BORN TO KVETCH.

That’s the title of a new book about Yiddish by Michael Wex; William Grimes’s review in the NY Times makes it sound like a lot of fun:

…”Born to Kvetch” is much more than a greatest-hits collection of colorful Yiddish expressions. It is a thoughtful inquiry into the religious and cultural substrata of Yiddish, the underlying harmonic structure that allows the language to sing, usually in a mournful minor key.
Yiddish is the language par excellence of complaint. How could it be otherwise? It took root among Jews scattered across Western Europe during the Middle Ages and evolved over centuries of persecution and transience. It is, Mr. Wex writes, “the national language of nowhere,” the medium of expression for a people without a home. “Judaism is defined by exile, and exile without complaint is tourism,” as Mr. Wex neatly puts it…

…The Jews who transmuted German into Yiddish were steeped in Jewish law, whose style and phraseology made their way into the developing language and put down deep roots. Yiddish thrives on argument, hairsplitting and arcane points of law and proper behavior. Half the time, Yiddish itself is the object of dispute, a language, Mr. Wex writes, “in which you can’t open your mouth without finding out that, no matter what you’re saying, you’re saying it wrong.”
When you get it right, it can be a beautiful thing. Or a lethal weapon. Yiddish excels at the fine art of the insult and the curse, or klole, which Mr. Wex, in a chapter titled “You Should Grow Like an Onion,” calls “the kvetch-militant.” Americans generally stick to short, efficient four-letter words when doling out abuse. Yiddish has lots of those, too, and it abounds in terse put-downs like “shtik fleysh mit oygn.” Applied to a stupid person, it means “a piece of meat with eyes.” More often, though, Yiddish speakers, like the Elizabethans, like to exploit the full resources of the language when the occasion requires…
Yiddish is not a “have a nice day” language. “How are you?,” a perfectly innocent question in English, is a provocation in Yiddish, which does not lend itself to happy talk. “How should I be?” is a fairly neutral answer to the question. Theoretically it is possible to say “gants gut” (“real good”), but this is a phrase that the author says he has never heard in his life. “As a response to a Yiddish question, it marks you as someone who knows some Yiddish words but doesn’t really understand the language,” he writes…
Mr. Wex has perfect pitch. He always finds the precise word, the most vivid metaphor, for his juicy Yiddishisms, and he enjoys teasing out complexities. His tour through the vocabulary of traditional punishments meted out to schoolchildren, collectively known as the “matnas yad,” or “gift of the hand,” may be his finest riff, a subtly differentiated taxonomy of pain that starts with the “knip” (“pinch”) and proceeds to the “shnel” (“flick”), the “patsh” (“slap”) the “zets” (“hard slap”) and the “flem” (“resounding smack”).
At the far end lies the “khmal” or “khmalye,” “the all-out murder-one wallop that makes its victims ‘zen kroke mit lemberik.’ ” It’s so hard, in other words, that the student sees Krakow as his head snaps forward and Lemberg (present-day Lviv in Ukraine) on the return trip.

I remember “Such a zets I’ll give you!” from my childhood immersion in the early Mad Magazine; I’m glad to know its exact place in the continuum of smiting.
(Via Language Geek.)

Comments

  1. I wonder where “hak”, as in “He gave me such a hock!” (Yinglish) or “Hak mir kayn chaynik!” (Yiddish, lit. “Hit me-DAT no teakettle”, but in fact “Don’t keep going on and on and on”) fits into this scale.

  2. Robert Schwartz says:
  3. Chajnik is a Russian, not Polish, word, and it’s origins aren’t from “china/ceramic” but from Russian “chaj”, = tea in English. Chaj, in its turn, did come from China the country, but ceramic, porcelain etc never had Russian words associating China with it, as it happened in Western Europe.
    So there is no connection to shards of broken ceramic, as it might seem, only to a persistent noise of boiling teakettle on a stove.

  4. There has to be an LH post somewhere about Western tea (thé, tè, etc.) vs. Eastern chaj (tsai, cha 茶, etc.). Cultural divide in a teapot.

  5. Isn’t it a Northern (ch’a) vs. Southern Chinese (?t’e?)divide? The Russians still call Chinese Kitai (Cathayans) too I think.

  6. Southern Chinese (?t’e?)
    I am pretty sure the Portuguese or the Dutch got it from Malay, but then, the only Southern dialect I am familiar with is Cantonese (where it is ts’a), so a Hokkien influence could be considered, maybe. It would help if LH readers in Taiwan could tell us the taiyu form (I didn’t pay attention when I was there and happened to hang out almost exclusively with non-dialectophones).

  7. And the divide is not only linguistic, but really cultural, too: “t’e”-sayers and “cha”-sayers drink it differently.

  8. (Hoping I will not contribute too much to a new bandwidth excess) Isn’t that something like “herbata” in Polish (used for any kind of infusion, like Chinese cha)?

  9. Theoretically it is possible to say “gants gut” (“real good”), but this is a phrase that the author says he has never heard in his life. “As a response to a Yiddish question, it marks you as someone who knows some Yiddish words but doesn’t really understand the language,” he writes…
    Oh, come on now. I’ve heard gants gut as a response to “How are you?” from any number of native Yiddish speakers. This is what happens when standup comics convince themselves that their shtick corresponds to real life and that anything said in Yiddish should correspond to the inflections of a Borscht Belt performer. I’m sure Wex’s book is entertaining, clever, and even enlightening – an accurate portrayal of Yiddish’s range it isn’t.

  10. Michael Farris says:

    In Polish, the word herbata is used for a) the plant (s?) used to make black and green tea b) any sort of infusion, of which there is a very wide variety since various herbal teas have traditionally been part of both preventitive and curative popular medicine.
    I think it’s the only European language that doesn’t use any version of te/cha. It does have czajnik (tea kettle) presumably borrowed from Russian, but I’m not sure how conscious people are of the etymology of ‘czaj’ or if czaj ever was used for tea.
    My hypothesis (which I’m not curious enough to check) is that it would be a ‘te’ country but that would violate Polish phonological rules (a root ending in a vowel has to have more than one syllable). That could be remedied by borrowing it as ‘tej’ but a couple of different ‘tej’s already existed.

  11. Michael Farris says:

    Update: According to the Polish Wikipedia (caveat lector) herbata comes from the Latin ‘herba the’ so Poland is a te country after all. I’m assuming that te was phonologically regularized to be feminine to ease declinsion? which would make me right (hooray!) when I theorized that te would be an impossible root form.
    It also means I was wrong (boo, hiss) when I wrote that Poland doesn’t use any form of czaj/t(h)e.
    http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbata

  12. Although in the interests of accuracy I should report that a not-uncommon, jokey counter-response to Gants gut is Ganz gut, katshke beser (Goose good, duck better).

  13. Michael:
    Lithuanian, however, also uses a word for “tea” shared with Polish: arbata. But this is surely a loan from one of the two languages to the other.
    Robert:
    The modern German spelling of the color black is “schwarz” without a “t”. Having said that, many Germans still have the “t” in their family name, since family name spellings were rarely (if ever?) changed to correspond with the relatively recent standardizing of spelling in German. Many German surnames thus have several spelling variants.
    I’m not so sure though about “hak zhe mir keyn chaynik” corresponding to “don’t beat on me [like] a teakettle.” I’m more familiar with the expression “hak zhe nisht keyn chaynik” or Yinglish “stop hocking a chaynik!” without the “mir” personalization. This seems to me to be more a comparison between a person’s blathering with the sound of smashing ceramics. The “mir” might be, as I would understand it, added as a sort of dativus ethicus to mean something like “in my presence” or “affecting me”, and not so much “beating on me”.

  14. I think Lyle is correct about the dativus ethicus, though the phrase seems somehow incongruous in a discussion of Yiddish.

  15. Michael,
    Thank you for the precisions. This clarifies what I remembered from my contact with Polish.

  16. Quick googling brought this interesting note about “coffee” in Singapore and Hong Kong, where 茶 is transcribed as ‘te’ in the word 茶乌 (guoyu ‘chawu’, Minnanhua ‘te o’ according to the author, Mr. Wang Huidi), which is “black tea without sugar”.
    Quote of note: 在新加坡,“啡乌”跟“茶乌”配对,“茶乌”是不加奶的红茶。“茶乌”闽南话叫 [te o]。

  17. Chai is a Mongol word. When Tamerlane (Timur-i-Leng) sent his troops west he ordered them to boil the water to avoid disease. To make this drink more flavourful they put in the dried leaves of the ‘chai’ bush. This is why Chai is the universal word for tea; even ‘a cup of cha’ in English. It spread as far as the Mongols.

  18. Vasmer says Mongolian chai is from Chinese.

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