Friday, February 03, 2006

What's Been Utzing Me

One of my favorite topics is the peculiar character of English words of Yiddish origin. Nearly all have a different meaning in English than in Yiddish (my sole publication is on this topic), and nearly all have a sort of goofiness or subtlety to them, even if the Yiddish words they come from are completely quotidian. A few examples:

E: shlep: to carry something one doesn't want to carry
Y: shlepn: to drag

E: shmooze: to chat idly
Y: shmuesn: to converse

E: kvetsh: to complain in an annoying way
Y: kvetshn: to squeeze, press or oppress

I'm convinced this contributes to the myth that Yiddish is a particularly nuanced or funny language, since these English words are indeed nuanced and funny.

But then there are those words which everyone insists come from Yiddish, even when no similar Yiddish words exist. I've gotten in a number of arguments over the provenance of futz, schlemiel and shmo. I concede that the second is Jewish in origin, but it simply doesn't exist in what I call Yiddish, i.e. the modern vernacular of Jews in Eastern Europe.

I used to think that I grew up knowing all the Jewish-English vocabulary in common use among non-religious American Jews, but after moving to New York, I've encountered a few supposedly Yiddish-origin English words that I'd never heard either in Yiddish or English. One of these is the verb "utz," pronounced /ʌts/ -- a word New Yorkers with even a minimal exposure to Jewish culture tend to know, as far as I can tell. A little research (okay, googling) revealed that this word's origins were usually described as "Yiddish, from German uzen, to tease." Aside from the specious "Yiddish, from German," there is a problem with this etymology, which is that there is no such word in Yiddish.

Or so I thought. I looked at the Yiddish equivalent of the OED, the incomplete Groyser verterbukh fun der yidisher shprakh, and found the word אוצן, meaning "to tease." With two citations. Both from books printed in what is now Germany -- one in Fuerth and the other in Frankfurt. Here they are:

דו שרײַבשׂ ... גלײַך דו ... פֿיל מאל גישריבן העשׂט ער הלטן ... דו קאנסט אונז ניט אוצין
-י. מאַרשן, חנוך לנער, פֿיורדא 1774

זאָ װערד מער אינס חדר געאוצט
-טענדלאַו, 769

Anyone who knows Yiddish will recognize that both quotations are in "West Yiddish," whose relation to Yiddish is complex and controversial. What I can assert is that this shows the word never existed in East Yiddish. Yet in English it remains a Jewish word, suggesting that it was brought here by German or West Yiddish speaking Jews (probably the former), whose key role in the establishment of Jewish institutions in America had long-lasting effects on the Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews who came later and eventually outnumbered their Central European predecessors by at least tenfold. If this is so, it is not the only such word. Others include the above-mentioned "schlemiel," and the noun "nebbish." Speaking of "nebbish," another bit of Jewish English I never heard outside of New York is "nebekh" as a noun.

I am fairly certain that "utzing" does indeed come from either German uzen or West Yiddish/Jewish German אוצן, even though there is a semantic shift from "to tease" to "to annoy." But such a semantic shift is not unprecedented, nor is it improbable. What is somewhat harder to account for is the vowel shift from /uts/ to /ʌts/. I tend to be skeptical of etymologies that rely on such a vowel change. Prominent among such etymologies is the one that traces English "shmuck" to German schmuck, "jewelry." But it is not the vowel change that makes this etymology impossible, but rather that the immediate source, Yiddish שמאָק couldn't be cognate with German schmuck because of the vowel. On the other hand, it is easy to see how the vowel in Yiddish /ʃmɔk/ resolves to English /ʃmʌk/. (In case you're wondering, the Yiddish word probably comes from a Slavic word meaning "snake.")

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