Sniffing Out a Devil or Two

On Language

Exasperated in the Carpathians?: “Khapt shoyn der ruekh” you might say.
ISTOCKPHOTO
Exasperated in the Carpathians?: “Khapt shoyn der ruekh” you might say.

By Philologos

Published March 16, 2011, issue of March 25, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Dr. Cyril Sherer writes:

“Perhaps you can help me with some words I heard during my childhood. (I am now 89.) I grew up in the East End of London, speaking Yiddish with my immigrant grandparents. My vocabulary at that time was limited, since our only subject was food. My father, who was British-born, spoke a good deal of Yiddish at home, and there was one phrase he used when he was exasperated, which was frequently. It sounded like ‘khapssen der riach’ or ‘khapshen der riach.’ Have you any idea what this could be?”

What Dr. Sherer’s father said when frequently exasperated was “Khapt shoyn der ruekh” — literally, “The devil take it,” although in contemporary English we would be more likely to say “Goddamn it” or “To hell with it.” The phrase is composed of the third-person imperative of the verb khapn, “to grab” or “take”; the versatile Yiddish adverb shoyn, “already,” which acts here as an intensifier or signifier of impatience (as it does in a Yinglish sentence like “To hell with it already!”); the definite article der, and ruekh (from Hebrew ru’aḥ), an evil spirit. Dr. Sherer’s father’s pronunciation of riakh would tend to place his family’s origins in the Southeastern Yiddish speech area, which encompassed southern Poland, Galicia, Ukraine and the Carpathian Mountains.


And this from Bert Horwitz of Asheville, N.C.:

“My wife and I are unable to agree about the meaning and derivation of the Yiddish word for ‘smelling’ or ‘to smell.’ I claim that it’s shmekn. She says that it can’t be, because shmekn is the same verb as German schmecken, which means ‘to taste,’ not ‘to smell.’ Who is right?”

Like the rabbi in the old joke, I can only say that Mr. Horwitz and his wife are both right. Shmekn in Yiddish means ‘to smell,’ schmecken in German means ‘to taste,’ and the two are, historically speaking, the same word.

That’s how it sometimes is in related languages. The French call such words faux amis, “false friends,’ and French and English have many of them. Thus, for example, even though the English verb “to assist” comes from French assister, j’assiste in French means not “I’m helping,” but “I’m attending” (as in, “I’m attending a conference”) and j’attend means not “I’m attending,” but “I’m waiting.” Such “false friends” can often mislead us into thinking that we have understood one language on the basis of another, as they did Mr. Horwitz’s wife.

“To smell” in German is riechen, from Old German riecchan, a cognate of our less pleasant English “to reek.” In Yiddish, however, there is no such verb, its place having been taken by shmekn, while “to taste” is farzukhn, like German versuchen. Although the primary meaning of versuchen in German is “to try,” it can also mean “to sample” or “to take a taste of,” just as we might say in English, “Try this apple pie.” In Yiddish, on the other hand, farzukhn means only “to taste,” and “to try” is pruvn, thus making farzukhn and versuchen “false friends,” just as shmekn and schmecken are.

Since smelling and tasting are associated activities (our sense of smell is so much part of our sense of taste that we taste less when our noses are stuffed), there’s nothing very strange about a word for one such activity turning into a word for the other. Yet did German schmecken originally mean “to taste” and change its meaning to “to smell” in Yiddish, or did it originally mean “to smell” and change its meaning to “to taste” in German? In theory, it could have happened either way.

In actual fact, the change took place in Yiddish. We know this not only from old German sources, but also from schmecken’s English cognate of “to smack” of something. Although today this is a verb that is used only abstractly, as in, “That smacks of favoritism,” it once meant “to taste” in the full sense of the word, as in an old English rhyme, “Though pepper be black, it has a good smack.” Since German and English are sister languages going back to a single, prehistoric parent, schmecken/smack’s joint ancestor must have meant “to taste,” too.

This leads to a second question. Assuming that early Yiddish had a word for “to smell” like Old German riecchan, did it first lose riecchan, then have shmekn change it meaning to take riecchan’s place and then have farzukhn occupy the place vacated by shmekn? Or did farzukhn first replace shmekn, which then replaced riecchan?

A moment’s reflection tells us that the latter was probably the case. After all, riecchan couldn’t just have disappeared by itself and left Yiddish with no word for “to smell” at all. What must have happened was, first, that farzukhn lost its primary meaning of “to try” and came to mean only “to taste”; second, that shmekn, rendered redundant by this development, lost its meaning of “to taste” and took on the meaning of “to smell,” and third, that riecchan, rendered redundant by shmekn, disappeared entirely. Words in a language can behave like species in a forest, competing for living space, driving one another out of customary niches, and either mutating and finding a new niche or becoming extinct. In Yiddish, shmekn found one. Riecchan didn’t.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.