Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Semantics of Vulgar Yiddish

Like many others I first experienced Yiddish as the language my grandparents spoke when they did not want me to understand what they were saying. My own knowledge of Yiddish was acquired gradually through a judicious combination of Borscht Belt comedians, Mad Magazine (back in the days when it was funny), and Philip Roth. Eventually I acquired a copy of Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish; and, as regular readers know, I use it frequently as a reference volume, not only for semantics but also as a standard for the spelling of the words in Roman characters (since Yiddish is traditionally written with Hebrew characters).

All of these sources came into play when Michael Cieply decided to write a piece for this morning's New York Times about a new movie scheduled for summer release entitled Dinner for Schmucks. I thought this would be a fun read, but I was sorely mistaken. By the time I got to the end of the story, I felt that I had never been in the presence of so much ignorance of the Yiddish language since I had attended a business-related cocktail party in Auburn, Alabama. (That was a long time ago; and I am confident that, by now, the population of Auburn has become far more enlightened, probably more so that Cieply!)

I knew that trouble was brewing as soon as I saw the headline:

Much Movie Title Meshugas

This should have been enough to set Rosten rolling in his grave. Any way you take it, the word is badly spelled in Roman characters. The closest fit is to meshugge, which comes from the Hebrew for "crazy;" but it is clear that the headline did not imply adjectival usage. Most likely the word was meant to be the noun form, which Rosten spells mischegoss. All this, however, is a mere pilpul in the face of what Cieply then does with the latter noun in the title of the movie, whose proper spelling, by Rosten's authority, is actually shmuck.

As a sidebar I should note that Cieply refers to Rosten's book as a "treatise." This representation will probably also disturb Rosten's heavenly rest. The book is a lexicon in the best Jewish tradition, according to which no word may be written without the supplement of several paragraphs of commentary. The closest thing to it in English is probably The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. However, Bierce's priority was satire, while Rosten was concerned with getting to both the denotative and connotative sides of semantics.

Fortunately, one can usually find humor (probably unintentional) even in a morass of gross misunderstanding. In this case the best gag comes early in Cieply's own take on the noun in question:

Those familiar with Yiddish, polite and otherwise, will recognize a rude term that — in one of its several layers of meaning — denotes the penis.

In all fairness this is basically Rosten's approved definition, but it is not the one that was taught to me. So, while I recognize that there are plenty of good jokes based on Rosten's definition, I want to warrant my own position using the same logic that he invoked.

The important thing to remember is that Yiddish is basically an amalgam of German and Hebrew, so you have to be careful in establishing the source of each word. Rosten did this excellently, and I almost always rely on his etymological insights. In this case the origin is the German noun Schmuck, whose primary translation tends to be "ornament" or "decoration" (as in the chorale set by Johann Sebastian Bach, "Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele"). From that point of view, the Yiddish noun refers not to the organ singled out by Cieply but to the "ornamental" layer of skin that must be removed from every Jewish male child in memory of the command and intervention of the sacrifice of Isaac! Under this interpretation, I was happy to see that the Urban Dictionary endorsed (through reader votes) this as the primary semantics of the Yiddish noun; and it was according to this definition that Cieply's choice of words amused me so much.

As to the film itself, Cieply's account left the strong impression that it is a sloppy piece of work; but why did he have to create this impression through his own sloppy use of language?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is no problem at all with the usage. 'Meshugas' is a variant spelling of "mishegoss", madness, which is a noun which is what the title calls for. The author obviously used standard YIVO transliteration. If they used "meshuge" (or "meshige") you'd have something to complain about, but as it is, your argument doesn't hold up. Sorry.