A Semantic Study of Yiddish-Origin Lexemes in English icon

A Semantic Study of Yiddish-Origin Lexemes in English

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4.4. Procedures of the Semantic Study

John Lyons (1981: 42) distinguishes between lexemes, which are 'vocabulary-unites of a language' and which are the expressions one would expect to find listed in the dictionary, and lexically composite expression which are 'constructed by means of the syntactic rules of the language.' In this thesis I deal mostly with lexemes, simply in order to limit the scope of this study. Yiddish-origin lexically composite expression like to break own head, like a hole in the head, etc. will have to wait. For that reason I delay any discussion on lexemes of arguably Yiddish origin such as mishmash, spiel, etc., although I have material and recent examples concerning them. As a rule of thumb, I also delay discussion on some other interesting lexemes which I have not detected while reading recent primary sources. In unabridged dictionaries, there are 500-600 lexemes of Jewish interest but since one has to stop somewhere, I deal only with few dozen.

The first step in the semantic study was to find the best available etymon and establish the correct orthography. Neither task is easy. For example, the quest for the origin of the word ghetto has intrigued amateurs and professionals from the beginning of this century. It may be taken for certain that the word originated in Venice, but not much else is firmly established (Gold 1984: 142). Orthography also poses problems because the way many lexemes are spelled is wrong but already well established, for example: Yiddish, chutzpa(h), maven, etc. (The correct spelling would be Yidish, khutzpe, mevyn). Jewish linguists gave up correcting some errors, like the spelling of the word Yiddish but keep on battling for the sake of many others, especially the abandonment of 'sch' for the better 'sh'. I follow suit, although I think that some of the battles have already been lost.

The next step was to sort out among the existing definitions and to examine semantic changes. As I mentioned earlier, the primary and secondary sources are deficient and I just had to use my own judgment when choosing the best definition or to construct one by myself.

To examine the examples I have at hand, I have used several methods of semantic alteration. The first one is Macaulay's method (Ullmann 1972: 211) for the delimitation of synonyms in which a lexeme is replaced by a synonym and, through this, a range of different senses is revealed. The second method is to leave the word but to change the sentence in such a way that the perspective move to another direction - perspective alteration. For example, I examine what happens when a positive sense is altered into a negative one and vice versa by changing the target readership. (See below khutzpe 4.6.1.)

A third alteration method (which I have not used yet) is based upon semantic fields of reference. In this method the examined lexeme is replaced by another one with overlapping sense but not a synonym.

One useful term for examining change of meaning as a result of language contact is emulated polysemy (also known as semantic induction, meaning transfer, or loan-meaning). If a lexeme x means 'a' and 'b' and if a lexeme y means 'a', then y can acquire the sense 'b' merely by analogy (Samuel Kroesch 1926: 39; Gold 1986: 104). (See khutzpe 4.6.1., shlep 4.8.2.).

To compare the Yiddish-origin English lexemes with the Yiddish word, I have used Sholem Aleichem's Tevye der Milkhiger and Miriam Katz's translation: Tevye the Dairyman (1988). Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), the pen name of Sholem Rabinowitz, wrote and published between 1895 and 1916 stories cast as monologues about a wagon driver turned into a dairyman, which were finally brought together under the heading Tevye the Dairyman. This story of a modern Job without a happy end, about a rooted Jew who was turned into a wandering Jew, became a classic. Its immense humanity and unique humor have intrigued generations of readers. A shmaltzy musical, based on its content, was opened in Broadway in 1964 and carried the name Fiddler on the Roof.

Miriam Katz' translation was published in Moscow before the demise of the Soviet Union and one anachronistic leftover in it is the term Palestine which refered to the Land of Israel. Tevye never utters Palestine and now that the political circumstances have changed, one can only hope that such foolishness is erased.

Katz translates the Yiddish exclamation to prevent a hex keynehore as touch wood. Only few Jews know that this expression originally referred to the wood of the Cross (Gold 1986: 100). The exclamation occurs often in the text and since Katz uses many original terms and explains them in a glossary, I suggest to use keynehore as a calque and explain it in the glossary.

4.5. Religio-Cultural Terms

Jewish religio-cultural terms appears also in non-Jewish publications. It seems that non-Jewish redears are interested in some aspects of Jewish life, and those who write about these subjects use Jewish terminology. Sometimes, the terms appear in a context which is not connected with Jewish life. In this chapter I examine the different uses of some of these terms.

4.5.1. kosher, treyfe

The Collins Cobuild English language Dictionary defines kosher as: "Something that is kosher is 1 approved of by the laws of Judaism; used especially of food which Jews are permitted by their laws to eat", and: "2 Right and honest, and behaving or happening in the way which is approved of or expected; an informal use. e.g. there is something not quite kosher about it, if you know what I mean".

Originally kosher and treyfe (nonkosher) were associated only with food but in traditional Jewish life, religion and tradition are involved in every aspect of life. Essentially natural ideas are sometimes expressed in images of the Jewish mode of life. For example, a mother can sing to her child in the crib: "Shut your kosher little eyes (M. Weinreich 1972: 200). When Tevye comes home after earning a fortune, he tells his astonished wife:

"God be with you, Golda darling," I exclaimed, "what scared you so? Maybe you are afraid that I stole this money or held up someone? You ought to be ashamed of yourself! You've been Tevye's wife for such a long time, how can you think such things? You little fool, this is kosher money, earned honestly by my own wit and toil. (tras. Miriam katz 1988: 48. Italics original.)

^ Kosher in the sense of food prepared according to the Jewish law is still in use. On July 1, 1991 Newsweek ran an article about a boom in the kosher food industry. The magazine wrote that:

Sales of those kosher goods climbed to $30 billions last year, prompting both Food & Wine magazine and Rolling Stone to declare kosher one of the decade's hot food trends. "It's not [just] gefilte fish and matzo," says Phil Lempert, publisher of the Lempert Report, a food-trends newsletter, "It's everything."

In the ^ Wall Street Journal (August 16, 1989: 13) another aspect of the industry was revealed:

But the buying group later backed off from the agreement after Manischewitz declined to discuss development related to a previously disclosed federal investigation of alleged antitrust violation in the Kosher food industry. (wsj33)

In the next example, the subject is indeed food but the connotation is that of defiance. In a review of a new book, ^ Steel Guitar, by Linda Barnes, Katrine Ames wrote:

There's some fine fringe in Barnes's fourth novel about Boston PI Calotta Carlyle, a 5-foot-1, Scots-Irish-Jewish volleyball player ("Anything unkosher is one of my favorite food") and part-time cabbie. (Newsweek, December 16, 1991: 52)

In an article about an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect which says the Redeemer is due to arrive any day now - and he might be an American, Time (March 16, 1992: 44) wrote:

Eliezer Schach, one of Israel's leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis, has publicly called Schneerson "insane", "an "infidel" and "a false Messiah." Schach even charged,

outlandishly, that Schneerson's followers are "eaters of trayf," food such as pork that is forbidden to Jews.

Literally, this accusation is, of course, absurd since no one, not even rabbi Schach, believes that Schneerson and his followers eat anything but the most kosher food (glatt kosher), but the intention with this kind of accusation is to stress very strong indignation over the Lubavicher movement's campaign.

Discussing Biotechnology, Newsweek (March 9, 1992:48) writes:

In the early 1970s, when scientists discovered the principles of recombinant DNA, the only miracle that seemed beyond the reach of genetic engineering was the kosher pig.

There is no mentioning, neither before this sentence nor after, of any Jewish food. The 'kosher pig' serves as a humorous trigger; at least I laughed heartily when I read it.

Kosher, with no reference to Jewish food can take many forms of connections. Here are two:

Amid discussions on U.S.-Japanese relations, trade disputed and Japan's response to the gulf war, the Americans pressed the point that, as one diplomat in Tokyo put it, "it's kosher to do business with the Israelis." (Newsweek, April 22, 1991: 36)

On the tape, Paul A. Berkman, a Princeton/Newport general partner, told a Merrill Lynch & Co. trader: "The easiest thing to do is I sell you things today and then, over the next couple of days, I buy them back from you in varying amounts, just to make it all look kosher." (Wall Street Journal, wsj36)

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