Just Say 'Nu?': I Remember Mameleh

A Monthly Column on Making Your Daily Life More Yiddish

By Michael Wex

Published September 11, 2008, issue of September 19, 2008.
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It all starts with





If the tateh and mameh are yours, and you’re a kid, they’re usually



If you’re using any of these as titles in direct address, you use them exactly as they appear above:

TAteshee, TAtesheh, LOZ MIKH NISHT aLAYN
Daddy, daddy, don’t leave me alone

Mom, mom, I have to go [to the bathroom]

If you’re talking about them, though, they get a definite article, a “the”:

MAmesheh, aVEE IZ DER TAteh?
Mommy, where’s (the) dad?

DEE MAmesheh IZ ITST nishTOO
(The) Mommy isn’t home right now

The more formal MIter and FOOter describe categories of relationship rather than actual people. They are virtually never used of your own parents, unless, God forbid, you’re dealing with government officials or medical personnel:

You understand, doctor, that my father is no kid anymore

Yiddish can get as maudlin about parents as any other language:

There’s nothing more faithful than a mother


Once upon a time, a father was a father; now a father is nothing but a doormat [lit., rag]

Tateh can also be used as an exclamation; it’s usually understood as standing in for “God” (something with which no real tateh is ever likely to disagree):

Father in heaven

TAteh FOOter

TAteh YOYneh
father Jonah [ironic]

God is a father and whiskey is whiskey

is the Yiddish counterpart to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” and crying out “Oy, tateh!” during or after a particularly intense or pleasurable experience— hearing a great piece of music, taking a drink that you really needed, seeing a grand slam in the seventh game of the World Series — is the equivalent of saying “Jee-ZUZ!” The diminutive TAtenyoo, “little father,” can sometimes be used when addressing your father (though only in excesses of extreme affection or sympathy). It is, along with TAteleh, used more often when addressing a small child — generally your son or grandson; as a not-always-terribly-respectful equivalent of “Mac” or “buddy”: “Her zakh tsee, tatenyoo,” means, “Listen to me, buddy”; or as a term of affection for another male, whether he’s present or not: “Loyf, tateleh, loyf, Run, baby, run,” is something that you can yell while playing baseball yourself or watching it on T.V.

Aside from being the title of a well-known klezmer tune, the phrase

Oh, daddy, it’s good,

also paves the way for the diminutive oy, tatenyoo, s’iz git. While the former might be used on slipping into a hot bath or taking a taste of some exquisite dish, the latter is what you say when your lover is doing something that you know is wrong but feels so right. Tatenyoo also serves as the Yiddish version of “Daddyo,” and Oy, tatenyoo, si’z git is Yiddish hipster-speak to describe some unusually powerful “stuff.”

People interested in the dynamics of Yiddish family life would do well to remember that the literal meaning of tatenyoo and tateleh is “little father.” Such affectionate diminutives for father were once common in Indo-European languages (think of Russian-peasant imitations in old movies), and the little-father idea appears already in Gothic, the earliest Germanic language for which we have written records. Aetli, ”little father” in Gothic, has been turned into a proper name under the usual form of “Attila.” The Hun leader’s real name was forgotten almost 1,600 years ago; all we know is that he conquered widely, then died on the night of his wedding. Hun, however, means “chicken” in Lithuanian Yiddish: If the Jews really lived up to antisemitic conspiracy theories, the Scourge of God would have been known as Tateleh the Litvak.

Mamenyoo tends only to be used when talking to your mother, though MAmeleh, the other common diminutive of mameh, is often used with small children. As with tateleh, it’s a way of wishing that the child grow up to have children of her own. You’ll sometimes hear mothers address their daughters as mameh-SHAYNheit; shaynheit means beauty. Mameh also gives us the great verb MAmeven, which means to say mameh over and over again:

Enough already with the mommying,

i.e., be quiet and leave me alone. Although there is no reason not to say TAteven, I’ve yet to hear anyone do so, whereas it’s not unusual to attach an -en or –even- suffix to a proper name:

DER OYlem HOT NISHT OYFgehert TSE JERryen in TSE OPrahven The crowd kept on Jerrying and Oprahing [i.e., calling out their names]

Stop going on about dessert already

Republicans who want to write for the Yiddish papers had better be careful, though. Unlike dezurteven, BUSHeven is a real Yiddish word; it means “to rage, storm, run rampant.”

NEbakh, yet another Yiddish word that doesn’t translate very well, came into Yiddish from Czech around the 15th century, long before Slavic-influenced East European Yiddish had a chance to develop into the language that most of us associate with Yiddish today. It means “the poor thing, it’s a pity, alas,” and is used as the sort of interjection that can often be omitted in translation with no real loss of sense — albeit with a complete loss of feeling.

The woman is not healthy,

is a statement that might be found in a case study, medical chart or other impersonal report. A single word can change all that and bring the individual to the fore:

means “The poor woman is not well”; “the woman is ill, alas”; “I regret to inform you that the woman is sick,” but without the prissiness or sense of imposed duty that color all of these English versions. Nebakh implies a connection between speaker and sufferer or some sort of sympathy on the speaker’s part for the nebakhdik situation being described. Hence the idea of the nebbish (the Germanized pronunciation of nebakh), or NEbekhl, as the same kind of person is called in East European Yiddish: the sort of person at whom you take one look and instantly think, “Oy, nebakh, the poor thing.”

Knowing when to nebakh is essential to knowing how to speak Yiddish properly. As a general rule, you can’t go wrong if you’re describing:

  1. A genuine disaster.

S’IZ geVAIN NEbakh AN ERD-tsiternish
There was an earthquake, nebakh

  1. Something that didn’t turn out as well as had been hoped or expected:

He’s no Elvis, nebakh

  1. A personal tragedy for anybody, including yourself, whom you don’t overtly hate:

ZEE HOT NEbakh farLOren DEE GANtseh mishPOOkheh
She nebakh lost her entire family

  1. A problem or inconvenience for anybody, including yourself, whom you don’t overtly hate, whether it’s chronic unemployment, a pesky chest cold or getting to the box office too late to get tickets to the desired show:

I nebakh caught cold, right before the make-out party.

As a response to such questions as voos makhstee (how are you) or voos hert zakh (what’s happening), nebakh will let everybody know that you’re in a bad way and that you’d really prefer not to have to elaborate on it. If they persist, so should you: nebakh say *nebakh *again.

Michael Wex is the author of Just Say Nu:Yiddish for Every Occasion, Born to Kvetch and The Adventures of Micah Mushmelon, Boy Talmudist. He can be reached at www.michaelwex.com.

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