Sunday, March 4, 2012

Some near-homonyms in Yiddish

One of the small oddities of Yiddish is the situations where a German word and a Hebrew word have similar sounds and similar meanings.  I’ve always enjoyed noticing those, and today I came upon a new one. Here is a short list of some of my favorites:

Schlachten/Shekhten. The German word for slaughter is similar to the Hebrew. A schlachtfeld is a battle-field, but a shekhthaus is a slaugher house. A ritual slaughterer is of course a shoykhet.

Bühne/Bimah. The stage where the German actor performs is the podium in the synagogue where the cantor does his performance. The Hebrew National Theater in Mandatory Palestine was called Ha-Bimah.

Rausch/raash. A commotion is almost the same in both languages.

Narr/na’ar. The German fool is confused with the Hebrew youth. What most of us think of as na’arischkeit should more properly be written narrischkeit.

Sach (hard “s”) vs sakh (soft “s)”. The Hebrew quantity is used in context similar to the German thing, matter.

Kunde/koyne/kundes: The German kunde meaning “customer” is close to the Hebrew koyne with the same meaning, and even closer to the Hebrew for joker.

Schier/shiyur: This pair is so close you find them interchanged among even the most educated Yiddish writers in classical times. Schier nischt is used idiomatically as the equivalent of the English “all but”, as in “sie is schier nischt gestorben vun karpeh un bushah.” (she all but died from embarrassment”.  Alternately, she might have been embarrassed “ohn a shiyur” – “without limit”, where this time it is the Hebrew word which is used idiomatically. Additional confusion arises because a shiyur can also be a Rabbi’s lecture on a passage from the Gemara. I’m not sure if that has a different spelling from the first shiyur.

Gedärim/geder/gedorim: Another word that means “limit, boundary” is the Hebrew geder, which is so close in sound to the German gedärm (intestines) that the latter has assumed a Hebrew plural form (the –im ending). Although the meanings do not appear to be related, there is a bizarre cross-pollenization manifest in the quaint expression poretz geder, “violator of boundaries”. The poretz here is a different word with possibly a different spelling from the common word for lord, landholder; but its influence in that sense can be clearly seen in the transformation of the expression poretz geder => nogidishe kishkah.  A nogid is a rich man, and a poretz  is certainly rich; the German gedärim translates into the Slavic kishkah. While a poretz geder is a violator of boundaries, a nogidische kishkah is someone with refined tastes…a rich man’s perogative.

Regel/regel: In this example, the homonymous pair are not German/Yiddish, but Latin/Yiddish, dating back to the days when Rome ruled ancienct Palestine. The apocryphical story is told of a Roman soldier who challenged Rabbi Akiva to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot…regel akhat. Akiva met the challenge by stating the Jewish version of the golden rule: “do not unto others…”. In this way, he was able to not only answer while standing on one foot (Hebrew regel), but also at the same time distilling the essense of the Torah to a single rule (Latin regel).

Heiraten/harei-at: The German verb to wed is eerily close to the first two words of the Hebrew wedding vows. This isn't something I noticed myself, it's a well-known folkloric false etymology. 
And finally, here’s the one I just noticed today:

Rauch/reyakh: The German smoke is even closer to the Hebrew for scent, wind when the former is Litvicized to reykh from its Polish pronunciation of roykh .
I’ll add more to this list as I think of them. 

UPDATE: Here's one that's just a plain mystery: golen, to shave. It's treated everywhere, and by the most educated writers, as a German word; and by "treated" I mean in the old days when people spelled etymologically, it was spelled as thought it was German. But I don't find it in my German dictionary. It's close to the Hebrew galikh, which is related to the word for priest, galakh, or shaven one; but it's also close to the Polish golic. So what kind of word is it?


  1. great stuff, amusing etc. Just two corrections: should be kharpa and the rabbi is not Rabbi Akiva but Hillel.

  2. Okay, "karpeh" was just a typo but you got me on Hillel. I'll think of some more before I'm done...

  3. I also think I'm using the wrong expression for dying of embarrassment. I'm thinking of someone who's at a party and laughs so hard at a joke she pees her pants. That's not exactly a kharpe un a bushah, is it? I just can't think of the right word.

  4. peeing one's pants publicly would be a kharpeh and a bishah.
    not so much if it was private, then it would be a shtikel imbakveym.

  5. I had to look this up, because I just couldn't think of any on my own. The dictionary offers the German verlegenheit and the Hebrew bizyoynus. I don't have a feel for the German option, but I'm leaning to bizyoynus as being the closest fit for peeing your pants. What do you think?

    Actually, if I think about it, the kharpah and bushah would be the objective description of the person's status having committed the act, and bizyoynus would be more descriptive of the feeling the perpetrator would have. Does that sound right?

  6. I was just kidding around, kharpah and bushah is really much more serious than peeing one's pants. It would be something truly scandalous, like bad mouthing the roshakul, or going on Dr. Phil to trash khasidus

  7. no,bizyonus are the shameful things one does, it's not a descriptive word, it's a noun

  8. So we're still looking for the right word to describe how you feel after you've peed your pants?

  9. farshemt. those who appear on Dr. Phil's show are umfarshemt.

  10. di altitshke hot zikh ugepisht. Zi filt zikh farsheymt. (notice I added the y). Der vos lakhn zenen umfarsheymt.

    1. Yes, you add the y to identify your dialect, as we Galitzianers also say peysakh instead of pesakh. But as for the wording: No, it has to be a noun. Remember the original sentence: "Sie is schier nischt gestorben vun (fill in missing word here)". Farschaemung? Bizyoynus? Farlegenheit?

      And anyhow, there's always been a problem for me in Yiddish distinguishing between shame and embarassment, which I distinguish as two separate emotions.

  11. hmm, shame and embarrassment are two different emotions/states. What does Weinreich say?
    re: peysakh and pesakh, no yiddish speaker would have said pesakh, that's modern Ivrit. It's either paysekh or peysekh
    Fraylikhehn pirim

  12. And since you say "fraylikhen", I guess that makes you one of the "paysekh" people.

    I got verlegenheit from Weinreich. My German correspondents agree with it, and even go so far as peinlichkeit. If I'm interpreting them correctly, our spectrum of shame to embarassment actually goes through fourlevels in German: schand, scham, verlegenheit, und peinlichkeit. I wonder where kharpah, bushah, and bizyoynos fit on that spectrum?

  13. they don't because they are all loshn koydesh

    definitely am one of the paysekh people...

  14. now this is truly bizarre; I'm watching the British TV series "Auf Wiedersehen Pet" (on youtube) and decided to look up "geordie" in wikipedia. I came across this entry in the geordie dictionary: BIZEN, BISON, BYSEN - A show, a spectacle of disgrace (*07)