Sheygetz

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published April 21, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Bernard Adelman from Winthrop, Mass, writes:

“How does one derive [the Yiddish plural noun] ‘scotsim’ from [the singular] ‘sheygetz,’ when it seems that ‘scotsim’ would be the plural only of ‘scots’?

Sheygetz, of course, is a Yiddish word referring either to a young gentile male, or else to a young Jewish male who behaves like the Eastern European Jewish stereotype of a young gentile male –— that is, who is fun loving, unruly and more given to physical than to mental pursuits. If Mr. Adelman appears to associate this word with the inhabitants of Scotland, this is not because he really does, but because of the peculiarities both of his own spelling and of the pronunciation of what is known as northeastern Yiddish. This is the Yiddish that was spoken in Lithuania and Belarus, and I would hazard a guess that Mr. Adelman’s family came from this region. Here’s why.

Sheygetz derives from the biblical Hebrew noun sheketz, “abomination,” used in the Bible to refer to an unclean or nonkosher animal. Thus, for example, in a verse in Leviticus stating which fish may be eaten and which may not be, we read: “And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers…they shall be an abomination [sheketz] to you.” In medieval Hebrew, sheketz became a not very complimentary way of referring to young gentiles, and in Yiddish, through a voicing of the unvoiced “k,” it turned into sheygetz. At a later stage, as we have said, sheygetz also came to be a not entirely uncomplimentary way of referring to a young Jew, much as the English word “rascal,” when applied to a boy or teenager, can have an affectionate or even an approving tone.

To take it a step further, the Hebrew plural of sheketz is shkatzim, with the stress on the last syllable, and in Yiddish this became shkotzim, with the stress on the first syllable. (Those of you who still remember last week’s column on “matzo” will understand why.) This in turn yielded in America — to the best of my knowledge, it is not found in European Yiddish — the back formation “shkotz” as a variant form of sheygetz. It was not, therefore, the singular “scots,” as Mr. Adelman imagines, that yielded the plural form “scotsim,” but rather the other way around.

But why “scots” and “scotsim” instead of “shkotz” and “shkotzim”? The “c” in place of “k” is Mr. Adelman’s own idiosyncrasy. The “s” instead of “sh,” on the other hand, is, as we have said, a characteristic of northeastern Yiddish, in which these two sibilant consonants tended to get confused. There is even a jocular Yiddish expression for this confusion, which was called sabbeshdiker losn or “Sabbath speech” — two words that are pronounced shabbesdiker loshn in ordinary Yiddish.

And yet, contrary to the popular notion, it does not actually happen in sabbeshdiker losn that the “s” sounds become “sh” sounds and the “sh” sounds become “s” sounds. Rather, “s” and “sh” merge into a single sound that is halfway between the two. It only seems that the two swap places because of an auditory illusion whereby the speakers of other Yiddish dialects, expecting the word for Sabbath to be pronounced shabbes, heard the first halfway sound as a nonstandard departure from “sh” that they interpreted as an “s,” and the second halfway sound as a nonstandard departure from “s” that they interpreted as a “sh.” In reality, it is the same sound in both cases.

Unlike the biblical noun sheketz, the biblical verb from which it comes, shakatz, “to abominate,” was never applied to sheygetzes. In fact, it was never used much in post-biblical Hebrew at all — although on at least one occasion when it was, the results were remarkable.

The story was told to me by an Israeli doctor, a friend of mine. He told me how once, while attending a medical convention in Madrid, he met a Spanish colleague who offered to show him around town. As they entered one of the city’s churches, my friend heard the Spaniard mumble some incomprehensible words that sounded like, “Sakes sakenu, tev tavenu.”

“What did you just say?” my friend asked his guide. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know,” was the reply. “It’s something my family has always said upon entering a church and that I was taught to say as a child, too.” My friend racked his brain — and then it came to him. “Sakes sakenu, tev tavenu” was the biblical “shaketz teshaktzenu, ta’ev teta’avenu, “You shall surely abominate and abhor it,” a phrase that occurs in a strongly worded injunction against graven images in the book of Deuteronomy. Unbeknown to the Spanish doctor, he was a descendant of Marranos — Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the days of the Inquisition, who had taught their offspring never to enter a church without whispering the aforementioned words as an expression of their true feelings. For generations, his ancestors had been saying them with no idea of what they meant. It sent a chill down my spine.

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






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