Of Domestic Sorceresses and Noisy Beggars

On Language

By Philologos

Published April 02, 2008, issue of April 11, 2008.
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Fred Emil Katz writes from Baltimore:

“I have long been struck by the fact that Yiddish has an assortment of words for incompetent men, such as shlemiel, shmegege, and shlimazel, to name just a few. The culture that produced such epithets was one in which men might spend their entire adult lives pursuing a career of studying Torah while their wives raised the children, ran the household, and not infrequently found a way to make a living for the family. Now, I wonder, does Yiddish also have a word to describe such a down-to-earth, competent, tough-when-necessary woman?”

It does indeed. It’s beryeh, a word that denotes a housewife who can manage to do 10 different things impeccably all at once. Such a woman is described by Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye when he humorously says that his wife, Golde, is “such a wizard around the house that she can bake a noodle pudding from thin air, make soup from a fingernail, whip up a Sabbath meal from an empty cupboard, and put hungry children to sleep with a box on the ear.”

Golde’s powers, in Sholom Aleichem’s original Tevye stories, were demonstrated by her ability to feed seven children with her husband’s meager earnings, but there can be a wealthy beryeh, too, who manages to prepare a dinner party for 20 guests while making sure at the same time that the children are doing their homework, that the maid has remembered to change the sheets on the beds and that plumber is properly installing the new sink.

The word beryeh comes from Hebrew b’riyah, which means “a creature or human being,” and is most commonly encountered in rabbinic literature in its plural form of b’riyot. As a plural it can be either masculine or feminine, but in the singular it is always feminine, as are all Hebrew nouns ending in –ah. Perhaps this is why, although Yiddish dictionaries define beryeh as “a super-efficient and competent person of either sex,” it’s a word that is almost always applied by Yiddish speakers to women. Its Yiddish use apparently derives from the rabbinic expression b’riyah nifla’ah, “a wondrous creature,” of which beryeh represents a shortening; the longer form can still be found in Yiddish literature. Thus, for example, in I.L. Peretz’s short story “Sholem Bayis,” or “Domestic Harmony,” the water carrier, Chaim, says to his beloved wife, Chana, “[Bist] a beryeh niflo’oh,” which might be translated as, “What a fabulous woman you are!”

Sasha Englard of the Bronx wants to know the source of the word “schnorrer,” which means “beggar” or “cadger.” A friend of his, he writes, looked it up in a dictionary, where its etymology was given as “From Yiddish, from German schnurren (to purr, hum, or whir), from the sound of a beggar’s musical instrument,” and Mr. Englard wants to know whether I have any other thoughts on the matter.

I have one or two. The German verb schnorren, to beg, and its nominal form of Schnorrer, do in fact come from schnurren, which means “to make a rumbling or whirring sound.” What kind of a musical instrument, you ask, makes such a sound? Well, a Schnurre in late medieval German was not actually a musical instrument. It was what is known in English as a whip top or whipping top: a large metal toy, weighing up to two pounds and sometimes standing as much as a foot high, that was set in motion by hand and kept spinning by being struck with a special whip. Whipping tops were a popular sport in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, one that demanded much skill and could be engaged in by either a single individual or a group, the idea being to keep the top spinning as long as possible, often in competition with another top. When spun on flat stone paving or (in winter) on ice, such heavy iron tops indeed made a loud rumbling or whirring sound. And because they were also commonly part of the repertoire of itinerant entertainers, who passed around the hat when their act was finished, schnurren came to mean, besides “whirring” or “rumbling,” “asking for money” or “begging.”

Is Mr. Englard’s friend’s dictionary mistaken, then? Not necessarily. Although German yields no more information, Dutch has the cognate verb of snorren, which also means to beg — and a snorrepijp is defined by my Dutch dictionary as “a children’s horn that makes a whirring or whizzing sound and that was once used by itinerant beggars to announce their presence.” Such instruments, known as “eunuch horns” or “onion horns’ and having onion-skin-thin membranes that vibrated, were widely used in the 16th and 17th centuries and even had simple musical compositions written for them; historically, they were the direct ancestor of today’s kazoo and mirliton, the latter being the technical term for the plastic-and-paper horns blown by children at birthday parties and by celebrating adults on New Year’s Eve. And they also were used by itinerant entertainers and beggars, just as was the whipping top. Hence, our Jewish schnorrer.

That’s something to remember the next time someone tries to schnor a few dollars from you. Tell him to go toot his kazoo someplace else.

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

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