Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sex and Yiddish

This is one of my favorite Jewish Post articles ever.

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Last year I mentioned the legend whereby the Eskimos supposedly have dozens of words for “snow”. Whether or not this is strictly true, it illustrates the tendency of a language to develop in areas which are important to the culture of its speakers. In this regard, one has to wonder if any language has a more fully developed (or faster growing) vocabulary for matters sexual than our own English language. 

One of the newest entries to the extended sexual lexicon is “twerking”, a dance move which rocketed to prominence with the wrecking-ball video of Miley Cyrus. I’m not sure if the word is totally brand-new, but the dance move surely goes back a good few years. Myself, I give Christina Aguilera credit for permanently imprinting the “twerk” in my consciousness with her 2002  video “Dirty”. If you’re a man, you know what I’m talking about.

Of course there are any number of innovative words used to describe women as sexual objects, from the derogatory skanks and cougars to the self-consciously neutral posslq, but I think my favorite has to be the milf. I’ll never forget in Season 3 of “The Apprentice” when Donald Trump told TanaGoertz, a popular 40-ish contestant from the midwest, that people were saying she was a milf. “Do you know what a milf is?” he asked her. “Yes”, she answered, “it’s a mother I’d like to fool around with.” Yes Tana, you certainly were, with your cornfed Iowa wholesomeness. But I digress. 

If sexuality is front and center in our North American culture, then what more can we expect from the Yiddish language than the paucity of expressions for such things? I’m not even totally sure how I would say “girlfriend” in Yiddish…there is khaverte, which in North America would surely be understood as girlfriend by analogy with the English usage, but I don’t think that was the connotation in the old country. (It should be admitted that Yiddish is not alone in having difficulty here…even in English, it is not so easy to distinguish the case of a simple female friend, never mind the awkwardness of an unmarried elderly gentleman having to introduce his female companion as a “girlfriend”.)

At the other extreme of the relationship spectrum, we have the prostitute. Yiddish eschews the German hure in favor of either the Hebrew zoyne or the Slavic kurve (Polish kurwa). I don’t have a very good feel for the distinction in nuance between these, but I think it would have been consistent with the natural ironic bent of the language to apply the Hebrew term to the Gentile prostitute and vice versa.
And finally, in between the girlfriend and the prostitute, we have the mistress. In Yiddish she is the kokhanka, borrowed from the Polish. Once again, it is somewhat beyond my expertise to determine if the meanings correspond with exactitude. Even in English, we have to ask…just what is a mistress? A married man who keeps an apartment for a lover on the side surely has a mistress. But what if he just sneaks around with her on a regular basis? Is she his mistress or just his girlfriend? I’m not sure. I’m not sure if a single man in North America can be said to have a mistress (even whether or not he pays her) but I think in the old country he could have had a kokhanka….probably because there’s nothing illicit nowadays in sleeping with your unmarried girlfriend, as there would have been in der alter heim.  

In Mein Zikhroynos, the memoir of Yekhezkel Kotik, the author remembers from his childhood (around 1860) the jealousy of the poor Orthodox priest in his village, comparing his lot with that of the local Catholic priest, whose lifestyle was lavishly supported by the wealthy Polish squires. Hear what the Orthodox galakh though of his counterpart’s four beautiful sisters, who lived together with him in luxury:

“Nur der ârimer Russischer galakh, welcher flegt platzen far kinah (envy) vun dem reichen luxus-leben vun dem Kathòlischen galakh, hât var seine pauerim, die poretzische leib-knecht (the squire’s serfs) geschwòren, as die schöene Fräuleins seinen gâr nischt seine schwester, séi seinen ihm wild-fremde (total strangers), kokhankes seinen séi ihm, nur asõ wie a Kathõlischer galakh tor doch kein weib nischt hâben, hât er araus-gelâsen a shem (let it be known) as séi seinen schwester. Men mus moydah sein (one must admit) as der ârimer Pravoslavner galakh hât gehat recht: séi seinen wirklich geween kokhankes, un nischt seine schwester.”

Yes, it was a very different world. No one was twerking on MTV, and a woman was (sadly) old at forty, not milfy in the slightest. And yet some things were the same…

Thursday, July 10, 2014

John Q. Public

A few weeks ago I wrote about the word öffentlechkeit, which I claimed was a mistranslation of the American concept of “the public”. Yes, as an adjective öffentlech means “open” in the sense of “public”. And –keit changes an adjective to a noun. But surely the noun which results from adding –keit to öffentlech should have more to do with the attribute of something being in the public domain than a literal translation of the phrase “the public” in the sense of the man in the street.

I took up this discussion with a German Language forum on the internet. True, the nuance in Yiddish will sometimes be different from the equivalent in German, but it’s a good place to start. Except I got shot down in flames. It turns out that in German, according to several very reliable correspondents, die Öffentlichkeit is exactly “the public” in the same sense we  use it in English. To be sure, there is are secondary meaning which carry the connotation of  either “the public discourse” or the forum where that discourse takes place, but in common usage it is simply “the public”.

I still think that regardless of the facts on the ground, I should have won that argument. The English “public” comes from the Latin publicus, which was literally the public. The concept of the public as a body of citizenry distinct from the rulership or the slave class was an novel idea of the Roman system, so it is only fitting that the word has come down to us in that sense today. Its use as an adjective is clearly derivative from the noun…something is “public knowledge” because it is open to the public. Whereas in German you start with the adjective/adverb “openly”, tack on an ending, and it becomes…the public? It doesn’t make sense.

Oddly enough, in German (and Yiddish) das publikum is a perfectly good word, but it’s used to describe the audience, as in a theater performance or a lecture. (I don’t think it would be used for a sporting event.) In that sense it’s very similar to Yiddish der oylam, except that the Yiddish word also serves for the congregation in a synagogue, and I don’t think das Publikum would be used for churchgoers.

We still have one more noteworthy expression for “the public” in Yiddish: die gass, literally “the street” from the German Gasse, small lane. Oddly enough the German’s have Strassen und Gassen, big and small streets, but in Yiddish we have only gassen: our highway is die chaussée. No, that’s not evidence that Yiddish had its roots in Old France…like cauchemar (nightmare), trottoir (sidewalk), and even crêpelach (!) these French words came to us via upper-class Russian society. Not to be outdone by the Germans, mind you, we can still rhyme “streets and roads”; but instead of Strassen und Gassen, we have weggen un steggen.

What is interesting about die gass is that there was really no such thing as “the public” in the old country. There was literally no occasion when you would speak of “the public” as comprising both Jews and Gentiles; you could talk about die Yiddische Gass or die Goysiche Gass, but never just die Gass. There was no Ivan Q. Public in Minsk or Vilna; there were Jews and Christians, Catholics and pravoslavne (Russian Orthodox), serfs and landholders, Poles and Ukrainians…but no coherent “public”. So the Western European concept of die Öffentlichkeit would have been pretty much a non-starter.