Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Who Stole the Kishkah?

The scholar Dovid Katz (“Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish) argues that cross-language word play has been a part of our culture as long as Yiddish has been spoken in the Diaspora. Sometimes it is self-consciously clever, as when we identify the German heiraten (to marry) with the start of the Hebrew wedding vows harei-at. Or when we use the Hebrew poh-lan (here-sojourn) to describe the land where we found refuge for most of a thousand years after the Crusades. And sometimes the word-play is so intricate that the whimisical meaning becomes inextricable from the literal meaning. 
There is a Yiddish expression to describe a type renegade who does not observe proper boundaries: poretz geder, from the Hebrew, meaning literally violator of boundaries. Both these words have near (or exact homonyms); there is another poretz (also from the Hebrew) which means lord, or squire; and so the local Polish landowner was known in Yiddish as the poretz. (The plural form poREYtzim is an odd hybrid with its German vowel shift and Hebrew suffix. But I digress.)

The other near-homonym is the German Gedärm , meaning “intestines”. The German word is a singular form, but interestingly in Yiddish it is stretched into three syllables and interpreted as a plural with the Hebrew ending –im : ge-DEH-rim. If you are counting intestines in Yiddish, you re-singularize it by dropping the ending and losing the umlaut: GEH-dar. As in “one intestine, two intestines, etc….”

Here’s where it gets interesting. The original meaning of the poretz geder, “violator of boundaries”, at some point became confounded with the alternate reading: “Polish squire’s intestine”. Well, the squire was certainly a wealthy man, or a nogid; and an intestine is by the Ukrainians a kishkah, as in “who stole the kishkah”.  So the poretz geder  became a nogidische kishkah…someone with a rich man’s taste, someone who scorns hamburger in favor of filet mignon. Or fine wine to domestic beer. You get the idea.

That’s my theory, anyhow. Unless you have a better explanation as to why, in the world of Yiddish, we can count among our stereotypical personality types both the poretz geder and the nogidische kishkah.

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