Fermisht but Not Fergotten

What the Prefixes Fer-, Far- or- Ver Mean to Us

A Little Farklemt: Mike Myers as Linda Richman (here with Glenn Close as Judy on ‘Saturday Night Live’ in 1992) made the prefix famous.
Norman Ng/NBCU Photo Bank
A Little Farklemt: Mike Myers as Linda Richman (here with Glenn Close as Judy on ‘Saturday Night Live’ in 1992) made the prefix famous.

By Philologos

Published May 25, 2011, issue of June 03, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Here’s a question from Eugene Fidell of Yale Law School:

“Many Yiddish words begin with the prefix fer-, such as ferklemt, ferblondzshet, ferkakt, ferdreyt, fermisht, etc. What’s the common denominator? Is there a linguistic connection to the series of English words that includes ‘forgo,’ ‘forbid,’ ‘forget’ and ‘forswear’? Something tells me that these two sets are connected, however remotely.”

Mr. Fidell’s intuition is better than his spelling, which, like that of many American Jews, changes Yiddish far- into fer-. (It’s farklemt, farblondzshet, farkakt, etc.) Most probably, this happens because there is a similar tendency in American English, in which words like “forget,” “forbid” and “forgive” are commonly pronounced “ferget,” “ferbid” and “fergive.”

But let’s get back to Mr. Fidell’s intuition. The far- in a word like farklemt and the “for-“ in a word like “forget” are indeed connected, although less obviously than might appear at first glance.

It’s easy to see why Mr. Fidell suspected such a connection. After all, consider his list of Yiddish words: farklemt, heavy-hearted or oppressed-feeling; farblondzshet, totally lost; farkakt, literally, defecated on, and figuratively, messed up or screwed up; fardreyt, literally, twisted out of shape, and figuratively, flustered or harried; farmisht, confused. Each of these words describes an undesirable state of some kind.

And now consider such English words as “forget,” “forbid,” “forgo” and “forswear.” They, too, strike a negative note. In the last three of them, the “for-“ prefix seems to reverse or change for the worse the meaning of a verb to which it is attached. To forbid someone to do something is the opposite of bidding him to do it. To forgo is to choose not to go somewhere or do something, as when one forgoes a party to which one is invited. To forswear is to swear off or swear falsely. And to forget, though its origins are less apparent, presents a similar case, since it derives from Old English gietan, to grasp or hold, and originally meant failing to hold on to something.

English does not have a large number of words beginning with “for-.” Yiddish and German (in which the prefix is ver-, with the “v” pronounced as an “f”) both do. In fact, my German-English dictionary has no fewer than 22 pages of ver- words! In many of them, ver- has the same sense of reversal that “for-” has in English. Thus, for example, whereas bilden means to shape or to fashion, verbilden is to deform; drucken means to print, and verdrucken, to misprint; raten, to advise, and verraten, to betray.

And yet this is far from being the most common function of ver- in German. It has other, more frequent effects. One of these is to create a transitive verb from an adjective or noun, as in dunkel, dark, and verdunkeln, to darken or obscure, or fremd, strange, and verfremden, to alienate. Another is to intensify the meaning of an already existent verb. Thus, for example, we have fallen, to fall, and verfallen, to molder or decay; ehren, to honor, and verehren, to venerate; dursten, to thirst, and verdursten, to die of thirst.

Although in Yiddish, too, far- has all these functions, the far- of farklemt, farblondzshet and the other words cited by Mr. Fidell is not the far- of reversal like the “for-” in English “forbid,” but the far- of intensification or transitivization. In the verb farklemn, far- is combined with klemn, to pinch; in farblondzshen, with blonzhen, to ramble or wander off the path; in farkakn, with kakn, to defecate; in fardreyt, with dreyn, to twist; in farmisht, with mishn, to mix.

You may wonder how the same prefix can have such different meanings. Ancient Greek, a better documented language than the ancient Teutonic from which both German and English descend, helps answer this. The Greek para, a cognate of English “for-” and German ver-, can have the sense of “alongside,” of “toward,” of “beyond” or of “against,” all inherited from a conjectured word per that indicated motion in Indo-European, the prehistoric ancestor of nearly all the languages of Europe. Per’s meaning of moving against something gave it the function of reversal that it has in “forbid” and verraten. Its meaning of moving beyond something accounts for its acting as an intensifier in verfallen and verehren. And its meaning of moving or pointing toward something is what makes it a transitivizer in verdunkelm and verfremden.

It is this last meaning that explains why, spelled with an “e” as “fore-,” the same prefix in English also indicates anticipation of a future event, as in words like “forebode,” “forecast” and “foreshadow,” or else the front or start of something in words like “foreground” and “foreplay.” As vor- rather than ver-, it can have the same function in German, as it also can in Yiddish in words like forhoyf, forecourt, or forhang, curtain (that is, something hanging in front of something else).

That’s a lot of mileage to have gotten from one little Indo-European word. On the other hand, it’s had a long time in which to travel.

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


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!
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • 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.