KNAIDEL?

The Scripps National Spelling Bee, which I wrote about here, is over, and the winner is Arvind Mahankali, a New Yorker who correctly spelled the final word, knaidel (NY Times story). The word is, via Yiddish, from German knödel (also the source of the knedlíky the Czechs serve with everything), and the first thing I thought when I saw the story was “Really? you spell it knaidel?” Well, that turns out to be a common reaction, and the Times has a follow-up story by Joseph Berger about the controversy, “Some Say the Spelling of a Winning Word Just Wasn’t Kosher.” YIVO prefers kneydl, which is how I probably would have spelled it, but:

The spelling contest, however, relies not on YIVO linguists but on Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, and that is what contestants cram with, said a bee spokesman, Chris Kemper. Officials at Merriam-Webster, the dictionary’s publisher, defended their choice of spelling as the most common variant of the word from a language that, problematically, is written in the Hebrew, not Roman, alphabet.
“Bubbes in Boca Raton are using the word knaidel when they mail in their recipes to The St. Petersburg Times,” said Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster in Springfield, Mass.

Berger reports on a lively discussion of the issue:

On Friday in the Bronx, a great knaidel debate was in full swing during lunch at the Riverdale Y Senior Center, where many of the 60 diners had already heard about the young spelling whiz from Queens. As they munched on brisket and kasha varnishkes, most everyone agreed on pronunciation, but there was wide discussion on how to spell it, how to make it and who makes the best one.
“K-n-a-d-e-l,” said Gloria Birnbaum, 83, whose first language was Yiddish. She teaches a class at the center in “mamalushen,” the mother tongue of Yiddish, to seniors who want to better understand “the things you heard your mother say.”
“I wouldn’t have spelled it with an ‘i,’ ” she added.
But Aaron Goldman, a former accountant and sales manager in a blue baseball cap, jumped to his feet and banged on the table as plastic wear bounced.
“That would be ‘knawdle,’ not knaidle!” he said.
May Schechter, 90, told Claire Okrend, who is in her 80s, that she did not learn the word until she came to America from Romania in 1938. But, she said, she did not think any of the variants were wrong. “You can spell it any way you want,” she said.
“As long as it’s understood,” Ms. Okrend agreed.

Fun stuff; thanks, Bonnie!
Addendum. I forgot to mention how shocked I was to see the correction appended to the Berger article: “An earlier version of this article said the Second Avenue Deli was in the East Village. It is in Midtown East.” What? (thought I)—it is in the East Village! But Wikipedia set me straight: “It relocated to 162 East 33rd Street (between Lexington Avenue and Third Avenue) in Murray Hill in December 2007.” O tempora, O matzohs! Le vieux New-York n’est plus!

Comments

  1. A nice reminder that orthography is bunk.
    Vive l’anarchie!

  2. I’ve wasted much of the past thirty-odd hours trying to convince my fellow Yiddishists that English words of Yiddish origin don’t have to be spelled according to YIVO transcription rules, and usually shouldn’t be (personally, I feel kneydl looks mighty odd as an English word). I guess I’ll just have to eat my pastrame on a beygl and feel like a shmok.

  3. personally, I feel kneydl looks mighty odd as an English word
    It does, but so does knaidl, to me at least. I guess, not having seen the term on menus that I remember, every spelling would look odd to me as an English word. And of course you’re right about the principle (“English words of Yiddish origin don’t have to be spelled according to YIVO transcription rules, and usually shouldn’t be”).

  4. From the NYT article: rather than the “ch” in words like chutzpah and challah, the YIVO wordsmiths preferred “kh” because the “ch” could lead someone to a softer pronunciation, as in choice or chicken.
    softer?
    The same article lets us know how the word is question is pronounced: KNEYD-l.
    as opposed to KNAID-l?

  5. The real scandal is that ‘knaidel’ is singular. Who ever made soup with one matzoh ball? It’s like ordering ‘Spaghettum and meat ball’ at an Italian restaurant.

  6. @MattF: Near where I used to live in Solon, Ohio, there’s a restaurant called the Chicago Deli, where if you order matzo ball soup, they serve you a bowl of broth with one enormous matzo ball. It’s actually pretty good, for all that it was totally not what I’d expected.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Spaghettum and meat ball
    I like that! even though spaghetto would be more Italian. You would need quite a big meat ball to make up for the single spaghetto (of course, it could be very, very long to compensate, perhaps rolled up like a ball of yarn).

  8. Yiddish words are not from “German” unless it is specified “Old German”. Current Yiddish words like Current German words are from “Old German”.

  9. George Grady says:

    The word that bugged me was hallali, a “huntsman’s bugle call”. C’mon, you could spell that pretty much however you want.

  10. Gassalasca says:

    It’s “knedla” in Serbian.
    Most of those German -del words entered as -dla into Serbian, thus becoming feminine.

  11. It says something about spelling bees that a person can win them on a disputed spelling. “Perceptions that getting to the nationals involves nothing more than prodigious feats of word memorization” may not be far from the mark. One can understand why Webster’s Third New International Dictionary was chosen as a standard (there has to be some kind of standard), but why would the people who make up the bees choose a word with a disputed spelling anyway? Obviously they are throwing in everything but the kitchen sink without knowing much about their choices (including disputed spellings), and wondering why people complain about the artificiality of spelling bees.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    hallali, a “huntsman’s bugle call”
    I can’t believe the type of words chosen for those spelling bees. I have seen the word hallali a number of times, but only in French, always in the context (concrete or metaphorical) of la chasse à courre, the “aristocratic pastime” of hunting on horseback, in a pack of people and horses together with another pack, of hounds (there was a vivid sequence depicting this form of entertainment in the film Tom Jones in the 60′s). I think the hallali is the call sounded just before the kill. Is it considered an English word then?

  13. When my entirely WASP mother-in-law married by culturally-Jewish father-in-law, her mother-in-law undertook to teach her to “cook Jewish”. This was met with some success: my mother-in-law was a good natural cook and was able to adapt her own style to the new recipes and foodstuffs. In particular, her kneydlach were quite a success. The word for them, however, passed from my mother-in-law^2 to my mother-in-law to my wife as canalia (plural of canalium, no doubt), and canalia they remained to her until she moved to New York.

  14. Is it considered an English word then?
    If it’s in Webster’s Third New International, it’s an English word by definition. How else are you going to decide? I do think, however, that they should avoid some of the more absurdly rare entries for spelling bees.

  15. David L says:

    is “hallali” related to John Peel’s view halloo?

  16. Treesong says:

    ‘Hallali’ is also in the 1993 Chambers Dictionary as ‘a bugle call’. A Google search of English pages gets 533 hits with duplicates omitted. But a check of the first hundred finds only two hits for the word in an English-language context apart from dictionaries and proper names: one for Gustave Courbet’s painting ‘The Hallali of the Stag’ and one caption to a business chart by ‘Berny Entropix’ of Switzerland: ‘In Entropic Trend Indicators (ETI) analysis a HALLALI condition is a very distinctive calling (before it is too late) that price is going to fall sharply.’ That seems to be a translation from French.
    My favorite NI3 hunting term is ‘heu gase’ (or ‘heu gaze’): ‘used as a view halloo in hunting otters’. 71 Ghits for that.

  17. Treesong says:

    Oops, that’s 429 hits; 533 without the limitation to English (which still let through a lot of French pages). 51 of those refer to the spelling bee.

  18. Online Etymological Dictionary has
    Halloo as a verb, “to pursue with shouts, to shout in the chase,” from late 14c.

  19. Classified information, to be shared only on a knead-to-know basis:
    Google returns 76,200 hits for knaidel and 38,200 for kneidle (when either of those spellings is followed by [ soup ], which strains out the surnames). Variants like knadle, knaidle, etc., return between 2,500 and 8,000 hits. Supping last is kneydle with three hits.

  20. Huh! OK, knaidel it is.

  21. Treesong says:

    Hm? I get 127 Ghits for “knaidel soup” in quotes, which reduce to 22 if you go to the end to remove ‘very similar’ results. For “kneidel soup” in quotes it’s 2,720 -> 127. I think those two 127s are a coincidence.
    “knaidel soup” – “kneidel” 126 -> 18,
    “kneidel soup” – “knaidel” 2,710 -> 128,
    “knaidlach” 15,100 -> 420,
    “kneidlach 22,600 -> 470,
    “kneydlach” 4,840 -> 260 (rather more Hebrew in these).
    Make of that what you will.

  22. Bill Walderman says:

    ‘When my entirely WASP mother-in-law married by culturally-Jewish father-in-law, her mother-in-law undertook to teach her to “cook Jewish”.’
    That’s exactly what happened in my family–my father’s mother, from Odessa, taught my mother, from a small town in rural Oklahoma, how to cook a number of traditional Jewish recipes, and my mother’s versions were better than anything from Jewish cooks, at least for my father and me. My father’s favorite was kasha–buckwheat groats–with beef brisket and white horseradish. A perfect dish for a cold November evening, a taste I’ll never experience again.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Bill W, so your mother did not think it her duty, when you got married, to instruct her own daughter-in-law in the family cooking traditions, especially how to cook the men’s favourite dishes.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Perhaps she did not want a replay of the earlier situation, in which she, as the daughter-in-law, upstaged her mother-in-law.

  25. The real scandal is that ‘knaidel’ is singular.
    Is it? In German “Knödel” is both singular and plural.

  26. Yiddish words are not from “German” unless it is specified “Old German”.
    Unless the words were borrowed at a later date, which may well be the case for “knaidel”. I don’t know the etymology, but it certainly seems possible that “knaidel” is a fairly recent borrowing into the Yiddish spoken in the Habsburg cultural sphere, especially since “Knödel” is generally a Bavarian/Austrian term. Standard German for “dumpling” is “Kloss”.

  27. Bill Walderman says:

    Marie-Lucie: I can’t say my mother upstaged her mother-in-law. I was about four when my grandmother passed away, so I don’t know how the family dynamic played out before that time, but I have reason to believe they got along quite well during the twelve years of my parents’ marriage that preceded my birth. I live alone myself, and anything as complicated as kasha and beef brisket lies beyond my culinary skills.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    Bill W, I apologize for my unsupported speculations. But it is too bad that most family traditions do not include teaching sons to cook. (Not that daughters are always taught that skill: my mother’s mother, an excellent cook, did not teach her own daughter).

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    If Webster’s Third didn’t flag the fact that there are multiple spelling variants Out There, it is a defective reference work, and one the bee organizers should not use without doing additional research of their own. I assume for words known to have variant spellings, they either accept multiple answers as correct or (more likely?) simply do not use them for bee-contestant purposes. (For words where the spelling variation is an AmEng/BrEng thing and one can plausibly claim that only one variant is extant in AmEng texts, it might be a separate issue with a separate solution.)
    I don’t know why anyone should care about YIVO in this context. It sounds like what they’re trying to do is come up with a consistent set of rules for transcribing Yiddish texts into the Latin alphabet. Thinking the same set of rules should govern the English spelling of English words derived from Yiddish is just a category error. English-speakers, not Yiddish experts, get to decide how we want to spell those words we choose to borrow. It’s not, in that context, their word (or, rather, at least not solely their word) anymore. I don’t think I’d ever previously seen the YIVO-backed variant spelling for “chutzpah,” nor that for “Hanukkah” despite there being a fair number of variants already in circulation for that one.

  30. Yiddish words are not from “German” unless it is specified “Old German”. Current Yiddish words like Current German words are from “Old German”.
    Very true, and this initially bothered me too. But then I thought about a (rough) parallel with words of Norman French origin and realized I have no problem saying they’re of French origin. Thus describing a Germanic Yiddish word (and this one is not a NHG borrowing, though marie-lucie is correct that those exist) in a rough and ready etymology as “of German origin” is all right. What is not all right is saying a given Yiddish word is from its NHG cognate.
    they serve you a bowl of broth with one enormous matzo ball
    That’s what I would expect if I ordered matzo ball soup in a restaurant; I think that just evolved as the restaurant-style way to do things.
    FWIW, kasha only means buckwheat groats in English; the Yiddish word “kashe” refers to any starchy-cerealy mush, including buckwheat kasha and mashed potatoes.

  31. J.W. Brewer says:

    That “Knödel” does not distinguish singular from plural led to a bit of confusion when I was in Vienna in the late 90′s and ordered what I expected would be “bacon [Speck] dumplings” (assuming it would be sort of like a plate of gnocchi w/ carbonara sauce) but was then served a “bacon dumpling” singular, i.e. one huge mass of dough the size of a softball or grapefruit, with bits of Speck mixed into the dough.

  32. Interesting controversy. I don’t live in the US, but I’ve watched many movies where spelling bees were conducted, but I digress. I personally would have spelt it without the “k”, as in “Naidel”, but depending on the origin of the word, or rather, if you know the origin, you may derive a rough idea of exactly which letters should be included or omitted. So “Knaidel” it is, or Naidel (since we can spell it any way we want :-))!

  33. Bill Walderman says:

    “kasha only means buckwheat groats in English”
    Well, we spoke English in my family, not Yiddish. Although my father may have been a native speaker of Yiddish (or at least bilingual), and dropped out of school in sixth grade, he spoke impeccable English.
    One interesting Yiddish food term was that which my father applied to Greek olives–the fat, salty kind–which were a staple of the traditional Sunday morning breakfast involving lox and bagels (lox and smoked whitefish from Murray’s at B’way and, I think, 91st; bagels from the bagel bakery at B’way and 82d or 83rd, recently closed due to a family squabble, I’ve heard). My father referred to these olives as something that sounded to me like “mislennas”, which rang a bell when I learned the Russian word for olives, “masliny.”

  34. marie-lucie says:

    Ben: a Germanic Yiddish word (and this one is not a NHG borrowing, though marie-lucie is correct that those exist)
    I am puzzled: when did I comment on Yiddish word origins? I am not remotely competent on that topic except for knowing in the vaguest way that Yiddish is a Germanic language. Perhaps I had written something just before or after the relevant comment, and my name was incorrectly associated with that other comment.

  35. Ben: kasha only means buckwheat groats in English; the Yiddish word “kashe” refers to any starchy-cerealy mush, including buckwheat kasha and mashed potatoes.
    Hmm. The term groats is usually applied to a grain, from the monocotyledons. Buckwheat and that newbie quinoa are from the dicots.
    Beyond scientific nomenclature and over at the dinner table, in my family — where Yiddish was the mother tongue of my father, mother and grandmother — kasha referred only to buckwheat.

  36. Rodger C says:

    @Charley Chris: You seem to assume that the word is pronounced in English without the /k/. I frankly don’t know if I’ve ever heard the word, but given the usual treatment of Yiddish words in English, I’d be surprised if it didn’t begin with /kn/.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    In one of my cookbooks there is a recipe for kasha. It only mentions buckwheat groats.

  38. I used to have two names for the buckwheat preparation that we’re talking about. Now Ben wants me to stop calling it “kasha” and Paul wants me to stop calling it “buckwheat groats”.

  39. Bill, you’re very close, but Murray’s Sturgeon is between 89th & 90th Streets. I think they added a small restaurant in the late 1980s.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Isn’t “groats” the word for a type of grain (unlike cereal grains like those of wheat, barley, rye etc), so that the cooked, mashed product would be called something else (such as ‘porridge’)?

  41. given the usual treatment of Yiddish words in English, I’d be surprised if it didn’t begin with /kn/.
    Same here.

  42. Aha. The porridge thickens.
    I had assumed that Yiddish ‘kasha’ [buckwheat] was a direct borrowing from Russian. But looking up buckwheat in en.wiki and then clicking on the Russian entry yielded something else entirely: Гречиха посевная. It was only when I searched for ‘kasha’ in en.wiki that I came across: “In Polish, buckwheat porridge is referred to as kasza gryczana.” This in turn yielded Гречневая каша in ru.wiki.

  43. cooked, mashed product
    In my experience the cooked product (buckwheat kasha) is not mashed. In fact, it would be quite resistant to mashing. Those units of starchy wholesome goodness retain their individuality and even their polyhedral shape.

  44. Bill Walderman says:

    “In my experience the cooked product (buckwheat kasha) is not mashed. In fact, it would be quite resistant to mashing. Those units of starchy wholesome goodness retain their individuality and even their polyhedral shape.”
    My experience, too!

  45. marie-lucie says:

    not mashed
    Sorry, my experience is much more limited: I only tried to make kasha once, many years ago, from the recipe in my cookbook, so I don’t remember exactly what the finished product was like.

  46. Paul – in Russian and Polish “kasha” (“kaše” in Czech) is a generic word for any porridge. The word was even borrowed into Hungarian. I would be surprised if “kasha” was used only for buckwheat by European Yiddish-speakers. I wonder if the shift “kasha=buckweat” just took place in the US. Or is “manna” the generic Yiddish word for porridge?

  47. Vanya: I wonder if the shift “kasha=buckweat” just took place in the US.
    Maybe, maybe not. Harkavy’s Dictionary defines קאשע / kasha as gruel, porridge, and immediately following has an entry קאשע בולבע / kasha bulbeh, which he defines as mashed potatoes. Buckwheat he defines as רעטשקע / retshke and adds in parentheses ד: בוכוויצען / D: buchweizen, which is German for buckwheat. For porridge, Harkavy gives זופ קאשע / zoop kasha
    All of which is new to me. I’ve known only kasha for buckwheat and never known a word for porridge. (BTW, Israelis call oatmeal “kvakker”.)
    Sidenote: Wolff’s Kasha, produced in Upstate New York, has bilingual packaging — English and French — though I’m not sure it would comply with Quebec’s language laws because of the apostrophe in the name.

  48. J.W. Brewer says:

    I assume Bill Walderman may be recalling the demise of H&H Bagels (in its west-side locations), which is recounted on wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%26H_Bagels so it must be true – part of the backstory was a dispute with the government over tax liabilities. I had not realized that the upper east side location was separately owned – not sure where they’re sourcing their product these days.

  49. Ø: Now Ben wants me to stop calling it “kasha.”
    Heaven forfend! That’s what I call it in English, because that’s what it means in English. I just think it’s interesting, since in the US the dish is so clearly marked as Jewish, that this is a novel use of the term “kasha.” After all, my meta-point in this thread is that English words of Yiddish origin are distinct from Yiddish words.
    marie-lucie: Oops; when I looked back through the thread to see who made the comment I was referring to, I misread; it was Vanya’s. Apologies to the both of youse.
    Paul Ogden: The term groats is usually applied to a grain, from the monocotyledons. Buckwheat and that newbie quinoa are from the dicots.
    There’s a narrow sense of grain which does mean specifically Poaceae seeds (and Poaceae sp. are indeed monocots). But there’s a broader sense as well that means “Poaceae seeds and things like that”; this includes such dicots as quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, and chia. Perversely, it is this latter group for which “groats” seems to be used most often; the only “true” grain I associate with groats is oats. This is probably because most Poaceae grains are milled into flour. I suppose rice and cut maize are technically groats, but I’d feel like a fool calling them that. (Heck, I feel like a fool calling maize “maize,” but what can you do?)

  50. the demise of H&H Bagels
    No!! I hadn’t heard that. So where does one get a real bagel in NYC these days?

  51. J.W. Brewer says:

    Vanya, I’m too old and preoccupied with other matters to be a bagel snob (in the sense of going a material number of blocks out of my way for incremental bagel quality), but I’m sure there are internet threads full of obsessives giving their views on the subject. One of the locations of Ess-a-Bagel is within walking distance of my current office, so I go there on occasion.

  52. Bill Walderman says:

    “I had not realized that the upper east side location was separately owned – not sure where they’re sourcing their product these days.”
    At the H&H B’way location, they were baked right there on the premises and were still warm when you got them back home. Another thing you can’t seem to find anymore is real rye bread, the kind with a crisp crust, like they baked at Cakemasters, on B’way between 85th and 86th. And then there was Daitch Dairy on the corner of B’way and 86th, and the Tip Toe Inn for your delicatessen and bakery products.
    In the 1960s, my parents and I lived between West End and Riverside Drive on 86th Street. The super in our building, Mr. Umansky, had been a tank commander at Stalingrad. On the south side of the street was a school for kids whose parents worked at the Soviet mission to the UN, with a large image of Lenin (or was it Marx?) glaring out of the second-story window. On the north side (our side), further down towards Riverside Drive, was teh House of Free Russia, an organization of ex-Czarist military officers. I think the herd was thinning out by the 1960s.

  53. J.W. Brewer says:

    In the old Walderman neighborhood, my impression is that Barney Greengrass, the Sturgeon King (Amsterdam around 86th) is much the same as ever. Or at least the internet says it’s still open and the last time I was there (prob 3-4 years ago) it seemed much the same as in the early ’90′s at which point it was at least *trying* to appear that it had been that way since time immemorial.

  54. The super in our building, Mr. Umansky, had been a tank commander at Stalingrad.
    Interesting; do you know when/how he got to NYC?

  55. Bill Walderman says:

    I think Mr. Umansky and his wife must have come to the US in the early 1960s or before, though I’m not sure. And I don’t know how they managed to get out. They were of Jewish background, but they must have come before the wave of emigration in the 1970s, when restrictions were lifted, because after 1968 I didn’t spend much time in New York.

  56. Bill Walderman says:

    “my impression is that Barney Greengrass, the Sturgeon King (Amsterdam around 86th) is much the same as ever.”
    Barney Greengrass is a famous NY institution, but we seldom ventured over to Amsterdam Ave. Broadway had everything you needed. My memory of the area goes back to B.Z. (before Zabar’s). At that time the Upper West Side wasn’t at all fashionable–it was still very middle middle class, and there were many streets that were decidedly less than middle class.
    But kids could go out on the streets unaccompanied by adults–as early as age 6 or 7, my parents would send me down to a small convenience store to buy groceries when we lived on 79th St. (this would be around 1952 or 1953), and I would play on the street with a kid who lived in the building next door. The store is still there: the friendly Sikh gentleman at the counter when I stopped in a few years ago insisted on letting me have a free beverage when I told him how I used to visit the store as a child 60 or so years before. Le vieux New-York indeed.

  57. marie-lucie says:

    I grew up in small French towns, but both my parents were born and raised in Paris and most of our relatives lived there, including some cousins about the same age as my sisters and me. I felt very sorry for them: Paris did not seem to be a place for children. Our cousins could not go out and play in the street, they lived in small apartments where their bedrooms were on the same floor as the other rooms, there were no stairs, no attics to climb up to with ladders, no yards or gardens (even small), etc. The only thing I envied them for was that they could go roller-skating, something hard to do on our old sidewalks with uneven flagstones, but in order to skate they had to be taken to a skating place by their parents instead of just opening the front door and going out. I guess things are even worse now for big city children.

  58. My four-year-old grandson doesn’t go out unaccompanied, but I have no problem letting him run to the far end of the block when I’m at the near end: he always scrupulously stops right at the curb. I have taught him pretty well that he has to turn around and make sure he can see me, and if not (because there are too many people in the way) to turn back.
    Lately, though, he’s been less eager to do this, and more eager to walk with me holding hands.

  59. I guess things are even worse now for big city children.
    It depends on the city. In Vienna it is still fairly common to see seven- eight- or nine-year olds running around unaccompanied. Of course, relative to Paris Vienna is a fairly small city these days.

  60. I should add that New York City blocks (that is, the north-south ones between streets rather than the longer east-west ones between avenues) are 20 to the mile or 12 to the kilometer.

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