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.

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