Clearing up the Meshugas for Maureen Dowd and William Safire

On Language

By Philologos

Published October 14, 2009, issue of October 23, 2009.
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Rashi Fein writes from Boston: “In a column in the New York Times on September 30, Maureen Dowd writes that the late William Safire chastised her for her spelling of ‘meshugas’ in the sentence, ‘Cheney & Co. had shoehorned all their meshugas about Saddam’s W.M.D. into Colin Powell’s U.N. speech.’ According to Safire, ‘mishegoss’ would have been more correct. Taking this to heart, Dowd ended her tribute to him, ‘He was a mensch. And that’s no mishegoss.’

“And yet,” Mr. Fein continues, “‘mishugas,’ with the ‘a’ as in ‘calm,’ seems to me more accurate than ‘mishegoss,’ with the ‘o’ as in ‘boss.’ What say you? Shall we inform the spell-checkers at the Times?”

I say, first of all, that I’m glad Mr. Fein has given me the opportunity to mention William Safire, a wonderful language columnist and staunch friend of Israel whose death is a loss to both word lovers and the political forum. His column was, in part, the original inspiration for this one and I always read it with interest and have referred to it in these pages.

Whether Safire’s spelling of the Yiddish word for “craziness” is better than Maureen Dowd’s, however, is hard to say. Although Dowd’s version is more like what one commonly hears from speakers of Yiddish and Yinglish, vowels are more subject than consonants to regional variation, and it may be that Safire’s version reflects the Yiddish of his Lithuanian ancestors. (That Safire was a litvak on at least his father’s side we know from his name, which — pronounced “say-fir” — is how Lithuanian Jews said soyfer, the Yiddish word for “scribe.”) Moreover, from a strictly etymological point of view, Safire’s “-oss” ending is more accurate than Dowd’s “as” ending, even though it’s unlikely that he was aware of this fact.

Meshugas (as I will choose to spell it) is a peculiar Yiddish word, so peculiar that its case may be unique. On the one hand, it is pure Hebrew. On the other hand, it is very impure Hebrew. Permit me to explain.

The lexical connection of meshugas to Yiddish meshuge, “crazy,” is obvious; the morphological connection — the suffixed –as that functions like the English “-ness” — is anything but. In fact, while meshuge (with the stress on the middle syllable) comes from Hebrew meshuga (stress on the last syllable), the word for “craziness” in Hebrew is shiga’on; nor does Hebrew have an –as (or in Sephardic and Israeli Hebrew, an -at) suffix with the meaning of “-ness.” Rather, the –as or –at in Hebrew is a gender marker found at the end of certain verbs and nouns to indicate that they are feminine.

Thus, for example, whereas “he hears” in Israeli Hebrew is hu shome’a, “she hears” is hi shoma’at, and whereas a male guest is an ore’aḥ, a female guest is an oraḥat. And by the same token, since a crazy man is a meshuga, a crazy woman is a meshuga’at (or meshuga’as in the Ashkenazi Hebrew of Yiddish speakers). This is spelled משוגעת in Hebrew, just as is Yiddish meshugas. Yet meshugas means “craziness,” not “crazy woman.” What gives?

The first possibility to come to mind is that the -as suffix in meshugas might not be Hebrew at all and could come from elsewhere — which in the case of Yiddish would have to be either German or a Slavic language. Yet no such suffix exists in German or Slavic and there is nothing to be gained by looking to them for help.

This notion forces us to return to Hebrew. Does the language have any way of turning “crazy” into “craziness” that might have resulted in meshugas?

As a matter of fact, it does. Hebrew has a suffix –ut (-us in Ashkenazi Hebrew) that regularly converts adjectives to nouns, and concrete nouns to more abstract nouns, just like English “-ness.” Tipesh in Hebrew means “foolish,” tipshut (with the stress on the last syllable), “foolishness”; uvdah means “fact,” uvdatiyut, “factualness,” etc. In theory, therefore, one could take the word meshuga, “crazy,” and turn it into meshuga’ut or (in Ashkenazi Hebrew) meshugo’us, “craziness,” written משוגעות. In practice, however, there is no such word in Hebrew. One can comb the dictionaries and not find the word. Nor, spelled in this manner, can it be found in any Yiddish dictionary, either.

And yet, such a Hebrew word was at some time in the past coined in Yiddish, for there can be no doubt that meshugas was originally meshugo’us, and that this went in pronunciation from me-shu-gaw-OOS to me-shu-GAW-is to me-shu-GOSS to meshugas as it was fully Yiddishized — at which point it began to be spelled as though it came not from Hebrew meshugo’us, “craziness,” but from meshuga’as, “crazy woman.” Was Safire aware of any of this when he told Dowd that the word was “mishegoss?” Probably not — but then again, who knows? In the unlikely eventuality that she should read this column, Dowd, in any case, will end up knowing more about “meshugas” than she ever cared to find out.

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


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