Unpacking 'Umgepotch' A Word for Sloppy

Clearing Up the Clutter Of Puttering Around

By Philologos

Published September 02, 2011, issue of September 09, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Menorah Rotenberg of Teaneck, New Jersey writes:

“The other day, I was telling someone about a recipe that I no longer make because it is too much of a ‘potchkie’ — that is, it has too many ingredients and is too time-consuming.

“I then thought of ‘umgepotch,’ too much or over the top, as in the joke about the man in MoMA who sees a painting that is all white with a small black dot at the bottom and says to his wife, ‘I don’t like it, it’s too umpgepotch.’

“Is there any relationship between ‘potchkie’ and ‘umgepotch’ based on a Yiddish word that both derive from? And if so, what does that word actually mean?”

There most definitely is a relationship, since the Yiddish adjective ongepatshket, cluttered, messy or sloppy, is a past participle of the verb onpatshkn — which, like its alternate form of patshkn, means to soil, stain or (when applied to writing) scribble. This gives us Judeo-English “potchkie” or “potchkee,” which the eminent Leo Rosten defines in his “The Joys of Yiddish” as “1: A slap, usually playful…. 2. To fuss or ‘mess around’ inefficiently and inexpertly [as in sentences like] ‘I spent all day in the kitchen potchkeeing around,’ [or] ‘He potchkees around with paint and they call him a painter’…. 3. To dawdle, waste time.”

Perhaps in Chicago, where Rosten grew up in the early twentieth century, a “potchkee” was a playful slap, but I never heard it used that way in New York a generation later. In my own experience, a slap (and not necessarily a playful one) was a “potch,” as in, “If you don’t behave I’ll give you a potch in the tuchus.” This is also how one says “slap” in proper Yiddish, although it is then generally transliterated as patsh. Patsh comes from patshn, which is an entirely different verb from patshkn and should not be confused with it.

Confusing, too, is the fact that both verbs have possible Slavic as well as German etymons. Patshkn originally entered Yiddish either from German patzen, to stain, soil or (when the context is musical) sing off-tune, or from Polish paćkać, to smear or daub, and one of these languages must have borrowed the word from the other just as Yiddish did. The same holds true for patshn. Polish has the verb pacnać, to slap, and the interjection pac! or “slap!” (as when mimicking the sound of one object hitting another); German has patschen, to smack, slap or splash, and patsch! in the exact same sense as Polish pac! (Polish c is pronounced “ts,” while ć is like an English “ch”; in German, z is “ts” and sch is like English “sh.”) Since Germans and Poles have lived in close proximity to each other since time immemorial, it’s difficult to say who took what from whom.

In any event, the “k” of Yiddish patshkn, which distinguishes it from patshn, is clearly the influence of Polish. This same “k,” or rather its absence, also tells us that the English word “patzer,” a mediocre or sloppy doer of something, does not come from Yiddish, as it has sometimes been said to, but rather from German. While “patzer” originated in the chess world, where it refers to a poor player, one sometimes encounters it in other contexts as well. One can be a patzer — that is, an amateur whose love for an art or occupation exceeds his or her talent for it – at almost anything

As a rule, however, one doesn’t “patz around” in English. What one does is “futz around,” an expression that has generally been taken as a euphemism for “f–k around,” although it is possible that the “-tz” ending owes something to “patzer” (and perhaps to Yinglish “putz”), since the traditional American euphemisms for “f–k” are “fudge” and “frig.” While “futzing around” and “potchkying around” mean pretty much the same thing, the futzer is a bit more pathetic. One can potchkie with a certain amount of dignity and even succeed in the end, whereas futzing is intrinsically condemned to failure.

Apart from its query directed to me, Ms. Rotenberg’s letter raises two additional questions. One is her use of the word “potchkie” as a noun, as when she describes a recipe as being “too much of a potchkie.” Having never come across “potchkie” as anything but a verb (the nominal forms known to me are the gerundive “potchkying” and the Yiddish potchkerei), this leads me to ask: Is “potchkie” in this sense now part of American Jewish speech, or is it simply Ms. Rotenberg’s own idiosyncracy? I’d appreciate any knowledge you may have about this.

The same applies to Ms. Rotenberg’s spelling of “omgepotch.” Is this how some or many American Jews now pronounce the Yiddish word? Whether it is or not, in Leo Rosten’s version the incident of the all-white canvas takes place at the home of an art collector named Fleishman, who is showing his friend Meyerson, a connoisseur, the second of two paintings he has bought. The first had one black dot, and Meyerson loved it. The second, hung by Fleishman over his fireplace, has two black dots, and Meyerson takes a quick look at it, makes a face and says, “Too ongepatchket!” The Museum of Modern Art had nothing to do with it.


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!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • 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.