A Semantic Study of Yiddish-Origin Lexemes in English icon

A Semantic Study of Yiddish-Origin Lexemes in English


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4.2. Secondary Sources


Another serious obstacle in doing a semantic study of Yiddish-origin lexemes is the abundance of flawed material, both primary and secondary. In the monumental The American Language, whose first edition appeared in 1919, H.L. Mencken recorded Yiddish-origin words that had seeped into American English. Since he gave the narrowest possible definitions to the terms, sometimes erroneously, the information he provided is deficient.



The list of publications which purvey incorrect information is long and one of the latest is Gene Bluestein's ^ Anglish-Yinglish: Yiddish in American Life and Literature (1989). He writes:

Since there is no accepted system of transliteration, writers often spell the same word differently and in accordance with their dialects or the same spelling conventions of their own languages. Since my own background was Bessarabian Romanian, I tend often to give that dialect. (p.xiii)

Bluestein should have been aware that there are conventions (see below 4.3.) and if everybody continues to ignore them, the chaos will continue indefinitely.



Explaining CHOOTSpe [khutzpe], Bluestein (p. 37) tells us that a friend of his visiting in Israel let out a wolf whistle at the sight of a good-looking young woman, who gave him back, loud and clear: "chutsPA!" (emphasis original). Bluestein explains that in Yiddish, as in modern Hebrew, the word is not entirely negative and may also bring about admiration. Apparently, Bluestein and his friend know very little Yiddish or Hebrew (and even less about Israeli young women). Not only does the word have a negative emotive sense, but it is also used as a response to some kind of provocation.



As an example for this word, Bluestein cites from Singer's ^ The Penitent:

Chutzpah is the very essence of modern man, and the modern Jew as well. He has learned so assiduously from the Gentile that he now surpasses him. The truth is that the element of chutzpah was present even among the pious Jews. They have always been a stiff-necked and rebellious people. Well, there is a kind of chutzpah that is necessary, but I won't go into that now.

Initially I thought that Singer used the word in a positive sense and, to be honest, I was quite amazed about it. For me khutzpe has only a negative emotive sense and even after dealing with the English usage of the word for so long, I still cannot use it in any positive connotations. Singer certainly knew the original meaning of the word and I wondered how could he use it in such a manner, even in fiction.



After locating chutzpah in the original text (New York: Farrar, 1983: 129), I realized that the word appeared in a negative context, where the protagonist contemplated divorcing his wife. In short, out of context chutzpah seemed to be positive; in reality, in this case it has a negative connotation.



Most English dictionaries copy uncritically from flawed sources and from each other 1. The result is an extra mess. In Chapman's New Dictionary of American Slang (1986), chutzpa is defined as 'extreme and offensive brashness; arrogant presumption; hurbis.' This definition is deficient for at least forty or fifty years (see below 4.6.1.).



In 1979 a group of Jewish scholars established the Association for the study of Jewish Languages whose purpose, among others, has been to put some order in the way Jewish words and terms are treated in different languages. In this thesis I use extensively material from the Jewish Language Review (1-7; ed. David L. Gold and Leonard Prager) and Jewish Linguistic Studies (1,2; ed. David L. Gold) which are published by this association.

Another reliable source is Saul Steinmetz' Yiddish and English: A century of Yiddish in America (1986) and other articles written by the same author.
^

4.3. Etymology and Orthography.


One source of difficulties in studying Yiddish-origin lexemes in English is due to the fact that many languages are involved. Yiddish has components from different layers of German, ancient and modern Hebrew, Aramaic, assorted Slavic languages and possibly Finno-Ugric languages as well, since there has been Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities in the area of the former Austria-Hungary empire as well as in the area of the present state of Estonia. The first step of a semantic study is a proper discussion about the etymology and orthography of these lexemes.



Many lexemes of Yiddish origin in English are ultimately from Hebrew but they followed this track: Hebrew Æ Yiddish Æ Ashkenazic Jewish English Æ General English. Some Hebrew words came directly from Hebrew. Before the 19th century we find in English words of Hebrew origin due to the influence of Bible translations: manna, jubilee, cherub, leviathan, behemoth, shibboleth, and others. Some religo-cultural terms were also borrowed: cabbala, Talmud, Mishna, etc. There is no evidence of the existence of Yiddish-origin words in English writing before the 1800s (Steinmetz 1986: 41).



While collecting material for this thesis, I also picked up Hebrew-origin lexemes, for example jubilee which derived from the Biblical Hebrew word Yovel:

When news of the Iraqis' rapid retreat hit the White House last February, George Bush and his advisers were jubilant over the allies spectacularly easy victory in Operation Desert Storm. (Newsweek, January 20, 1992:1; emphasis added)

Diana, by contrast, seemed positively jubilant, at least when she was out of Charles's presence. (Newsweek, November 30, 1992: 15)

The word behemoth appeared already in the Wyclif bible (1382) as a direct borrowing from the Hebrew word b'hemoth (Job xl. 15). It would mean a big animal probably the hippopotamus (OED). In English it has come to mean also 'something very big':

The NBA behemoths fancy a defense where they collapse on their monster alter egos, doubling up under and inviting long shots as just that: long shots. (Newsweek, July 6, 1992: 50)

In its form, the word is the plural of the Hebrew word b'hemah (in Yiddish behema, plural behemas) and it means a 'domesticated animal' usually a donkey or a mule. It is often used in both language as a derogatory expression. It seems that whenever the word is used in English, there is some kind of mockery overtone invovled:

IBM executives have been struggling themselves to adapt the behemoth company to fast-pace changes in computer technology that made many of its products out-of-date. (IHT, January 29, 1992: 1)

Under its legendary chairman Alfred Sloan Jr., GM's divisions were autonomous. But by the 1960s it had grown into a committee-driven and insular behemoth, dominated by financial executives known in Detroit as the bean counters. (Newsweek, Janury 6, 1992: 47)

When that mecca of dinosaur lovers, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, unveil its Barosaurus display on Dec. 4, the long-necked behemoth will no longer be planted in the floor like a dining table. (Newsweek, October 28, 1991: 45)

Behemoth in a figurative sense of 'extremely big' appears already in 1592:

Will soone finde the hugh Behemoth of conceit to be the spart of a pickle herring. (C. Harvey ^ Pierces Super., [OED]).

Another example is from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin:

Adolf tripped gracefully forward, and Tom, with lumbering tread, went after. He's a perfect behemoth!" said Marie

"Come, now , Marie," said St. Clare, seating himself on a stool beside her sofa, "be gracious, and say something pretty to a fellow." (1852: 245. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz)

These two early examples lack the ironic overtone to be found in the more recent examples. It seems that whenever the sense is of 'extremely big' but with no extra shade of irony, writers use metaphors such as: mammoth, titanic, etc.

A Three-judge panel in Milan convicted De Benebetti and 32 other prominent business figures of having been accessories to the mammoth fraud that led to the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano in 1982. (Newsweek, April 27, 1992: 39)

...the conflict between Dole's fierce ambition and his inability to rein his humanity is titanic, an unlikely - but perfect - memorial to a tawdry campaign. (Newsweek, August 3, 1992: 56)

I suggest that the biblical behemoth has gained extra emotive overtone due to Yiddish influence.



A more recent loan from Hebrew is the proper noun ^ Uzi, which is used to designate an Israeli type of sub-machine gun designed by Uziel Gal, an Israeli army officer (OED). In American English it has become a byword to designate an efficient sub-machine gun/pistol favored by the secret service and members of organized crime. It apparently has other connotations:

James Carville, Bill Clinton's Clausewitz, talks like an Uzi, in bursts. He should do the president-elect a final favor by firing him the story of the traffic lights on Florida Street in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (George F. Will, Newsweek, November 16, 1992: 52)

In the Israeli army, the above mentioned sub-machine gun enjoys very little esteem: it is inaccurate and its effective range is very short. It is, in fact, a standard weapon for female soldiers.


In ^ More Notes on Maine Dialect, (1929) Anne E. Perkins M.D., from Gowanda State Hospital, Helmuth, New York, mention shmutz:

"You've got a smootch on your dress" referred to a spot resulting from spill or contact. (p.129)

The OED defines schmutz as 'dirt, filth, rubbish' and gives its origin as "Yiddish or German". The earliest example this dictionary cites is from 1967. From the quotation above, it is obvious that the word was used already much earlier but it is unclear in which way it enter general English, whether via German or Jewish immigrants.

The word glitch came into English about 1960 through technological jargon. There is a Yiddish homonym which means 'a slip' (as on a banana). If indeed the Yiddish etymon is the source of the English lexeme, by emulated polisemy (see below 4.4.) the word apparently has acquired corresponding senses of the colloquialism slip-up and presently it means 'a mishap or malfunction.' But there is also a similar German homonym and therefore it is difficult to determine for sure, at this moment, which etymon is the origin of the English lexeme. It seems that the word was adopted by the aerospace engineers and through them was transferred into general English. Since it is very unlikely that Yiddish is used in the aerospace industry, the apparent etymon is the German one.



^ Spiel may be of German, or of Yiddish, or of German and Yiddish origin (Gold 1984b: 253). The English mensch derives from Yiddish mentsh and not from the German Mensch. In many places the two near homonyms are mixed up because of identical spelling. The Yiddish-origin mentsh:

"Maybe the supreme gift of Yiddish to the English Language is the word 'mensch'. Its literal meaning, as in German, from which it came, is 'person,' but in Yiddish it reaches for an essence - character. A mensch is someone to emulate, a person of consequence whose character is both rare and undisputed. the question before the U.S. Senate can best be stated in Yiddish: Is William Rehnquist a 'mensch'?" (Richard Cohen, Washington Post, 14 September 1986 [Bluestein 1989])

is different from the German-origin mensch:

"New York" is an all-purpose code word among right-wing parties in Germany and Austria for the supposed horrors of multiculture society. Washington is assumed to be in the grip of the "Jewish lobby." Brussels, the home of the EC bureaucracy, is another symbol of what's wrong with the world. Haider [chief of Austria Freedom Party] rails against the "European-unity mensch" who would lead the continent down the path of homogenization, a process that he compares to the "multiethnic experimentation of the Soviet Man."( Newsweek , April 27, 1992: 10)

The Yiddish-origin shmok is almost always spelled as schmuck and its etymon is said to be the German schmuk 'jewel'. As a matter of fact, this explanation, which is copied from one dictionary to another, is erroneous (see below 4.7.5.) and the English lexeme has nothing to do with the German word. As a rule, a correct way to spell Yiddish-origin /_/ is 'sh' and not 'sch'.

There are cases were Ashkenazic English words of Yiddish origin "join" an already existing general English word with which it cognates, for example mishmash (Gold 1984a: 230). There are records of the use of the verb mishmash already in 1585, well before any influence of Yiddish was felt, but according to Steinmetz (1986: 51) it appears that the near-homophone Yiddish word has more or less blended with the English one. Steinmetz cited this example:

It takes considerable experience to put a mish-mosh together and have it come off as anything but a mish-mosh (Nan Ickeringill, NYT, August 26, 1966: 39)

Many people mix source-language pronunciations when romanizing Yiddish or Hebrew-origin English forms. Moreover, one word has often more than one pronunciation in the source language. Some even follow German or Slavic pronunciations. Consistency is rare even in Orthodox Jewish publications. Yiddish and Hebrew use the Hebrew alphabet and spell the words common to both identically but pronounce these words differently. For example, Shabbat [_å_båt] represents the Hebrew pronunciation and Shabbes [__åb•s] the Yiddish one. Theoretically there should be two different pronunciation but, in practice, many writers will use the more prestigious Hebrew spelling but pronounce the word according to the Yiddish form. (Steinmetz 1981: 13.)



There is an American National Standard Romanization of Yiddish, also known as the YIVO system. There is also an American Standard Romanization of Hebrew to transcribe Modern Hebrew words. The main difference between the two systems is the transcription of the fricative [x]. Yiddish and Hebrew romanization of the phoneme are kh and ch respectively. The average English-speaker on seeing kh for the first time, will not know how to pronounce it. English-speakers will usually take ch for /t_/. Chutzpah [xuts_pa:] follows the Hebrew pronunciation, khutzpe [_xutsp•] the Yiddish one. Jews may pronounce according to the Yiddish form; non-Jews, unfamiliar with the correct pronunciation, may say tshutspah. In my thesis I try to follow both of these official systems, although it is obvious that the double transcription for the same phoneme creates problems.



Sometimes there is a need to emphasize the different spelling and pronunciation forms:

In some 70 cities from Canada to Israel, rabbinical judges (most of them Lubavitchers) issued a joint declaration calling on all Jews to recognize Schneerson as "the Rabbi of all Israel" and to beseech God "that this generation should merit that he be revealed as the Moshiach [Hebrew for Messiah]." (Newsweek, April 27, 1992: 45; explanation original)

It seems that English has accepted l standing for syllabic [Öl], for example shtetl not shtetel, and n for syllabic [Ön] - davn. Yiddish verbs, which were integrated into Jewish English and from there to non-Jewish English, dropped the Yiddish infinitive ending -n, -en, -e-en and the stem became the infinitive, for example: dav[e]nen>davn (see 4.3.2), shlepn>shlep (see 4.7.2).




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