ZUCKERMUTTER, INGBUS.

I was irritated, while reading the “Talk of the Town” section of the latest New Yorker, to see Nick Paumgarten start his piece thus: “Last week, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, deployed her considerable leverage, as the euro-zone Zuckermutter, to persuade Mario Monti, the Italian Prime Minister, to move up by several hours their big Friday whither-Europe meeting in Rome so that she could make it to Poland in time to attend that evening’s quarter-final match in the European soccer championship, between Germany and Greece.” I was irritated because I didn’t know what he meant by Zuckermutter; morpheme by morpheme, it translates as “sugar-mother,” but such a word does not appear to be a part of German any more than it is of English—it is not in my unabridged dictionary, and the only hit Google Books finds is from “Prinzessin Ilse: ein Märchen aus dem Harzgebirge” (1887), by Marie Petersen: “Vor mehr als zwanzig Jahren eine Rübe Zuckermutter! — das mußt Du erst beweisen!” My guess is that Merkel is being portrayed as a woman who doles out sweets (i.e., bailouts), but where did he get the idea of conveying this concept via a nonexistent German word that will be a mystery to 99.9% of his readership, and why did the magazine think it was a good idea to indulge him in it?
And in the process of googling, I found this story (pdf) from the New York Times of February 25, 1901:

“ZUCKER MUTTER” IS DEAD
East Side Tradition Has It that She Was 114 Years Old.
Little Old Candy Seller Long a Familiar Figure to Hester Street School Children.
There will be mourning in Hester Street when the little boys and girls of the east side troop to school to-day. A familiar figure that always greeted them from the door stoop opposite the schoolhouse will be missing. For the little “Zucker Mutter,” as they called her, is no more. She was buried yesterday in Washington Cemetery, and so to-day the little boys and girls will have to go without their “Ingbus” and the candied orange peel that she knew so well how to make.

The story goes on to tell how Leah Abrams (for that was her name) had come over from “Kovner” (presumably Kovno, in the Russian Empire, now Kaunas, in Lithuania), where she had married the prosperous Abraham Abrams: “But oppression came, and the family were forced to leave the land of their fathers.” He and their son both died, but their daughter married Isaac Drukmann, “and for a while the family had some comfort.”

Drunkmann [sic] is old now, too. Times grew hard, and the rent always went on. Then Mrs. Abrams decided that she would do her share to help. She bought from a peddler a big brass pot. In that she mixed, as she remembered it was done in Russia, the sugar and spice that formed the delicious “Ingbus.” Then filling a tin pail she and stood in Hester Street, and the curious children gathered about. To one she gave a taste of the candy. He liked it, and told his fellows. And since then the old woman had never lacked for trade, though, to be sure, she had to sell much in order to realize the $2.50 she paid every month to her daughter for her keep. But she soon became a familiar figure to the people of the neighborhood…

What is this “ingbus,” I asked myself? Again, Google had no answer, but it came to me that Ingwer was the German word for ‘ginger,’ and a quick check with Weinreich confirmed that the Yiddish word was ingber, so my guess is that the plural ingbers, in the good old non-rhotic New York dialect, was heard as ingbus. As always, I welcome elucidation from anyone who knows more.

Comments

  1. Pretty sure he was just trying to be clever in translating “Sugar Mama”.

  2. The original suger mama !

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    In “The Golden Notebook” the character Anna Wulf refers to her psychoanalyst as Mother Sugar. I had always assumed this was a thin disguise for someone named “Zuckerman” or something similar, but the New Yorker reference (which I just saw this morning) made me wonder.

  4. Damn.

  5. Definitely calque-as-joke. Like that one Asterix comic where the Britons are all saying stuff like “je dis!” and “un morceau de chance!”

  6. Oddly enough, when I saw this post’s title I thought, “Ingbus? That’s sort of like the Yiddish word for ginger.” So I’m sure that’s the explanation, precisely as you present it.
    Also, Lane’s right about Zuckermutter.

  7. dearieme says:

    “to-day”: in 1901 did they use “to-morrow” or “yester-day”?

  8. Lane is probably right. And the vast majority of New Yorker readers, who don’t speak German, will guess the writer’s intended meaning more easily than people who do speak German.

  9. @rootlesscosmo: “Mother Sugar” was my first association too, but what is the New Yorker reference you mention?

  10. I immediately thought of the 1985 German movie Zuckerbaby, which is about a sugar mama.

  11. Pretty sure he was just trying to be clever in translating “Sugar Mama”.
    D’oh! Of course you’re right. (As is vanya about its being easier for people who don’t know German.)

  12. Ingberlach is the proper Yiddish word, “gingery thingies”. Zimmelach was better known to us as kids, “cinnamony little things”. Classic ingberlach may have bits of nuts or raisins in the gingery caramel.

  13. Thanks, I was hoping someone would know the realia involved!

  14. Another “little thingie” sweet I recall was kichlach (кихелах), this one w/o any spices. But searching Russian Internet for Имберлах / Инберлах (both common spellings, the former must have been influenced by the Russian word for ginger, Имбирь) turns up a slightly different recipe. Still a ginger caramel brittle, but enriched with matzo bits and honey. Never tried those! Matzos was so hard to come by in my childhood years, we’d usually just eat it all up straight, whatever amount we can get.

  15. Ok the ingberlach ethnography is beginning to settle down. There is a lot of geographic variation in it. The whole concept seems to be from Lithuania and Belarus (my granny was from Minsk), and the matzo/honey variation may be local to Eastern Belarus, while in Western Belarus and Lithuania there was another unusual local variation, with boiled-down carrot puree and optional citrus peel (the carrot ingberlach seems to be a little softer and stickier than your typical brittle, too)

  16. Fascinating!

  17. rootlesscosmo says:

    @Jan Freeman: the Nick Paumgarten article where Hat saw “Zuckermutter” and “ingbus.”

  18. Bathrobe says:

    Fascinating!
    Hat, you are so easily satisfied with words! When I see a description like that, I’ve got to try the damned stuff.

  19. @Jan Freeman: the Nick Paumgarten article where Hat saw “Zuckermutter” and “ingbus.”
    Actually, I only saw “Zuckermutter” there; “ingbus” was in the Times piece I found by googling “Zuckermutter.”

  20. Ingefær is the Norwegian for ginger. I don’t know why, though.

  21. Jeffry House says:

    Zingerber?

  22. Jeffry House says:

    Here’s a proposed derivation of the Norwegian and much else besides: http://www.staff.hum.ku.dk/mjd/ginger.html

  23. @rootlesscosmo: Ah, I thought you meant you saw a reference to Lessing’s Mother Sugar. (I was curious because Gail Collins just mentioned “The Golden Notebook” in her tribute to Nora Ephron.) Thanks for clarifying.

  24. @rootlesscosmo: Ah, I thought you meant you saw a reference to Lessing’s Mother Sugar. (I was curious because Gail Collins just mentioned “The Golden Notebook” in her tribute to Nora Ephron.) Thanks for clarifying.

  25. “but where did he get the idea of conveying this concept via a nonexistent German word that will be a mystery to 99.9% of his readership, and why did the magazine think it was a good idea to indulge him in it?”
    Other people nailed it: he was trying to be clever and failed miserably, essentially. It’s shameful that he didn’t do this properly (that is, actually consulting with a native German speaker instead of using, apparently, Google Translate) and it’s even more shameful that the editors let this fly. Additionally, yes, this will make sense to non-German-speakers because it’s a direct translation that makes sense directly translated back into English: “sugar” + “mother” = “sugar momma”, “hey, yeah, that makes perfect sense to translate a slang term in our language and expect it to make sense in their language!”
    This is like someone thinking that translating the Spanish “culicagada” directly into English would make perfect sense to English speakers–”culicagada” is almost the perfect equivalent to the English term “poopy-pants”, it’s a mild derogatory term most commonly used by siblings on each other, typically by the older sibling in reference to the younger one, the “baby”, and typically means that the person being called a “culicagada” is acting “like a baby” that is in a childish or immature manner. Like I said, it’s actually quite fascinating that they have an almost perfectly equivalent version of such a specific oddball term as “poopy-pants” in their language. Now, where does this term come from? “Culo”, which means “ass” in Spanish, and “cagada”, which is the past participle of “cagar” which is a verb that means “to shit”, so it literally means someone who can’t/didn’t wipe properly (a very young child) and therefore has poop in their butt that mommy needs to wipe up for them. It literally translates to “ass-shitted”, so now imagine that a Spanish speaker, in a moment of brilliance, decides that they want to call an American politician a “culicagada” because they did something immature, and so they use the literal translation of “culicagada” into English, which would be “ass-shitted”, instead of the proper contextual translation (which would be “poopy-pants”) in an article that’s otherwise entirely in Spanish. That’s the equivalent of what this idiot did.
    What’s worse is that he’s American, thereby further our reputation around the globe as being ignorant monolingual morons who don’t care enough about others’ languages to bother learning them at all.
    As you can see, I am not happy about this.
    Sorry, world, we’re really not this dumb, it’s just that those amongst us who are seem to be extraordinarily skilled at finding the greatest public platform from which they can loudly proclaim their ignorance to the rest of humanity.
    Maybe I should send this into the New Yorker and see if they print it along with a correction and an apology. Probably not.
    Cheers,
    Andrew

  26. If my previous comment gets deleted or edited for profanity, I would like to make it clear that I understand completely why that was done and will not be the least bit upset and that I apologize to languagehat for making them have to do that.
    I hate it when other people, associated with me by nationality or otherwise, make me look stupid by proxy by parading their ignorance around and I’ve found that this is a common problem for Americans: we’re the most visible country in the world so when one of us does something dumb or evil it gets more attention than if anyone else did it. We have to be more careful about what we say and do in front of any international audience, and we have to be very conscious of the impression that we’re leaving them with. Consequently when one of our own does do something dumb and/or evil the rest of us need to be on our toes immediately speaking out against it and making it clear that this person doesn’t represent us.
    I apologize for the mildly profane rant and the subsequent lengthy explanation for it.
    Cheers,
    Andrew

  27. Another “little thingie” sweet I recall was kichlach (кихелах)
    “Kich” is related to the English verb cook and German Kuchen (cake). -lach is a plural diminutive. So what we have are little baked goodies aka cakelets. I remember them well.

  28. Jeffry House, thank you very much! A very interesting article about ginger and the history of its name, it was exactly the sort of thing I was after. I have wondered about ingefær for so long now, I feel a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.

  29. Bathrobe says:

    I don’t think the sin is so great in itself (it’s just playing with language, after all), but it was definitely the wrong place to do it. Juvenile word-play when you are supposedly writing seriously about a serious topic doesn’t do much for your credentials.
    I googled Mutterficker and inevitably it’s out there. I guess we’d have to ask GruStu whether it really exists, but if it does it originally came from the same stable as Zuckermutter.

  30. If my previous comment gets deleted or edited for profanity
    Are you kiddin’? I love profanity! I (co)wrote a book of it!

  31. I googled Mutterficker and inevitably it’s out there. I guess we’d have to ask GruStu whether it really exists, but if it does it originally came from the same stable as Zuckermutter.
    “Mutterficker” has been seen, but only as a joke. “Motherfucker” [sic] occurs in the kind of German hip-hoppery and rappery that strives to imitate the American originals. There it sounds just as stupid as Zuckermutter, although it’s intended to be shockingly echt.

  32. I had the automatic thought of a band called The Shockingly Echt, but then I realized no one would go to see it.

  33. grackle says:

    So there’s no chance that Zuckermutter is Yiddish slang?

  34. So there’s no chance that Zuckermutter is Yiddish slang?
    Entering [ "צוקער מוטער" ] into Google produces no hits.

  35. John Emerson says:

    “Shitass” is another “culicagada” equivalent, more often used in the adult world than “poopy-pants”.
    In the many languages I sort of know, I frequently make dumb jokes which are presumably funnier to American language-learners than to native speakers. I’m OK with this.

  36. John Emerson says:

    “Poopbutt” is another equivalent, and “biscuitpants” is a polite version.

  37. Trond Engen says:

    I too always make jokes in foreign languages that are funny only to me. But the same thing keeps happening in my native language.

  38. Trond Engen says:

    Like this bloody obvious one. Sorry.

  39. Arthur Naiman says:

    Annoyed at what I assumed (correctly) to be Nick Paumgarten’s arrogant self-serving pomposity, I Googled Zuckermutter and found your post. For me, his article is just another example of how The New Yorker has degenerated into a venue for writers anxious to impress, rather than eager to communicate.

  40. I don’t know, I’m just not feeling the outrage. Zuckermutter is a joke, and supposed to be a joke. Yes, The New Yorker is clearly adopting a more Daily Show sensibility. The editors want to stay relevant to the younger generation. I miss the William Shawn New Yorker too, but I fear that sort of magazine would have a very limited readership in the current era.

  41. It’s the Harold Ross New Yorker I miss, and he died seven years before I was born. I hear it’s not unheard-of for modern Viennese to miss Franz Josef.

  42. “Are you kiddin’? I love profanity! I (co)wrote a book of it!”
    Fuckin’ a, man.

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