Sorcerer for the Goose and Gander

Jewish Mothers, Witches and the De-Gendering of Yiddish

getty images

By Philologos

Published January 03, 2012, issue of January 06, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

When it comes to Yiddish words in English, however, this distinction — as we have seen in the case of “machasheyfer” — has disappeared entirely. Whereas a female nudnik in Yiddish is a nudnitse, in Yinglish she’s a nudnik, too. And if she’s wacky to boot, she may be a meshuggener nudnik, just as her male counterpart may be a meshuggene one. Not only is Yinglish indifferent to the difference between the two endings, it uses them interchangeably. Among the Yinglish expressions I have come across in print recently are “a meshuggene putz” and “a farbissene misnaged,” (“a stubborn reactionary”) in both of which a feminine Yiddish adjective is attached to a masculine Yiddish noun, and “a wonderful balbooster,” in which Yiddish balebuste, an able housewife, is given a masculine ending.

There is nothing surprising about this. Not only do many English speakers, particularly along the Eastern seaboard, where Jews are concentrated, often drop “r”s where they belong and insert them where they don’t, saying things like “I neveh thought the lore would catch up with him,” but English is also a practically genderless language in which there is no such thing as male or female adjectives and in which very few male or female nouns exist. (Even the small number of them that do are gradually vanishing under the impact of feminism, so that, for example, “She’s an actor” has been replacing “She’s an actress,” and “chairperson” is pushing out “chairman” and “chairwoman.”) You can’t expect people to make distinctions in words borrowed from other languages that they don’t make in their own language.

In fact, apparently influenced by English, the Yiddish spoken as a first language by various Hasidic groups in America has also been losing its gender distinctions, with a strong tendency to use feminine adjectives with all nouns; a farbissine misnaged or a meshuggene nudnik can now be heard in Yiddish conversations in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights and Williamsburg, too. This is a fascinating development that calls for further discussion, since it’s not often that one sees a language changing its basic structure under the impact of another language before one’s eyes.

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!
  • 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.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • 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.