Tygerpen: Yiddish cursing an artful tradition

Geoffrey Nunberg, a U.C. Berkeley linguist, just published a book that is long overdue. “Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years” explains how the popular A-word is connected to changes in American culture of the 1960s and ’70s. The book also discusses the nuances of the popular word’s uses, which are tricky.

Reading the review of “Ascent of the A-Word,” I was reminded of when I was in law school years ago and once fumed to a friend, “That Professor Smith! I don’t know if he’s an a-hole or a prick!”

My friend was shocked and bewildered. “What’s the difference?”

I paused to consider this, then said, “I think of an a-hole as stupid, stubborn and mean. A prick is someone who’s nasty, with no saving graces.”

Coincidentally, the next day I was sitting behind a row of classmates who seemed to be discussing Professor Smith.

I leaned forward. “Are you guys talking about Professor Smith?”

“Yes,” a third-year student replied. “We can’t decide if he’s an a-hole or a prick.”

The problem in choosing the most appropriate profanity is even more critical for those of us who know a little Yiddish, where curse words are the mother’s milk of the language.

As a mother, I’m proud to have (forcibly) passed on to my 20ish sons my limited knowledge of Yiddish from childhood, including profanity. My oblivious spouse who grew up in heavily Jewish L.A. barely knew (to coin a phrase) his tuchus from a loch en erd.

When I was a kid growing up in Portland, Ore., I sponged up the Yiddish my parents spoke frequently because I wanted to know what information they were hiding, such as when my next shot was due at the doctor’s. I became aware that I was, in their Yiddish “code,” the “kleine” (KLAY-na), i.e., the younger/smaller person compared with my sister. She was referred to by my folks as either the “alta” (old one) or perhaps — and my memory may be failing me here — the “golem” (GOY-lem), an artificially created being considered dumb, slow, malevolent.

For me, Yiddish offered so many opportunities for words that lacked a strong (or any) English equivalent — e.g., shlep, chutzpah, shpilkes (similar: ants in the pants). There were incomparable insults, like calling someone a shtick nar (big fool), a bulvan (an ox with no class) or an oysgefurtsyn (person with a missing tooth that was farted out). Even better were the curses such as “Kush mir in tuchus” (“Kiss my a-”) and Ich hob dich in bod (literally, “I have you in the bath,” but really meaning “Go to hell”).

Once I was a parent, my sons, because of my purposeful and annoying repetition, quickly acquired these finely tuned Yiddish expressions. I once heard my younger son Andy, when he was a kindergartener, file out of his Sunday school class taught by a locally popular teacher named Hadassah, and cheerfully call to her over his shoulder, “Gay kaken ahfen yam,” (“Go take a crap in the ocean”). I’m certain the next day Hadassah went to have her hearing checked.

The greatest concern of Yiddish speakers, however, similar to the uncertainty with the A-word, is the proper usage of shmuck vs. putz. Americans think they know the difference since the words have gone so public. (Some recent online comments: “Putz is ‘numbnuts.’ ” “Shmuck is a nitwit.” “A putz is an a-hole.” “A shmuck is an a-hole.” “Shmuck is the forskin they take off the penis after it is sercumsized [sic].”)

If debate over these two Yiddish words helps generate and sustain interest in the wonderful and colorful language with deep ties to our Jewish roots (like Ladino), I’m all for it. There’s hope for Yiddish when even my sons today comfortably use many expressions. And Yiddish can hardly be called a dead language, when, at the highest levels of government, its presence is frequently felt.

Just one example: the respected Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been recognized and honored by political colleagues in their Yiddish references to him. In 1998, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) called Schumer a “putzhead.” Ten years later, the chief lobbyist of the Southern Baptist Convention called Schumer a “shmuck.” 

I am thankful and confident that Sen. Schumer, whether a putz or a shmuck, wears those Yiddish labels proudly and, unlike most of his colleagues, has the wisdom from years of political experience to know the difference.

Trudi York Gardner
lives in Benicia and can be reached at [email protected] or via her blog, www.tygerpen.com.