Words from the old country enrich the language of the new
By Paula Marantz Cohen
My grandparents spoke Yiddish at home. My mother, an only child raised in a cramped Brooklyn apartment, learned to understand it, but spoke it only haltingly. I never learned to understand it, but I did pick up a generous smattering of Yiddish words. My own children know only a few of these.
This seems to be a common evolution as an immigrant family becomes assimilated to a new culture. The language of the old country begins to die as the generations pass until only a few words remain of the ancestral tongue to punctuate everyday conversation. The upside of this process is that new words enter the adopted language and enrich it.
I have lately been struck by the number of Yiddishisms that my non-Jewish friends use without thinking about their origin. A bagel with a shmear, a mother-in-law who is a yenta, a tendency to kvetch—I have heard these phrases spoken by people from Irish Catholic to East Asian backgrounds.
I’ve also heard Yiddish words endearingly mangled as non-Jewish speakers struggle to use them. My husband reports a doctor of Italian ancestry making the observation about another doctor that “he didn’t know butkus.” “Dick Butkus,” my husband had to inform him, “was a linebacker for the Chicago Bears; the term you are after, the Yiddish word for ‘nothing [literally “goat shit”],’ is bupkus.” Another example: an African-American woman I know observed that her son deserves “a smack on his patuchis.” “Not patuchis,” I corrected, puzzled by where she had acquired the prefix: “The word for ‘behind’ in Yiddish is tuchis.”
On another front, I saw an amusing incident recently at my town’s tennis club. A young boy of Indian parentage was looking for his friend in order to play a game. One of the adults nearby said that the friend was probably schmoozing with someone in the clubhouse. (It wasn’t clear to me if the speaker knew that the word was a Yiddish word.)
“What does schmoozing mean?” asked the boy.
“It means socializing,” said the adult. “Use it three times in a sentence and you’ll have it as part of your vocabulary for life.”
“I’m going to go schmooze with my friends over there,” said the boy. “That’s one time. Two more and it’s mine.”
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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