Getting to the ‘Bottom’ of a Kiwi Query

On Language

By Philologos

Published June 24, 2009, issue of July 03, 2009.
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This column’s first letter from New Zealand is surely cause for celebration. It comes from Daniel Meyrowitz of Auckland, who writes:

“I have an inquiry about what I assume to be a Yiddish word, ‘unterdetzura’ or ‘interdeshira.’ I gather from the context in conversation that it means something like the English idiom ‘the long and the short of it,’ but am not sure. I have not been able to find it in Uriel Weinreich’s Yiddish dictionary and would love to know its exact meaning and pronunciation.”

What Mr. Meyrowitz assumes to be a word is actually the three Yiddish words di untershte shure. (Untershte is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, and shure as “SHOO-reh,” although in the Southern regions of Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe, this became “SHEE-reh.”) While they do indeed mean something very much like English’s “the long and short of it,” there is another contemporary English idiom that comes even closer, since it appears to be a literal translation of them — namely, “the bottom line.”

But is “the bottom line” a translation of di untershte shure, or are we dealing with two identical expressions that developed independently?

It would not be terribly surprising, after all, for them to have done so. Whether di untershte shure, or “the bottom line,” originally referred to the last line of a contract on which the signatures of the agreeing parties appear, or to that of a ledger or a balance sheet in which the final sum is stated, the expression, as a metaphor for the ultimate result of something, is an obvious one. There is no reason that it could not have occurred to both Yiddish and English speakers with no connection between them.

And yet, the historical record, to the extent that one exists, suggests that this was not the case. Di untershte shure is an old Yiddish idiom. True, despite its rabbinic sound — shurah is Hebrew for “a row or line of text,” and contract law plays a prominent role in rabbinic discourse — there is no known rabbinic source for it; yet it goes at least as far back as the early 20th century. Although I have not been able to find a Yiddish citation of it from this period, a Hebrew dictionary quotes the Russian-Hebrew author Uri Nissan Gnessin, who died in 1913, as writing in an essay, “The bottom line is that we have to change the values we live by.” Undoubtedly, Gnessin, a native Yiddish speaker, borrowed the expression from Yiddish.

“The bottom line” in English, on the other hand, is more recent. My own personal impression is that it did not come into widespread use in America until the 1960s, which is borne out by the dictionaries in my possession. Not found in my 1961 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary or my 1966 Random House Dictionary of the English Language, “the bottom line” first occurs in my 1969 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Since these were precisely the years in which American Jews were entering the mainstream of American life in just about every area, and in which numerous Yiddish words and expressions entered American life along with them, it is logical to assume that “the bottom line” was one of these. I would tend to agree, therefore, with the Yiddish folk-saying anthologist Shirley Kumove, who writes about it:

“Certain expressions frequently heard in English are pure Yiddish translations, for instance: what’s doing? [vos tut zikh?]; talk to the wall! [red tsu der vant!]; on one foot [oyf eyn fus]; don’t ask! [freg nisht!]; I should worry! [zol ikh zorgn!]; I need it like a hole in the head! [ikh darf es vi a lokh in kop!; it should happen to me! [oyf mir gezogt gevorn!]; break one’s head [brekhn zikh dem kop]; take a look! [gib a kuk!]…. A popular expression, especially in business circles, is ‘the bottom line,’ a straight translation from Yiddish — di untershte shure.

And yet, Kumove should have been a bit more cautious. Although most of her examples strike me as justified, a few clearly are not. “Take a look” is a very old English idiom that has nothing to do with Yiddish gib a kuk (had 20th-century Americans started to say “Give a look,” that would be a different matter), and “Was tut sich?” is perfectly good German, too. Unlike individual words, whose movement from language to language is generally easy to trace, expressions can be extremely tricky. The odder they are, of course, the less question there tends to be about their provenance (“I need it like a hole in the head” hardly could have originated anywhere but in Yiddish), but one generally should avoid jumping to conclusions without at least some historical documentation. In the case of “the bottom line,” there may not be a great deal of it, but there is enough, I think, to lead us back to di untershte shure with some confidence.

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


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