipus) "is the alien sound of un-English clusters, which arouses xenophobia" (p.133).

In my opinion 'functionally velar' is a dubious term, and the sequence, /_m/, although pejorative, is not really a derogatory device and it is not connected to racial, national, or ideological groups (unless someone considers the Jews as such). As for the taboo element, Spitzer (1952) cited Ernest Levy's thesis of 1913 where he argued that the ancestor of the Yiddish phenomenon must be sought in west German dialects. Levy gathered instances of Middle High German and Early New High German were /_m/ were used for euphemistic purposes, to avoid taboo words. In Yiddish, the cluster is a mark of light mockery or dismissal and it can prefix almost every word. The example Wescott cites, "Oedipus-Schmedipus", is taken out of context:

I was surprised to find Rene Cutforth retelling the old story of the psychiatrist and the fond mother without specifying that she's a Jewish mother. ('I have to tell you, madam, that your son is suffering from an Oedipus complex.' 'Oedipus, Schmoedipus! What does it matter so long as he loves his mother?') (1969, Listener 24 Apr. 569/I [OED])

There are plenty of examples to prove that the cluster is indeed a devise for mockery: ^ "REVOLUTION, SHMEVOLUTION" was the title of an article in the Wall Street Journal (January 12, 1968. [Rosten 1968: xi]) on student movements; fancy-shmancy - overly ornate, vulgar ("the fency-schmency tabele cloth", (Kober 1937: 110; see below); Dictionary Shmictionary! A Yiddish and Yinglish Dictionary (New York: Quill Publishers, 1983); Confusion Schmooshun - an article on the prefix by Leo Spitzer in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology; etc.

In his article, Leo Spitzer (1952: 226-233) maintained that the pattern was of strictly Jewish origin. To prove it he cited examples from Arthur Kober's novel ^ My Dear Bella (New York, 1937) which had reflected rather faithfully the speech habits of the Jewish Bronx:

Maybe I should go to a doctor - Docter-Schmocteh! (p.106)

After all, that is possible - Possible-schmossible. (p.12)

She got a cold - Colt-schmolt. (p.162)

The latest example for this suffix the OED cites is from 1978. I have not seen this form in more recent publications and I wonder whether it is in use any longer.

4.6.7. -nik

The suffix -nik with its feminine variant -nitse is of Slavic derivation. (cf. Polish nik, nica). In Yiddish it serves to form names of persons, for example: shlimazalnik 'ne'er-do-well' nudnik 'bore' (M. Weinreich 1980: 531).

Tevye says:

So you are the son of Perchik the cigarette-maker? (p.97; emphasis added)

A translation which follows the original word would be cigarettenik

In another place tevye relates:

The whole community had turned out, from the starosta - the village elder - Ivan Poperilo, down to the cowherd Trokhim... (p.188; emphasis added)

In this case the translation would be herdnik.

English has borrowed some words with the suffix -nik directly from Russian: kolkhoznik, narodnik, raskolnik, etc. (V. Kabakchi, C. Clay Doyle 1990: 275). Gold (1982: 19) distinguishes between borrowing from a distance and intimate borrowing. The former type generally refers to exotic plants and animals, natural phenomena, and items of foreign culture; the latter may relate to any sphere. Yiddish influence on English has been intimate whereas Slavic-speakers and their descendants have presumably had no intimate influence on English.

On October 4, 1957 the Soviets launched their man-made satellite ^ Sputnik into outer space and one result was the proliferation of the use of -nik: flopnik, kaputnik, stayputnik, whatnik, etc. (White 1958: 153-54). One famous arrival from that time is the term beatnik. According to Richard Rex (1975: 329-31), the word was coined by Herb Caen in his popular column in the San Francisco Chronicle. To clarify the matter, Rex asked Caen for his recollection of how the word came to mind and received the following reply, dated February 12, 1975:

Dear Mr. Rex:

Beatnik slipped out of my typewriter one day when I was writing about one or another of the Beat types - Kerouac, Ginsberg et al. - who flourished here at the time. ... It was earlyish in 1958 and, correct, shortly after the Sputnic arose. Word association, and I never did understand how, "Beatnik" caught on. The suffix "nik" is, I believe, Yiddish, no?

Happy noodnik


Gold (JLR 5: 320), commenting on Caen's letter, maintains that since the author had sputnik uppermost in his mind, the -nik of beatnik is of Russian origin, though Eastern Ashkenazic American English words may have been in the back of his mind. The Russian term refers to an object while Yiddish uses the suffix for human beings.

Caen did not mean the word in a pejorative sense but it turned out to be a put-down for what the public considered the dirty, bearded, sandaled bohemians of North Beach and Greenwich Village. Ten years later the term was obsolete, having been superseded by hippie (Rex 1975: 330).

An interesting attestation of the use of beatnik was given by the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky, who rose to fame in the 1960s, in an interview with Newsweek's Steven Strasser (April 20, 1992: 52). Describing one meeting in the Kremlin, he remembered that while he was at the podium, Khrushchev started shouting at him and the minister of police jumped up and said:

"You came to the Kremlin without a white shirt and tie. You are a beatnik!"

According to Voznesensky, the minister of police was the only person there who knew what a beatnik was but everybody shouted, "beatnik! Beatnik!"

Caen signed his letter with noodnik and Herbnik. Nudnik is 'someone who pesters, nags, or irritates; a bore' (OED). The earliest example the dictionary cites is from 1947:

The patrons of New York's Ruben Bleu are as boorish a collection of nudnicks as ever assembled in a public place. (New Republics April 14: 42)

I noticed a more recent use of the word in an article about the results of the primaries in New Hampshire:

The web of operatives, moneymen and state-capital intriguers see Tsongas as a regional, unelectable nudnik and Clinton as damaged goods, no matter what the New Hampshire voters think. (Newsweek, February 24, 1992: 28)

In ^ Herbnik, the noun herb is converted by adding nik into a nickname of ardent practitioner, cultist, believer or devotee of something. In many cases a word is created for a certain purpose and then disappear:

However, sometimes the new ad hoc invention sticks and a new term is coined. One example is peacenik. - a member of a pacifist movement esp. when regarded as a hippie and used to be related to an opponent of the military intervention of the United States in Vietnam (OED). The earliest examples the OED cites are from 1965. The first is a heading from Time (April 23: 13/2): 'War & Peaceniks'. The second is taken from The San Francisco Examiner (September 6: 14/2):

Dean Plapowski ... described himself as a 'peacenik'. This, he explained, 'is probably a beatnik who's got himself hung up in a pacifist and non-violent activity'.

The Vietnam War is long over and gone are the beatniks, but peacenik has remained as a synonymous to pacifist. In the 'Conventional Wisdom Watch' column of Newsweek during the recent major Gulf crisis (September 10, 1990: 3) I noticed the following paragraph:

The CW is experiencing vertigo. Two weeks ago it was bombs away. Last week, every one was a peacenik. What the hell happened?

In the 'Transition' column (Newsweek, April 13, 1992: 27) appeared the next item:

Released: Israeli peacenik Abie Nathan from an Israeli prison; March 30. Nathan had been jailed for six months for illegally meeting with PLO chief Yasir Arafat in 1990.

A more recent coinage is Refusenik designated for a Jew in the [former] Soviet Union who has been refused permission to emigrate to Israel (OED). The earliest example the dictionary cites is from 1975. Once a refusenik emigrates to Israel, he becomes a 'former refusenik':

"People in the Soviet Union now have hope for change,"says former refusenik Ida Nudel. (Newsweek, November 21, 1991: 21)

"Immigrants are not getting fair treatment in this country," proclaimed Da leader Yuli Koshoroveski, a former refusenik. (Newsweek, February 24, 1992: 20)

The demise of the Soviet Union and the elimination of emigration restrictions for Jews who want to leave, has given the term a new dimension. In an article about former Soviet Jews who live in Israel but wish to go back, Newsweek (November 18: 21) wrote:

Also, Israeli authorities do not routinely let Soviet newcomers leave the country, even for vacations, unless they have repaid their immigrant subsidies, which can run several thousands dollars. That leaves some immigrants trapped by bureaucracy, like a new class of refuseniks.

Even a more surprising use of the term appeared in a the Opinion column (Newsweek December 7, 1992: 21) written by Aleksi Izyumov, a Russian economist and a political analyst:

No wonder so many of Russia's political actors often behave amateurishly or slip back to the more familiar patterns of authoritarianism. Where else in the civilized world would you find the government and Parliament routinely accusing each other of plotting a coup d'etat, or a former president turned into a refusenik due to a personal feud with his successor...

The ultimate pejoration of the term is expressed in the next example:

Those who cannot pay simply leave the bodies of family members at a government morgue. Russians mordantly describe the abandoned bodies as otkazniki, or refuseniks. (Newsweek, January 11, 1993: 31

Kabakchi and Doyle closed their article, which appeared in the Fall 1990 issue of ^ American Speech, commenting that "as a productive suffix in English, -nik has probably drowsed into dormancy once again" (p.277). Surprisingly enough, I noticed an apparently new ad hoc coinage in the July 15, 1991 issue Newsweek (p.49). In a feature story of a wicked new BBC series "Naked Hollywood" that vivisects the American movie biz, the magazine wrote:

Crying foul: So many Hollywoodniks might not have spoken with such wacko candor for American TV. But these super sophisticates seem to have forgotten that the series was bound to be shown here.

The OED cites few derivation based on the name of that famous region near Los Angeles, the center of the U.S. cinema business, like Hollywoodese 'the style of language supposed to be characteristic of Hollywood films'; Hollywoodesque 'characteristic of or resembling Hollywood films'; etc. Hollywoodnik, in this article, is in the sense of a supersophisticated person connected to the American movie business who discussed frankly with the British producers before the camera about the darker sides of the business.

Commenting on Karakchi and Doyle article (1990), John Algeo writes (1992) that the "report of the suffix's somnolence may be greatly exaggerated". Using the new-words files of the American Dialect Society, he cites 15 -nik words used in the 1980s and later, for example: Bushnik 'A member of the administration of George Bush; refuse-nik 'one who gleans refuse for usable goods; waitnik 'a Jew granted an exit visa from the Soviet nion but waiting for an entry visa to the US. Obviously the suffix is alive and well.

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