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.