Friday, June 4, 2010

Hooray For Yiddish!

It's kind of a pointless exercise, writing about a book that is out of print. It's not like you, gentle reader, can rush out to your nearest Border & Noble-a-Million DotCom and pick it up. But perhaps someone in the wide, wide world of publishing will hear about this and decide that this is just the right time to re-release a wonderful book with limited commercial appeal. Yes, perhaps that will happen.

Many, many years ago I read Leo Rosten's wonderful The Joys of Yiddish. Many years after that my best beloved, trolling the bargain book tables as she is wont to do, found the sequel, Hooray For Yiddish! She brought it home and said “Look, you'll want to read this!” I agreed, and we put it in the stacks for later reading. And, since there are thousands of books in our tiny apartment, and since we are terribly disorganized people, I lost track of it.

Flash forward a few years to last month. I stumbled across it next to a DVD with a Star Trek cartoon on it (I told you we were disorganized). And that brings us here.

The subtitle of Hooray for Yiddish! is “A Book About English.” And so it is. This is a lexicon of words in English, Yiddish, and “Yinglish.” The English words and phrases are those that have been influenced by Yiddish. These include “crazy-doctor,” “so sue me,” and “live a little.” The Yiddish ones are words from that language that have entered our language or that Rosten thinks should enter our language. These include “mentsh,” “shlock,” and “shlemiel.” Yinglish words are, of course, those that straddle the line, like “ipsy-pipsy.”

If you think that sitting down with a lexicon would be at all boring, you obviously don't know Leo Rosten. Rosten was a terrific writer, wit, and raconteur. His writing is wise, learned, and hilarious. Almost every entry is illustrated by a joke. It doesn't matter that some of the jokes are, shall we say, classic. The truly good ones are always worth retelling.

Here for example is how he explains the use of the word “kibitzer,” meaning one who comments from the sidelines, offers unasked-for advice, or wisecracks:
The sign on the doctors' office read:
DR. ROBERT LEWIN, Brain Surgery.
DR. J.O. BANKMAN, Psychiatry.
DR. CHARLES GOLUB, Proctology.
Under this imposing troika, a kibitzer scrawled:
We specialize in
Odds and Ends.
And here is how he illustrates the word “mazel,” meaning luck:
In the powder room of the Ritz Hotel in London, bejeweled dowagers, attending a great charity ball, fluttered about the mirrors. Several noticed an enormous diamond on the pink and ample bosom of Lady Gwendolyn de Plotnick. “I may say,” said Lady de Plotnick, “that this is the third-largest diamond ever known. The largest was the Cullinan diamond; the second largest, the Kohinoor; and the third is—the Plotnick.”
“How fortunate you are!” cooed the ladies.
“We-ell, not all that meets the eye is fortunate,” said the admired one. “As my ancestors often said, 'Nothing is all mazel.' So it is with this diamond. Alas, whoever wears the Plotnick diamond inherits the Plotnick Curse.”
“What's the Plotnick Curse?”
Sigh. “Plotnick.”
As I read this book my amazement at the influence this language, spoken by a tiny minority of Americans, continued to grow. I hear Yidishisms and Yiddish influenced English all the time, often spoken by people who have no idea of the origin of their words or why they phrase things the way they do. It is a tribute to the genius of America, the strength of the English language, and the incredible dynamism of the Jewish people. America, the melting pot, continually refreshes itself with new peoples, cultures, and ideas. We took in these huddled masses from eastern Europe and they gave us the gifts of their language and culture. The world has never been the same.

The marriage of English and Yiddish is surely a match made in heaven. Both are magpie languages. Yiddish is a thousand years old. It is Germanic at its base, written with the Hebrew alphabet, with bits of eastern European, Slavic, Romance, and other languages mixed in. It took a bit from here and a bit from there and became its own beautiful thing. English is an aggressive borrower. As James Nicoll famously said, “English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle through their pockets for new vocabulary.” It gladly lends and even more happily takes any word, phrase, or grammatical construction that might be useful, euphonious, or just fun to say.

While the combination was perfect, the growth of Yinglish still seems amazing. It's influence on our language is entirely out of proportion to the relatively small group of people who spoke the language. Today fewer than 200,000 Americans can converse in Yiddish. And yet it is a big part of our language. Why? Because of the people who spoke it. The culture of these Ashkenazim was shot through with a love of learning, language, and literature. They were a people who had suffered much and were determined to survive and prosper. They were brave, brash, witty, talented, and funny.

I think funny is the key here. In vaudeville, radio, musical theater, stand-up comedy, movies, and TV, Jewish people have had a tremendous influence. Just look around: Milton Berle, Jack Benny, George Burns, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Morey Amsterdam, the Marx Brothers, Phil Silvers, Henny Youngman, the Three Stooges, Jon Stewart, Lewis Black, Billy Crystal, Soupy Sales, Jerry Stiller, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Allan Sherman, Zero Mostel, Buddy Hackett, Carol Kane, and Krusty the Clown. Try to imagine American humor without them. Impossible. The very idea is meshugge.

If Italian is the language of music and French is the language of love, Yiddish is surely the language of funny. Shmendrick, shmo, shlemazl, they're just fun to say. Shmeer, shpilkes, shmuck, useful words to be sure, but also a joy to hear.

Rosten's enjoyment of and enthusiasm for his mama-loshn, his mother tongue, is infectious. This is certainly the best lexicon I've read this year. Good luck trying to find your own copy. Mazel tov


Marian said...

Could you please define ipsy pipsy? I have come across this phrase in a book I am reading and I do not know how to put it in the context of the story. Thank you.

Glenn Whidden said...

Hi Marian. According to the inimitable Leo Rosten ipsy pipsy is used in a playful and amusing manner. The meaning is

1. Everything is dandy!
2. Very fancy.

"This exclamation, which I find enchanting, may be used derisively or with amusement, not unlike 'fancy-shmancy.'"

Used in sentences:

How's business? Ipsy pipsy, we're rolling in clover.

Husband: Hey honey, I got tickets to the play you wanted to see.
Wife: Ipsy pipsy! I'll start dressing now.
Husband: Good. The tickets for tomorrow night.

The captain of the guard came in, all ipsy pipsy like everything was dandy.

Marian said...

Thank you so much! I thought it was like fancy-shmancy. Perhaps it is derived from ipso-facto, which sounds pretty fancy-shmancy to me.

The book in which I came across this phrase is I'll Take It by Paul Rudnick and it is hilarious. One of the characters frequently says ipsy pipsy.

Maura said...

Ipsy-Pipsy is also used frequently by Sarah Goldfarb in the book "Requiem For a Dream". I've been going nuts trying to find the definition. After reading it I also started using the term "Zophtic" do describe my body type lol.