On the Trail of Deep Throat

On Language

By Philologos

Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.
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Walter Askinas writes from Boynton Beach, Fla.:

“My late father, born in Kovno Gubernya [the tsarist province of Kaunas in Lithuania], used to say about someone whose actions he deplored, ‘Er meg zakh shemn in vaytn haldz.’ I always understood exactly what he meant, but not the origin of the expression. Can you elucidate it?”

Shemen zikh in vaytn haldz, or shemen zikh in vaytn haldz arayn — literally, “to be ashamed in one’s far throat” — is indeed a strange Yiddish expression. As Mr. Askinas says, every Yiddish speaker knows what it means. Had Mr. Askinas himself done something outrageous as a child, his father might have said to him, “Shem zakh in dayn vaytn haldz,” that is, “You should be ashamed in your far throat!” — but who can say why it means that?

None of the several Yiddish scholars I consulted had an answer. It’s not the throat itself, of course, that presents the apparent difficulty. We all know what it’s like to “swallow hard,” or have “a lump in the throat,” when we feel badly ashamed, embarrassed, hurt or disappointed, and on the face of it, this is what the expression would seem to refer to. Shakespeare’s Hamlet may have had the same sensation in mind when he said, “Whoever calls me villain… gives me the lie i’ th’ throat as deep as to the lungs.”

But why, then, is the Yiddish not shemen zikh in tifn haldz, to be ashamed in one’s deep throat, rather than in vaytn haldz, in one’s far throat? Far from what? What is a “far throat”? Can it be that the lump-in-the-throat explanation is incorrect and leads us down a false trail?

I think it is and does. Here is my own admittedly speculative attempt to solve the problem.

Yiddish is a Germanic language with a heavy Slavic and Hebrew component, and when one encounters an idiom in it that fails to make logical sense, it is sometimes worth looking for a misunderstood, garbled, or folk-etymologized Slavic or Hebrew expression behind it. In the case of shemen zikh in vaytn haldz, no relevant Slavic expression, as far as I can determine, exists.

Might there be a Hebrew one? If so, the first place to look for it would be the Bible, whose influence on both Hebrew and Yiddish usage never can be overestimated. And indeed, there is a biblical passage that comes to mind. It is in the third chapter of Isaiah, and it reads, in part, in the King James Version:

“Moreover, the Lord saith, because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with stretched necks [n’tuyot garon, in the Hebrew] and wanton eyes…. Therefore, the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion…. And her [the daughter of Zion’s] gates shall lament and mourn; and she being desolate shall sit upon the ground.”

Like the Yiddish haldz, the Hebrew word garon, translated by the King James as “neck,” also denotes the throat or front half of the neck, and the ancient rabbis interpreted Isaiah’s image of haughtily “stretched necks” in one of two ways. The first was of a neck stretched upward — that is, held high in pride. The second was of a neck stretched outward to coquettishly attract male attention. The well-known 18th-century biblical commentary Metzudat David, for example, harking back to earlier rabbinic sources, tells us that Isaiah’s daughters of Zion “extended their necks this way and that to show off their beauty.”

Both these interpretations show up in non-Jewish Bible translations. Martin Luther’s 16th-century German version of Isaiah, for instance, has und gehen mit aufgerichtetem Halse, “and walk with an upright neck.” Jerome’s fourth-century Latin Vulgate, on the other hand, has et ambulaverunt extento collo, “and walk with an extended neck.” Had Luther chosen to follow Jerome in this, he would have given us und gehen mit erweiterten Halse, the German verb erweitern, which is formed from weit, “far,” meaning “to extend.”

And at this point, of course, a bell should ring, since the Yiddish cognate of erweitern is dervaytern. True, dervaytern in modern Yiddish does not mean “to extend,” but rather “to remove” or (used with the reflexive zakh) “to withdraw,” and the adjective dervaytert means “remote” or “estranged.” Nor, since no Yiddish historical dictionary is available, do I know what meanings dervaytern might have had in the past. Yet is it not likely that, hundreds of years ago, it shared a common meaning with erweitern — and that when, as was their wont, Jewish heder teachers in the Yiddish-speaking lands of Ashkenazic Europe taught their young pupils the Bible by translating each Hebrew verse into Yiddish, they rendered Isaiah’s n’tuyot garon as mit dervaytertn haldz? And if they did, could not the original expression have been shemen zikh in dervaytertn haldz, to be ashamed in one’s haughtily outstretched neck or throat, and could not this have been shortened to shemen zikh in vaytn haldz in the course of time?

As I say, it’s only an educated guess. I’d call it a good one, though. As a gloss on shemen zikh in vaytn haldz, Isaiah strikes me as a better bet than Shakespeare.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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