A reader who lives in the UK and is trying to learn Dutch sent me a link to Mokums: Typisch Amsterdam, explaining that “Mokum is the Dutch / Yiddish nickname for Amsterdam.” Sure enough, there’s a Wikipedia article about it, where you can find out more:

Mokum (מקום) is the Yiddish word for “place” or “safe haven”. It is similar to the Hebrew word makom (מקום, “place”), from which it is derived. In Yiddish the names of some cities in the Netherlands and Germany were shortened to Mokum and had the first letter of the name of the city, transliterated into the Hebrew alphabet, added to them. Cities named this way were Amsterdam, Berlin, Delft, and Rotterdam. Mokum, without Aleph, is still used as a nickname for Amsterdam.

One of those cultural tidbits I love to know about, and those who read Dutch will find the site of interest. Thanks, Richard!


  1. It’s quite an interesting tidbit, but the most reliable bit seems to be the first two sentences. I wish I could read Dutch so I could understand the article which Wikipedia links to as a reference for the rest of the claim, which I find very confusing. The names of some cities were shortened to Mokum? Really? When? By whom? Why? There were plenty of cities in Germany with Jews in them which were world-famous, in the Yiddish-speaking world, anyway, and no one had to abbreviate them because everyone knew them (Worms, for instance).

    Isn’t it simpler to speculate that people called Amsterdam “mokem/mokum” as a casual way to refer to the town itself (cf. The City for London, etc.)?

    By the way, Hat, nice design. I feel guilty that I haven’t been by enough lately. Maybe you changed it a while ago? Merry winter observances!

  2. I realize the City is only part of London. Not the best example! Sorry.

  3. I suppose that these particular cities were called “safe havens” because they were relatively cosmopolitan and did not persecute Jews as much as other places. The Dutch article is a brief piece about Yiddish generally, and has no more details about mokum than the English Wikipedia article, except for the Dutch gloss for it, gezellige binnenstad ‘convivial city’.

    However, the article does list a few Dutch words of supposed Yiddish origin. The Yiddish here is as given in the article in Dutch-style transcription; I suppose it is Western Yiddish. The English glosses are from GT — trust them not!

    smoesje ‘excuse’ < schmu-es, smoeze(le)n ‘whisper(ing)’ < schmusen, geintje ‘kidding’ and ongein ‘crap < gein. From German via Yiddish: kift ‘bickering’ < Gift, pietsje ‘tiniest bit of’ < bisschen, sappelen ‘wriggle’ < zappeln. Words that have undergone pejoration: bajes ‘prison’ < [W]Y id. < Heb bayyit ‘house’, goochem ‘cunning’ < chacham 'wise', gozer ‘guy, dude’ < chosen ‘bridegroom kalle ‘whore’ < ‘bride’, and a few more I’m having trouble deciphering.

    It’s not too clear to me just when the term London came to be applied to the area outside the Roman walls, the famous square mile. Certainly sometime in the early modern period. Can anyone pin it down more accurately?

  4. Thanks! I had heard about the Yiddish loanwords in Dutch before. I just asked a knowledgeable friend whether he had ever heard of “Mokem B/R/A” etc. and he had, but couldn’t remember where, which makes me think I am off base in being so skeptical. Meanwhile, Google Book-searching, in Hebrew letters, for מקום ר etc. turns up nothing specific, but that’s not the easiest search to do obviously. Curiosity certainly piqued over here!

  5. This book seems to confirm Mokum olf for Amsterdam and Mokum reisj for Rotterdam, as the Dutch article somewhat coherently explained than the English Wikipedia.

  6. Thanks! This appears to be the money page:

    My Dutch is non-existent. Is the claim that Mokum olf/reish is an expression from Hebrew/Yiddish that was carried over into Dutch? Or that “Mokum” was then prefixed to the one-letter abbreviation by Dutch speakers?

  7. So, would this be like “D-town” referring to (among others) Dallas?

  8. At MMcM’s link, footnote 11 on page 14 of the introduction explains:

    11 Mokum = plaats. De olf (alef) is de eerste letter van de Hebreeuwse spelling van Amsterdam vgl. Mokum reisj voor jRotterdam. Ook in Duitsland kende men wel steden met de naam Mokum olf bijv. Anspach.

    On that page the author Beem says that for a long time “mokum” was regarded as a word belonging to “thieves jargon”. Here is a page from an 1823 “Full report on police investigations into Jewish criminal organisations found throughout Germany and neighboring countries”. Stuttgart is said to be called “Mokum Shin”, Munich simply “Mem”. I knew nothing about these historical matters. Here is a summary (or excerpt ?) of chapter 10 from A Goy Who Speaks Yiddish: Christians and the Jewish Language in Early Modern Germany by Aya Elyada, published by Stanford UP:

    Yiddish was widely believed to be the “secret language” not only of Jewish merchants but also of Jewish criminals, beggars, paupers, and vagrants, a perception further reinforced by the linguistic affinity between Yiddish and Rotwelsch, the secret language of the German underworld. Jewish criminality was associated with the serious poverty in early modern Germany, where the Jews were among the poorest of the poor. Their dire economic situation drove growing numbers of Jews to commit crimes ranging from pocketpicking to burglary, theft, and disposal of stolen goods. From the beginning of the eighteenth century, increasing interest in Jewish criminals and criminality brought attention to Yiddish literature on the thieves’ language. Crime-related Yiddish literature focused on such activities as banditry during the period. Early modern criminological literature stressed the link between Yiddish and the thieves’ jargon that also found clear expression in the Christian literature on Yiddish. In the courtroom, the Yiddish language presented Christian authorities with yet another challenge: the Judeneid or Jewish oath.

  9. Ran: So, would this be like “D-town” referring to (among others) Dallas?

    Good example, that does seem to be in the same spirit !

  10. Here is an unpolished translation of the passage. I hope this helps.

    “The history of the word Mokum is somewhat more complicated. The Jews spoke of Mokum of Mokum olf, a term with a neutral meaning.[..] In the Van Dale dictionary of 1924 it is still defined as thieves language. In the 8th print of 1960 it is still considered Bargoens (some sort of secret language of thieves and the underworld). This was already an understatement, because the word was already on the way up and the inhabitants of Amsterdam were already affectionately calling their city Mokum and themselves real Mokumers. […]

    The footnote says

    “Mokum = place.The olf (alef) is the first letter of the Jewish spelling of Amsterdam, for ex. Mokum reisj for Rotterdam. Also in Germany there were names of city with the word Mokum olf, for ex. Anspach.

    Mediene is the name for the Jewish comunity outside the city of Amsterdam.”

    Apologies for any grammar mistakes or typo, but translating form a foreign language into another foreign language is not easy. 🙂

  11. Makom is a Hebrew word. it means place and not safe haven .
    Makom with other words can mean other things.
    Mokum is the way it was pronounced in Ashkenaz. [the Kamatz under the letter Mem became O].
    Mokum is not a Yiddish word, In Yiddish place is Plaatz , art, zitzart, roim ..

    My Grandfather who told me many stories about A`dam , never said it was Makom `A ???

  12. Thanks very much, Isabella! I don’t know Dutch (though I can triangulate from other Germanic languages), but I can figure out (and pass it along for others who might be confused) that reisj (in Mokum reisj) = resh (i.e., R).

  13. So, would this be like “D-town” referring to (among others) Dallas?

    Do people from Dallas really talk about their city that way? That’s new to me. There is “Chi-town” for Chicago of course, but pretty sure most people aren’t referencing the Greek letter “X”. “D-Dorf” for “Duesseldorf” and “P-Town” for Provincetown are the only common examples I can think of using a “First letter + town/city” construction.

  14. Vanya: I didn’t understand Ran to be claiming that Dallas residents themselves, rather than out-ot-towners from the vicinity, refer to the city as D-town. Maybe, maybe not – and I know nothing about P-town and Chi-town in this connection.

    However, “D-dorf” is something that I first heard 30-40 years ago from GIs in Germany. I would bet that it is essentially military slang, and is unknown in the USA – except among GIs gone home. Kaiserslautern was K-town, and there were dozens of other abbreviations.

  15. It’s odd: I have an immediate “impression” of the languages of France, Germany, China, etc.

    But for Amsterdam and those who speak its language: nothing. Near-German?

  16. So it seems like there was some thieves’ argot in Dutch (and presumably also German?), in which mokum + suffix was a way of referring to specific cities. I get it now. (So it’s not relevant whether mokum + city’s first initial is a form in Hebrew/Yiddish, which it isn’t.) Thanks for all the explanations.

  17. I don’t know about the rest of these names, but P-Town is like Frisco in that for some reason people who live there get very cross when they hear it.

  18. Here’s my rendering of the entry for “mokem” in the Niborski/Neuberg dictionary of Yiddish words of Hebrew/Aramaic origin:

    (ironically) place, settlement; (in Warsaw, Amsterdam, and other places) old city; plural [mekoymes] neighborhood, area

    I’d add that I’ve heard “mokem” used as a term for God (e.g., in a famous formula said to mourners) and for female genitalia.

  19. Thanks, Ben!

    I think it’s only ha-mokem for God and, perhaps, only oso mokem (“that place”) for female genitalia? have you heard differently?

  20. Zackary: Well, it’s a form in some (now doubtless obsolete) kind of Yiddish. It had to be Yiddish-speakers who devised the forms Mokum Alef, Mokum Reish, etc. If they had been invented by German- or Dutch-speakers after borrowing the word mokum, they would be Mokum A, Mokum R, etc.

    Shelley: See this list of the essential natures of Dutch. I particularly like this one: “Dutsj is essensjullie a Loo Sjurmennik lenkwitsj wis det vunkie letter (det riepleezes Y) plus a serieuslie koel ortografie.”

  21. John: good point. Presumably Western Yiddish, though I don’t know if mokem was a word in W Yiddish. (This is when I have the FB reflex to link to a name of someone who could answer, though Ben is presumably still following the thread and might know.)

  22. Slate recently ran a review of a book titled Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers.

  23. Interesting. The only Hebrew-to-Dutch loanword I’d known about was majem “water, canal” (Hebrew מים ma(y)im “water”). I wonder how widespread these are and what kinds of contexts they’re used in.

  24. I had a beautifully produced Dutch-English dictionary of Amsterdam slang that contained many examples of Yiddish/Hebrew words that had been adopted into that city’s cant. Unfortunately it remains in the hands of the gonif גנב who borrowed it, so I can’t refer to it in making this post.

    Like Dutch slang, German slang also took up many Yiddish/Hebrew words. I append below (in bits, because the WordPress software is cranky tonight) sections from a post I made just over eleven years ago on a board that disappeared into the ether about a year later.

  25. Kokumloschen (in Latin letters) is the title of an article that appeared in the Hebrew edition of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz in late November.

    The article is subtitled “On the meaning of lashon chachama לשון חכמה and of mareh makom מראה מקוםin this language.” Excerpts from the article (my translation):

    “Words originating in Hebrew . . . entered Middle Ages’ German, mostly the patois of thieves. This language, already documented during the reign of Karl V (1500-1558), was described by J. K. von Train in his book Chochemer Loschen, published in Meissen in 1833, as a mixture of German and Yiddish used by Gypsies, thieves and beggars (now available in a reprint edition). This language was earlier noted in the book Liber Vagatorum, published in Basel at the end of the 15th century. This work was published in several editions, and it describes the lives of beggars and their traditions. Hebrew-origin words claim 22 percent of the entries in a glossary of thieves’ language that appears in the book’s introduction. Ave-Lallemant wrote on this tongue, called Smart-in-Language: ‘The language of thieves, Kokumloschen, that is the smart language, is made up of Hebrew words, words whose origins are in the language of thieves, and from a blend of the two . . . this language is used among thieves and criminals, whether Jewish or Christian.

  26. (The article’s author here digresses into the Talmudic origins of the Hebrew phrase chacham-lashon חכם לשון , now-Germanized as Kokumloschen, and shows how and why it means ‘code-language’ or ‘secret-language.’ – PO.)

    “A look at various dictionaries that discuss thieves’ language in Germany shows a heavy Hebrew influence: Some with no change at all from the Ashkenazic Hebrew pronounciation (Ashkenazאשקנז is a medieval Hebrew word for Germany – PO.), and others with a prefix or suffix that gives them a German ‘ring.’ In a word count of Liber Vagatorum, Hebrew has 65 entries, German 53, Latin 19, Dutch 19, French five, Romany (Gypsy) four and Spanish one. The origins of 29 words are unclear.

    “Here are a few words from the thieves’ language: abhalchenen, went, escaped (from Hebrew halachהלך , walked or went); abkinjenen, to buy, purchase (from Hebrew kanaקנה , bought); lew, lef, heart, effort, bravery (from Hebrew levלב , heart); eschkochem, a smart man, i.e., smart from experience, careful (from Hebrew ishאיש , man, and chachamחכם , smart); baalchof, debtor (from Hebrew ba’alבעל , owner, master, and chovחוב , debt); emmes dibbern or emmes medabbern, telling the truth (from Hebrew emmetאמת , truth and diberדיבר , spoke); sonneboss, brothel (from Hebrew zonahזונה , prostitute, and bayitבית , house); acheln, to eat (from Hebrew ochelאוכל , food); pardess, prison (from Hebrew pardessפרדס , heaven); kassiwe, letter, document (from Hebrew katavכתב , he wrote, michtavמכתב , letter); jaschwenen, to be still (from Hebrew yashavישב , he sat); chelkenen, to distribute, divide up the stolen goodies (from Hebrew chelekחלק , a part, he divided or distributed); kiseln, to pickpocket (from Hebrew kisכיס , pocket); and klamonis, burglars’ tools (from Hebrew klay amanutכלי אומנות , tools of the trade).

  27. “The locution Maremokum is among the other words, expressions and Hebrew affixes that entered the thieves’ language; it means falsches Alibi. (From Hebrew mareh-makomמראה מקום , literally ‘shows the place,’ and today meaning ‘[cross] reference.’ – PO.) It was used to back up the claim of a thief that at the time of the theft he was in jail. Whoever associated this phrase with ‘alibi’ not only had a good sense of humor, but also some knowledge of Latin. The origin of ‘alibi’ is in the connecting of two words: alius, ‘other, different,’ and ibi, ‘there, in that place’. In the Germany of those days, it was possible for a claimant to protest against the evidence that was presented: ‘This is not an acceptable Maremokom!’ And so apparently this was a widely used phrase. In chapter two of Ave-Lallemant’s book Das deutsche Gaunerthum (Leipzig, 1858), dedicated entirely to the phrase mareh makom, a statistic is brought forth: ‘In that investigation 28 false witnesses of this sort were involved, only one of whom was a Jew.'”

    (If any denizens of the Hattery are interested, I will send a PDF of the entire thread, to which people contributed for three or four months.)

  28. marie-lucie says

    Very interesting!

    If I may make a suggestion: since the Hebrew words are read from right to left and the transliterations in Roman italics, if the italics come first the two kinds of words meet in the middle, making the letters that meet in the centre hard to distinguish, especially if you don’t know the language. Writing the Hebrew words in Hebrew first, and leaving a space before the transliteration, as in “Hebrew קנה kana, bought” would make the letters and words easier to recognize.

  29. m-l: Excellent idea. I’ll do so in the future. (Some of the word-spaces that I placed between words written in the two alphabets seem to have disappeared in these posts. Others remained. Maybe two word-spaces is the answer.)

  30. Thanks PO. To me, the problem (a minor one, but still) is the italics “bumping” into the vertical Hebrew letters that follow. Placing the italicized words after the Hebrew ones (especially with a space between) greatly increases legibility. (I used to know all the Hebrew letters, but it’s a long time since I have had any reason to keep up with them).

  31. Extra word space will not help, as browsers discard that. I agree that the best bet is to give the original-script version first.

    Hmm. I wonder if wiseguy ‘con man, gangster’, first recorded in 1896, is ultimately a calque of khakham?

  32. kassiwe, letter, document (from Hebrew כתב katav, he wrote, מכתב michtav, letter)

    This is now standard German (der) Kassiber, a written communication (illegally) passed from one prisoner to another, or smuggled out of prison. Here are Wiktionary and WiPe on the word. From 09.2012 to 02.2013 there was a Kassiber exhibition at the Marbach Literaturmuseum. The newspapers FAZ and Zeit reported on it, as did the TV channel 3Sat.

    A 2011 article in the Jüdische Allgemeine makes what seems to me a very plausible point in the second paragraph there: “The reason [why thieves’ jargon contains so many words of Hebrew or Yiddish origin] is not that there were disproportionately more Jewish thieves. As Peter Althaus writes in his Kleines Lexikon deutscher Wörter jiddischer Herkunft”, the Jewish components in the secret Rotwelsch vocabulary ‘were borrowed by non-Jews from the speech of Jewish vagrants/thieves because Yiddish expressions were unfamiliar and thus eminently suitable as components of a secret language.’ “

  33. just for helping those who are interested.
    some book names
    Hebreeuwse en Jiddisje Woorden in het Nederlands, Henk Heikens, Henk D. Meijering, Hilde Pach, Jaap de Rooij, Abraham Rosenberg, Ariane Zwiers, SDU uitgevers, Den Haag, 2002 .
    Quite good but the transliteration of some words isn`t 100%

    Ps speaking of local words , when i was a teenager, my aunt when asking another person if he was Jewish , would ask him if he was a Mexican ?????


  34. My comments are always imprisoned for forty days and forty nights if there is more than one link in them, but seemingly not otherwise.

  35. Yes, that’s also what I have experienced with my comments. In addition, a one-strike-you’re-out policy may be in effect. Once a comment by a contributor is put in quarantine, for whatever reason, the Censor looks with jaundiced eye, and perhaps different criteria, at all subsequent comments by that contributor

  36. John Cowan: Extra word space will not help, as browsers discard that. I agree that the best bet is to give the original-script version first.

    A single Hebrew word appears in my post of 7:11 pm, and it stands apart from the word in Italic to its left. Checking my original text in a browser window reveals a space on each side of the Hebrew word — yet the space to the right of the Hebrew word disappears when I copy that text and paste it into MS Word. In all or most of the places in that chain of posts there’s a word-space between the Hebrew word and the comma following, though that is not the case in my original text. It might be that I inserted left-right word-spaces and WordPress is having trouble interpreting them. I don’t recall this issue back when the Hattery ran on that spam-magnet platform. In any event, in future I will place the Hebrew word before its italicized translation.

    Wise guy ‘con man, gangster’: Interesting conjecture. I don’t have the means to follow it up.

  37. Paul: It might be that I inserted left-right word-spaces and WordPress is having trouble interpreting them.

    In my comment that is still quarantined, I cited part of what you had written, with its mix of left-to-right Engish and right-to-left Hebrew words. To do this, I copied it into the comment box and tried to reorder the words as suggested by marie-lucie. I tried to do this with cut-and-paste, but the comment-box software kept interfering by removing spaces.

    This is the phenomenon I myself call the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the Unseen Hand or (depending on my mood) Goddamn Intelligent Software. It is due to someone having written software that is supposed to help you by anticipating your every wish, and guiding your hand by foresight.

    Sometimes, however, just like the injunction to “have another cup chicken soup”, the software effectively forces you to submit to its purposes. In all cases your wishes are not consulted, but rather imputed. We are here confronted with the IT form of the traditional American Jewish Mother Question, to which no complete answer has yet been found, I believe.

  38. marie-lucie says

    PO, Stu: When I reordered one example as Hebrew – italic transcription – meaning, by copying-pasting the Hebrew word into position (thus avoiding the problem of getting the characters) I did not have a problem with the words showing up properly, as shown in my previous comment. So the problem cannot be just with the new LH format, but perhaps in something in your computers. My computer is “ancient” (I think I bought it in 2005, and it was a line that was being discontinued) ) and cannot use recent upgrades (I plan to get a new one soon), so there may be something in recent software in your computers that is causing your problems. I am unable to go beyond this vague statement.

  39. Mokum (מקום) is the Yiddish word for “place” or “safe haven”.

    It wasn’t safe enough for Baruch Spinoza, against whom a cherem (excommunication) was issued. The Amsterdam authorities subsequently expelled him from the city.

  40. The reason [why thieves’ jargon contains so many words of Hebrew or Yiddish origin] is not that there were disproportionately more Jewish thieves. As Peter Althaus writes in his Kleines Lexikon deutscher Wörter jiddischer Herkunft”, the Jewish components in the secret Rotwelsch vocabulary ‘were borrowed by non-Jews from the speech of Jewish vagrants/thieves because Yiddish expressions were unfamiliar and thus eminently suitable as components of a secret language.

    The influence of the Yiddish expressions would need to be sufficiently widespread to override the genesis of a unique, protean secret “language” among non-Jewish thieves. Imagine New York city in the 19th century with Italian, Irish and Jewish ne’er do wells plying their respective street trades. Each distinct ethnic entity was largely capable of developing and functioning within their own “code” language to the exclusion of all others.

    What happened to the “Preview Post” button?

  41. J. W. Brewer says

    During the 19th century et seq mass immigration of Ashkenazim to the U.S., I believe many members of the earlier waves who came directly from Germany-proper did not (by that point in time) speak Yiddish at all, but spoke either standard Hochdeutsch or the regional dialect of the goyim in their particular German point of origin, whereas by contrast the later-arriving “Eastern” Jews from Poland/Galicia/Lithuania/Roumania/etc. almost all spoke Yiddish. Apart from just saying that there was (at least post-Napoleon) more “assimilation” the further west you went, I am now wondering whether the historical association of Yiddish with thieves’ cant (which presumably was not the case farther east where the goyim spoke Polish/Lithuanian/Russian/etc.?) was an additional motive for the shedding of Yiddish.

  42. It wasn’t safe enough for Baruch Spinoza, against whom a cherem (excommunication) was issued.

    Sure wasn’t!

    חרם cherem is related to Arabic harem, long adopted by English via Turkish, and the Arabic name for Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, Haram al-Sharif. The general sense is that of inviolate, separation.

    ‘Temple Mount’ is a loan translation of Hebrew הר הבית Har Habayit. Observant Hatterites will see in that phrase the Hebrew word for house, often rendered in English as ‘beth’ in the names of synagogues and churches.

    The Hebrew personal name ברוך Baruch means blessed and may come from ברך knee; cf genuflect. Spinoza’s personal name is often rendered Benedict, which isn’t so far from benediction, a blessing. The Hebrew name for grace after meals is ברכת המזון Birkat Hamazon. In Yiddish, the term for this ritual is בענטשען bentschen, derived from — what else? — benediction.

    (OK. I’ve placed the words in Hebrew script before their transliterations/translations and with a word-space in between. Let’s see what WordPress does to the post this time.)

  43. I believe many members of the earlier waves who came directly from Germany-proper did not (by that point in time) speak Yiddish at all

    Yiddish was not a spoken language in Germany by that time; Benjamin Harshav writes “Yiddish itself lived on in Germany … until the end of the eighteenth century.”

  44. It’s very common and well-understood in Houston to refer to the city as “H-town”, but the word is used almost exclusively by rappers and their fans.

  45. Paul Ogden: Looks good. Hatterite is a very fine word.

    Hozho: Preview, alas, perished with the otherwise unlamented Movable Type platform, and our current version of WordPress is too recent to support the only available preview plugin, which is woefully out of date.

    JWB: It’s true that Western Yiddish was mostly lost during the 19C, and 19C and early 20C “Germans of the Jewish faith” looked down on the “mediaeval ways” and “barbarous jargon” of the Ostjuden both in Germany and in America. But I think that purism and nationalism were quite strong enough to explain the loss of Yiddish: no special explanation in terms of criminal cant is required.

  46. marie-lucie says

    PO, the new Hebrew-first examples look very nice, both letter types well-delineated, no bunching or bumping. At least that’s the way it looks on my screen.

  47. m-l: Hebrew-first examples look very nice . . .

    On my screen too. So from now on, it will be right-to-left script first, space, then left-to-right script.

  48. marie-lucie says

    Criminal cant: in the argots of many languages (argot itself originally meant ‘criminal cant’) there are not only native creations and many cases of metaphorical change of meaning, but also borrowings from other languages or dialects, usually those of minority or otherwise stigmatized populations. So while it is true that mafia-type people of Italian or whatever origin (often already familiar with the cant used in their own languages) could have been content with using and developing that cant in their new country, it would have been strange if they had not also seized upon words used by other immigrant groups.

    Usually, an argot has two major characteristics: a) in-group cohesion and conversely protection from evesdroppers and police by using vocabulary unknown to the general population, or with different meaning, and b) strong expressive power, especially in words for activities, feelings, personal judgments etc associated with criminal activities and their results. Although some words of argot may last for centuries, the two needs lead to frequent vocabulary renewal by any linguistic means available, including borrowing from other languages or argots the criminals come in contact with.

  49. SC: This is now standard German (der) Kassiber

    Duden recognizes it too. Google returns about 35K hits for the word.

    SC: A 2011 article in the Jüdische Allgemeine

    I stumbled my way through the article’s German and then ran it through Google Translate. “Der Ganove” is sufficiently established in German that Google Translate rendered it without difficulty as “hoodlum.” The word gets about 275K hits on Google, though some seem to be a proper name. Duden knows this one too.

  50. Yiddish thieves’ cant is also particularly interesting, right up there with the special argots of klezmorim and butchers.

  51. Actually, I would love to know how Chasidic criminals communicate among each other.

  52. Paul: Duden recognizes it too

    Um … well, yes indeed. Duden is the Grande Dame standard German dictionary. The reason I linked to Wiktionary is that the article has a much more detailed etymology than Duden provides, and many example sentences. I provided the other links to show that Kassiber is not an obscure lemma-in-a-lexicon, but a familiar term for a still contemporary topic. In view of this, it seemed superfluous to link Duden.

  53. So while it is true that mafia-type people of Italian or whatever origin (often already familiar with the cant used in their own languages) could have been content with using and developing that cant in their new country, it would have been strange if they had not also seized upon words used by other immigrant groups.

    I agree, M-L, but to what extent? In the context of “closed societies”, it would be all the more useful to have an exclusive “cant” undecipherable to others. This was apparently the case with the “thieves jargon” of Hebrew or Yiddish origin. The question that begs is whether the preponderance of said jargon was due to a preponderance of said ethnicity or simply to osmotic linguistic borrowing?

  54. The question that begs is whether the preponderance of said jargon was due to a preponderance of said ethnicity or simply to osmotic linguistic borrowing?

    Another question immediately arises: what is implied by the way you formulate that question ? It seems as if you are expecting an answer that chooses either “preponderance of ethnicity” or “linguistic borrowing”. But couldn’t it be that the most accurate answer is “in some places the one at some times, in others the other at other times” ? This is not the same as saying “both”.

    Consider this: at certain times there were more Jews in some German cities, such as Frankfurt, than in others. At other times there were different numbers. How many different Jews in different years were thieves in what cities ? Did each of them set a linguistic example, or even merely a thiefotechnical one ? Did each of them speak only one language or dialect or kind of (German-based) Rotwelsch, or did some speak several idiosyncratically ?

    Exercise: in those questions, replace “Jews” by “Germans”, “Sinti”, “Poles” etc. Then think about what could be meant by “Germans” and “German”, when applied to people and places before the 20C.

    The notion of “linguistic osmosis” has the advantage of implying change over time, whereas “preponderance” suggests only a static state of affairs, which definitely did not obtain. In any case, as so often in comment threads (but not only there), the urge to generalize pushes its way to the head of the line. As in the previous sentence.

  55. Veracity is measured by the static state of affairs at any given moment in historical time not by an affirmation without evidentiary substantiation.

  56. What is your evidence for that claim ?

  57. Assuming it is a veracious one ?

  58. Stu: Duden vs. Wiktionary.

    Each has value and both should be consulted, but I took a stance opposite to yours. I elected to show that these words were recognized by Duden precisely because Duden is the standard-bearer, subject to strict editorial control, etc., and not a user-generated and possibly ephemeral online repository subject only to the whims of passers-by. A Gütesiegel, if you will.

  59. Paul: yes, I was at the disadvantage of already knowing the word.

    I think I now understand better a remark by someone more than 40 years ago that, at the time, I took to be ridiculously arrogant. This was the German visiting professor who held a topology seminar I attended in my last semester at UT Austin. It was he who helped me to get into the University at Bonn because I wanted to learn German better while doing graduate work.

    I asked him once after the seminar if he could recommend a German/German dictionary for home use, like the Webster’s Third I grew up with in El Paso. He didn’t recommend Duden, however, about which I knew nothing then. He didn’t recommend anything, but rather said (in German, as I scrambled to understand): “in Germany we don’t have dictionaries at home. We learn all the words we need at the Gymnasium and in university”.

    As a result of your response, I now see that his remark was arrogant, but not ridiculously arrogant. At any rate it motivated me to treat dictionaries as crutches that would need to be discarded at some point.

  60. marie-lucie says

    Hozho; Veracity is measured by the static state of affairs at any given moment in historical time

    Since language is constantly evolving, along with society, veracity about language also evolves. What is true “at a given moment in historical time” may not be true at the next moment. Language evolves through internal and external factors, and the latter can be many and changing. It is rarely an either/or situation.

  61. One of the main reasons for Americans to have dictionaries at home, in the pre-spelling-checker age, was to look up the spellings of words. In German, a one-page cheat sheet does that.

    My mother once told me that secretaries used to keep such a sheet in their desks. I presume it contained things like a list of words with ai rather than ei in them (Detail, Hai, Hain, Kai, Kaiser, Laib, Laich, Laie, Mais, Medaille, Rain, Saison, Saite, Terrain, Training, Waigel, Waise) and some dotted/dotless pairs like Lerche/Lärche.

  62. John, where did you get the idea that a main reason for “Americans” to have a dictionary at home was to look up spellings ? A English dictionary is pretty impractical for that purpose. If you don’t already know how an English word is spelled you won’t easily find its lemma in standard English dictionaries, since these are organized by correctly spelled words in alphabetical order.

    A English dictionary for looking up spellings should contain both correctly and incorrectly spelled words in alphabetical order, with incorrect spellings referring the reader to the correct one – sort of a precursor to Google Search. Such dictionaries would be pretty neat, and they may exist, but I never encountered one à l’époque en El Paso del Norte.

    There, my family looked up words in Webster’s Third to find out what they mean, and something about their etymologies. Of course´when one of us didn’t know exactly how a particular word was spelled, we had to look around a bit to find the lemma. However, our primary activity, in terms of practice and purpose, was not looking around, but looking up. .

  63. Also, the notion seems to me pretty implausible that a crib sheet of one page could help German secretaries to use correct spelling when they composed letters. What you’re glancing at here is, of course, the fact that German orthography and Standard German are not so desynchronized as are the orthographies and pronunciations of English and French, say.

    But German orthography, not just “spelling” in the sense that English speakers know it, still has shitloads of pitfalls that won’t fit even on 50 pages. I am referring here to the capitalization rules. Is it des weiteren or des Weiteren, recht geben or Recht geben usw. usf.

    Also, words such as Kaiser, Laib, Laich, Rain, Saite, Terrain, Waise. are unlikely to occur in office correspondence. And Waigel is not even a word. Perhaps you are thinking of Theodor Waigel.

    I have no doubt that various sorts of crib sheet were sometimes used by German secretaries. But I bet the sheets contained things like short rules for capitalization and hyphenating, not words like Saite (a string on a string instrument). Nowadays, on every secretary desk I’ve ever seen in IT projects there stand several Duden “Ratgeber” volumes. German orthography has been slightly simplified over the decades, so if these volumes are needed today, a crib sheet would not have sufficed 50 years ago.

  64. John Cowan says

    Well, it is mentioned in several places as an important reason why people say they want dictionaries, whether it actually serves that purpose or not. Most people who misspell words are not entirely clueless. They make mistakes like recieve, definately, seperate, untill, comeing, priviledge, begining, suprise, freind that don’t make it impossible to find the correct spelling in the dictionary. Or they use the wrong homophone, writing their for they’re, or to for too, or quite for quiet, a problem that the dictionary can also solve.

    These examples are from this list of commonly misspelled words in frequency order, which unfortunately gives only the correct spellings.

  65. John, it just occurs to me: perhaps people who often play Scrabble, or solve crossword puzzles, often use a dictionary to check on spellings. But is that their primary use for a dictionary ?

  66. Well, it is mentioned in several places as an important reason why people say they want dictionaries, whether it actually serves that purpose or not.

    OK, an important reason. That surprises me, actually. I’m guessing that another important reason, for some people at least, would be to find out what words mean.

  67. A dictionary can help you to correct your spelling of individual words, or your use of a word, only when you have doubts about how to spell or use those words at the instant when you want to spell or use them. No doubts, no progress. Perhaps one of the goals served by the screwed-up orthography of English is to create a general feeling of inqdequacy, and thus a desire for self-improvement.

  68. As Coué nearly put it: “every day, in every way, I’m spelling better and better”.

  69. The atmosphere in my childhood home with respect to dictionaries was reverential. Without access to a good dictionary, how could you become and remain a literate person?

    I’ve got about 15 running feet of dictionaries and books on language and communication. The tome that started it all was the 1953 single-volume college edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, given to me as a tenth birthday present. No longer with me, I probably discarded it when I acquired the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary in the late 70s. I relished its etymologies and at some point read its front matter, as I later did with the AHD — whose Semitic roots section remains of great interest, though today I use a later electronic edition of that work. Somewhere in the early 60s I paid 65 cents for a paperback “dictionary of foreign words and phrases.” I still have it and still occasionally refer to it, though of course the internet has supplanted much of the need for that sort of book. A few years ago I found a near-mint copy of the big Oxford Duden bidirectional English-German dictionary for the bargain price of about $10. I suppose it’s mostly an ornament, as I already had a small Langenscheidt that’s quite adequate for my purposes and for several years have also used Leo. No matter; I like it and there it sits.

    My library of dictionaries and such is probably 14′ 10″ wider than that in most households. That doesn’t mean I’m some 100 times more literate than the next fellow, but over the decades it has served as an important tool in helping me earn my keep largely by writing and editing.

  70. Here’s a nice example of “mokem” in Eastern Yiddish, though the precise meaning isn’t 100% clear from context.

    Dem ershtn gitn-brider hot men bald gekhapt,
    un me hot im in mokem arestirt;
    keyn vapros bay him gornit opgenumen,
    me hot im bald in kitsh aropgefirt.

    The first buddy was caught soon after
    and they arrested him in the neighborhood (?)
    The didn‘t take any questions from him,
    and they put him straight away in the “can” (jail)

  71. I wonder if mokem here might mean ‘safe house’, one that wasn’t so safe after all.

Speak Your Mind