Just Say 'Nu?': Latrine Detail

A Monthly Column on Making Your Daily Life More Yiddish

By Michael Wex

Published March 19, 2008, issue of March 28, 2008.
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Inter faeces et urinam nascimur,” wrote Saint Augustine, who just became the first Church Father ever quoted in a guide to Yiddish conversation. “We are born between feces and urine,” he says, so let’s not get carried away with ourselves; the birth canal through which all of us enter this world is located between the anus and the urethra, and we emerge from the womb as mired in physical filth as we are in original sin.

Had Augustine been born a few centuries later, he could have had quite a future in the greeting card business. Had he remembered that we pee at birth and poo at death, he might have got feces and urine in the proper order; his failure to do so explains why he is a Father of the Church and not a President of the Shul.

Any Yiddish-speaker can tell you that most human beings start their lives as PIshers and end them as ALteh KAkers. For a Yiddish-speaking Jew, life is one long trip to the toilet, in which extremes of youth and age are expressed in terms of evacuation. A pisher, or “pisser,” is wet behind the ears and everywhere else (when the ears — and everything else — are feminine, the pisher is called a PIsherkeh). When not an actual child, the pisher is a babe in the woods, a mere beginner, someone who has yet to learn his way around. It’s offensive to have to compete with him, intolerable to have to submit:

OT DER PIsher VERT MIR ITST A BAleBOOS?
That pisher is gonna be my boss now?

ER HOT NOKH MIlekh AF DI VONtses
He still has milk in his mustache.

ER’T LERnen AN ALTN TATN KINder MAKHN?
He’s gonna teach a long-time [lit., old] father how to make children?

KH’OB SHOYN AF DAIM MEIneh TSAYN OYFgeGESN
I have eaten my way through my teeth

while doing it [i.e., “Whatever it is, I’ve been doing it for so long that my activity in the area has long outlasted all the teeth that I had when I started.”]

As baby boomers prepare to collect their pensions, Yiddish’s longstanding rejection of the modern cult of youth stands an excellent chance of returning to the cultural mainstream, where it can offer practical tips on finding fault with any action performed by anyone not old enough to have bought a mono copy of “Sgt. Pepper” on the day of its release. Yiddish doesn’t dislike youth per se, just youth that’s been young since the speaker was; a Yiddish-speaker knows everything you do — and a few things that you’ve never even heard of — because, as he or she will be quick to tell you,

‘KH BIN NISHT NEKHTN aROYS FIN DEE VINdelakh
I wasn’t toilet-trained [lit., “didn’t get out of diapers”] yesterday,

or

IKH BIN NISHT KA’ meLOOPM-KINT
I’m no babe in the woods.

Use a phrase like meloopm-kint and

MEH VET DEER OOPgaibm KOOved
People will render you the respect to which you’re entitled,

they’ll give you your props when it comes to speaking Yiddish.

Meloopm is the Hebrew name for a vowel with the sound of an “oo.” Since most contemporary Yiddish-speakers have no idea what a meloopm has to do with youth or innocence, this can be your chance to show them who’s boss. Meloopm comes from the Aramaic meloh poom, “a full mouth,” and the term meloopm-kint is generally explained by the fact that the meloopm is very small, as is any kid who’s just learning to read it, an explanation that might make sense if the meloopm were the only, or even the first, vowel that kids are taught in school, or if the phrase were ever used to describe actual children:

ER IZ NISHT KEN meLOOPM-KINT
He’s no meloopm-kint

means that nobody’s going to put anything over on him, because he’s seen the world and is perfectly able to look out for himself. What it does not mean is that he’s seven years old, rather than three.

OY, A rakhMOOnes AF IM, DAIM BIDnem meLOOPM-KINT
I feel sorry for him, the poor, innocent meloopm-kint

indicates that the poor sap is walking into a lion’s den where he’s going to be eaten alive, rather like Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

So why a meloopm? What does a Hebrew vowel have to do with it? Make the sound that it represents — “Oo, oo,” as Gunther Toody used to say — and watch what happens to your lips (people like me, who actually say meleepm, can observe the same phenomenon, thanks to the l). The rounded lips and sucking motion produce an image of youth and inexperience; meloopm conveys the sense of “suckling” or “baby.” Meloh poom means a full mouth, and a literal meloopm-kint has a mouth full of mommy.

Expressions like this allow you to show everyone around you that, whatever else you might be, you’re no pisher when it comes to Yiddish. So why cut their suffering short? Toy with them a little, let them know that their comeuppance is at hand by saying,

IKH’L DEER VEIZN VER S’IZ ELter
I’ll show you who’s boss [lit., who’s older].

Older is always better in Yiddish; elter is used so unambiguously to mean “important” that you can actually say such things as

A KINT IZ ELter FIN A KAYser
A child [i.e., one of your own] is older than [i.e., takes precedence over] an emperor, without anybody blinking an eye.

A Few Empty Threats

Ikh’l deer veizn ver s’iz elter is only one of a great many nonspecific and utterly empty threats that punctuate so much Yiddish discourse; they are the barroom brawls of a culture that gets verbal rather than physical. The power of these threats lies entirely in the fact that no one — including the threatener — has any clear idea of what’s really being said. English is no stranger to idioms of this sort — think of classics like “I’ll give you something to cry about”; “you’ll wish you’d never been born”; and “I’ll have your guts for garters” — but it tends not to use them in adult conversations outside of the workplace. Among the Yiddish staples we find

IKH’L DIKH LERnen derkh-ERets
I’ll teach you respect

and

IKH’L LERnen MIT DEER BOOlek
I’ll teach you the Torah portion about Balak and Balaam [i.e., a lesson you’ll never forget].

These two are particularly popular when dealing with children. Lernen derkh-erets should be self-explanatory; Boolek refers to the Torah portion that runs from Numbers 22:2-25:9, in which Balak, the king of Moab, hires Balaam, a freelance mage and shaman, to curse the Israelites. Try as Balaam might, though, every curse comes out as a blessing; his donkey speaks and Balak stiffs him for his fee — and if you think that nothing worked out right for him, wait till you see what I do with you:

VET ZAKH TEEN KHOYshekh (DOO/DORTN)
All hell’s going to break loose (here/there).

An all time favorite — great for kids and uncooperative clerks alike. From the Hebrew for “darkness,” khoyshekh appears to have acquired the additional sense of “chaos, upheaval” from the Midrash, which describes how the Israelites took advantage of the plague of darkness (which affected only the Egyptians) to bury the turncoats in their midst, whom God didn’t want to kill while the Egyptians were looking.

Another classic, one with a really creepy sense of dementia to it, is

BIST BEI MEER A geTSAITLter /geTSAITLteh
You (masc./fem) are on my list.

It’s like a Yiddish prophecy of Richard Nixon, dating from long before Nixon was born.

Some winners among threats promising specific acts of violence are

IKH’L ZEE MAKHN MIT A KOP KERtser
I’ll make her a head shorter,

IKH’L IM tseSHNEIDN AF SHTIker
I’ll cut him to pieces,

IKH’L DIKH tseTRAYbern
I’ll beat the crap out of you [lit., remove the unkosher fat and veins from your carcass].

Adapted from “Just Say Nu,” by Michael Wex. Copyright (c) 2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.


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