Sunday, April 21, 2013

Yiddish Update

I did not learn my Yiddish at my mother's knee (she was Swedish), but I thought I had picked up the basics in my college years, and hanging around the bankruptcy court.  Evidently not.  The quiz show Says You reeducates me on a couple of points.

On, plotz.  I had thought it meant "fail," as in "the business plotzed."  Evidently a more careful definition is "explode;" so, failure with an oak leaf cluster.

And the other, bubkas, as in what the creditors get.  I thought it meant "nothing," and it seems I am sort of right, but I miss an important nuance.  I'm told it means insultingly nothing, in the sense of "how dare you?"  We once had a difficult client who did not pay his bill; he did, however, send us a nice flowering plant.   Perhaps I can file it under bubkas.

Perhaps both these textured meanings offer a small window into the texture and fluency of so extraordinary a language.  Which recalls to mind a story from my 19th summer--my time as a shabbas goy in Bethlehem, New Hampshire.  The  kid behind the cash register at the drug store said "...well, the thing about Yiddish is that it developed without a court tradition."   Which prompted two new insights: one, it's a concept I never thought of before; and two, this kid has a much better education than I do.

BTW we idled away a couple of pleasant hours last night with Joseph Dornan's Laughing in the Darkness--nominally a biopic of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem but as the more insightful critics appear to have understood, a superb exploration of how a culture is created, finds it place, and is then swept away--all more or less within the career of a single writer.  Superb social insight and a fit companion to Ken Burns' Dust Bowl, which we had watched just before.


marcel said...

My mother's parents came to this country from the Pale slightly over a century ago at age 18, and my mother grew up in a Yiddish speaking household (though unlike her much older sisters, she knew English when she entered kindergarten), so I picked up some at my mother's knee (and other low joints).

My understanding of plotz is to drop dead. My mother's favorite use is "I ate so much I could plotz," so perhaps burst or explode, but she always indicated that it meant drop dead.

When I google

plotz yiddish

the entries come up roughly equally with the 2 variations. Different dialects?

Anonymous said...

Found this one for you: mishegas.
Matt Yglacias via Brad DeLong.

Ebene said...

Isn't Yiddish on the bar exam?