A New York Times story by Edward Wyatt reports on the belated lawsuit by Pearson Education, the publishing company that owns the copyright to the Dick and Jane primers, against a division of Time Warner in Federal District Court in Los Angeles claiming that the book Yiddish With Dick and Jane violates Pearson’s copyrights and trademarks.

The brisk-selling book examines adultery, drug use and other tsuris that afflict Dick and Jane as adults. When it was published in September by Little, Brown & Company, part of the Time Warner Book Group, Pearson was farmisht and did not take any action. After an Internet video promotion of the book began attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers and the book’s sales topped 100,000, however, Pearson decided that the fun was over.
The book, by Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman, with illustrations by Gabi Payn, states on the front and back covers, spine and copyright page that it is a parody. But the lawsuit says the book “is not a parody, but is an unprotected imitation” because it does not use the copyrighted characters “for the purpose of social criticism.”…

In a statement, Little, Brown said the book was “entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment and related laws permitting expression of social commentary.”
“This suit aims at the heart of creative expression,” the company said, “a position no publisher should take.”…
Mr. Weiner and Ms. Davilman said in an interview that they did not understand why Pearson sued. Before publication, they said, Pearson asked for, and received, a prominent disclaimer on the book saying it “has not been prepared, approved or authorized by the creators or producers of the ‘Dick and Jane’ reading primers for children.”
Ms. Davilman said she believed that the lawsuit was “a good old shakedown for money.”
A spokeswoman for Pearson said the company would not comment on the lawsuit. Earlier this month, when Pearson filed the suit, its lawyer, Stephen W. Feingold, wrote to the plaintiffs offering to discuss a settlement and saying that it had initially “decided not to sue over a title it thought would not be commercially successful.”
That decision apparently changed, Mr. Weiner said. He added: “We’re both fascinated and horrified at the same time. We’re on shpilkes.”

Me, I thought you “had” or “got” shpilkes (nervous energy, psychic pins and needles), but a little googling suggests you can be on them as well. Farmisht (and major props to Wyatt for using it straight-faced, letting the context define it) means ‘mixed-up, befuddled.’ At any rate, I’m on Little, Brown’s side here, and I look forward to leafing through the book next time I’m in a bookstore.


  1. My old math teacher at IMSA gave his wife a copy of this for Hannukah while I was visiting. What I saw of it was hilarious, and I hope Little, Brown wins its suit.

  2. I think it is a direct translation from Russian expression быть как на иголках (сидеть на иголках). Hey, we’re a nation of negotiants…

  3. Back in high school, there was a period when I and a friend decided to learn yiddish together. Unfortunately, the only handbook we had at home was in Russian (I can’t remember the title; the cover was bottle green, if that helps), a language I still ignore (but I will learn someday, or I’ll never dare call myself a sinologist), except for reading the letters (as any Greek when provided a few preliminary instructions).
    There was no Internet at the time, so acquiring Weinreich’s book was out of question, and the only French handbook we found was awefully expensive.
    I finally gave up (not my friend, who did learn some afterwards), and stuck to German and Salcia Landmann’s Jüdische Witze. The frustration is still here, though, and it increases every time you post about yiddish (or when I read Zackary Sholem Berger’s fine comments).

  4. (I forgot the capital Y in “Yiddish”; that was totally unintentional.)

  5. I think it is a direct translation from Russian
    Of course you would! And being a Russophile, you have every right to. Whether it’s true, well . . .

  6. Isn’t it wonderful to be called Russophile, first time in my life! OVIR officer, stripping me of Russian citizenship, caled me a Russophobe; personally, I don’t think I’m either one.
    To the point: after I wrote my comment, it occured to me that actually, provenance could be the other way around. Or, more likely, there could’ve been some other source, not Russian and not Yiddish: that would explain the presence of similar “on pins and needles” in English.
    Latin, Greek?

  7. Sorry, Tatyana. I meant to call you a Russophone, but my brain slipped.
    As for where the phrase came from, I have no idea. From what little I know about historical linguistics (I’m sure I’m the least knowledgable of anyone here at the Hat and Tongue*), the following options are available:
    1. The phrase came into Yiddish from some language ancestor to present-day Russian, during the time when Y. and ancestor-to-R. were in close contact.
    2. The phrase came into ancestor-to-R. from Yiddish.
    3. The phrase came into Yiddish from another Slavic language to which ancestor-to-R. is related. (Most Slavic words in Yiddish, I remember learning, are from the ancestors of modern-day Polish or Ukrainian, rather than Russian.)
    4. The phrase came into Yiddish and ancestor-to-R. from some language with which both had contact.
    5. It’s a phrase that’s common to a whole bunch of languages, since the image is obvious, colorful, and plausible. (Cf. English “he’s on pins and needles.” Somehow I doubt that’s from Yiddish or Russian.)
    Any votes, LH?
    *”The Hat and Tongue”: What I just thought right now would be a good name for Language Hat if it were an English pub. If it were a French cafe: “Le Chapeau de Bon Mot.”

  8. My mother always said ON shpilkes. Her family were Litvaks from Kovno.

  9. Excellent question, Tat. I have no way of judging between ZSB’s proposed solutions, since I don’t know how widespread the phrase is in the various Slavic languages that went into the makeup of Yiddish; the first citation in the OED is from 1810 (J. POOLE Hamlet Travestie 8 “Would it were supper-time… Till then I’m sitting upon pins and needles”), so it’s pretty clearly not borrowed from Russian or Yiddish.
    I like “The Hat and Tongue” very much, and if I ever open an English pub, that’s what I’ll call it.

  10. Another parody of Dick and Jane is a cartoon skit which appears on the children’s reading program, “Between the Lions.” It is titled “Chicken Jane.”
    What a hoot! It goes very well with our morning coffee to chase away the morning “blahs.”
    As it appears on PBS, I do not know if it can be considered “commercially successful.” However, I consider it yet another reason to continue funding public television.

  11. See Dick and Jane.
    See Dick and Jane sue.
    Dick and Jane sue Little Brown.
    Why sue Little Brown?
    Little Brown makes jokes about Dick and Jane.
    Dick and Jane do not laugh.
    So Dick and Jane sue Little Brown.
    Dick and Jane say Little Brown has no right to copy.
    Little Brown says “oy-vey.”
    Little Brown says it is all in good fun.
    Little Brown says he has the right to make jokes.
    Dick and Jane say Little Brown hurts sales.
    Who will win?
    Courts will choose.
    Little Brown hopes judge laughs.
    I hope Dick and Jane do not sue me.

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