Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Here Lies Rover

One of my favorite Yiddish expressions deals with the elusive nature of truth. When you get past all the red herrings, dead end roads, excuses and denials, and finally get to the real reason, we say triumphantly: “Dâ liegt der hund begrâben”. This is where the dog lies buried. 

It’s a funny phrase if you think about it. And the strange thing is that you find the exact same expression in other languages. In Polish they say tu leży pies pogrzebany. The Russians also have it: вoт где сoбaкa зapыта! [vot gde sobaka zaryta!] In Hungarian, they say: Itt van a kutya elásva.And not surpringly the Germans say it too, with the exact same meaning as we have in Yiddish.

The interesting thing is how the expression seems to occur almost exclusively in countries where Jews lived and Yiddish was spoken. Even Israel has it: po kavur hakelev, an obvious calque from the Yiddish. Other that that, the phrase does not seem to travel far from the confines of Eastern and Central Europe. Oddly enough, there is a Swedish version, albeit with a different meaning: Det ligger en hund begraven här  is used when you think someone is trying to hide something but you can’t quite put your finger on it…like we would say in English, “I smell a rat”. The exact same thing is found in the Finnish siinä on koira haudattuna. But those are exceptions. No other nations seem to have latched onto this usage…not the Italians, not the Chinese, not even the French. For the most part, it seems to be an idiom co-territorial with the domain of Yiddish-speaking Jewry.

What is the source of this odd fascination with the burial location of dogs? One possible explanation comes from Middle High German, where we have the archaic word Hunde meaning “treasure”. Then the expression becomes “here is where the treasure lies buried”. Now that makes a little more sense. So why did treasure get replaced by dog

Here is where we can probably blame the Jews. The German language is replete with nouns ending with –e, almost all of which lose the final e  when taken into Yiddish: hause becomes haus (pr. hoyz), schule becomes shul, etc. In German, treasure and dog would have been different words, with only the former ending in e. In Yiddish, they would have been homonyms. 

A buried treasure might have made more sense, but a buried dog definitely made for a more colorful expression. It’s not hard to believe that the Poles, Russians and Hungarians would have adopted the Yiddish phrase into their own languages. What about the Germans? Undoubtedly the original phrase was theirs…what did our people know of pirates and buried treasures (Jewish pirate Jean Lafitte notwithstanding)? But if the word Hunde disappeared from the lexicon, most likely the expression lapsed as well, only to have been re-imported years later in its modified Jewish form.
And now you know where the dog lies buried.

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