Why Jews Didn't Always Seem To Have a Word for Sarcasm

Making Sense of the Jewish Cynicism Gap

Shirley, You Jest: Jewish humor has always been associated with a generous use of sarcasm.
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Shirley, You Jest: Jewish humor has always been associated with a generous use of sarcasm.Shirley, You Jest: Jewish humor has always been associated with a generous use of sarcasm.

By Philologos

Published April 07, 2013, issue of April 12, 2013.
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Forward reader Z.H. Szubin writes:

“In preparing for publication of my book ‘Text Archeology in Jewish Law and Liturgy,’ based on my research in the retrieval of the precise meaning of original terminology in Jewish and comparative legal systems, I would appreciate it if you could shed some light on the fact that Yiddish does not have an equivalent for the word ‘cynic’ or any linguistic formulations denoting a state of being cynical, sarcastic, etc. These are apparently also absent in Hebrew.”

Since Yiddish and its humor — or for that matter, Jewish humor in general — are associated with a generous use of sarcasm, Mr. Szubin’s query took me aback. Can it really be true that Yiddish and Hebrew have no words for “cynical” or “sarcastic”?

On the level of contemporary usage, it certainly isn’t. Yiddish and Hebrew have almost the exact same words for “cynical” and “sarcastic” that English and many other languages do. In Yiddish, “cynical” is tsinish, a cynic is a tsiniker and cynicism is tsinizm, while “sarcastic” and “sarcasm” are sarkastish and sarkazm, respectively. In Hebrew, we have tsini, tsinikan, tsiniyut, sarkasti and sarkastiyut. So what, one might ask, is Mr. Szubin’s problem?

But his letter has already told us what it is. He is interested in linguistic “archaeology” — that is, in digging beneath our contemporary stratum of language for older levels — and words like tsinish or sarkasti are modern borrowings from European languages that cannot be found in pre-19th-century Yiddish or Hebrew. Is he right after all, then? Were Yiddish and Hebrew forced to borrow words for “cynical” and “sarcastic” because, prior to modern times, they had none of their own?

Let’s take a look at these two words. Both entered European languages via Latin, which in turn got them from ancient Greek. “Sarcastic” comes from the Greek verb sarkadzein, to tear the flesh off (from sarkos, “flesh”) — that is, to flay with words. “Cynic” derives from kynikós, “doglike,” from kyon, “dog.” The kynikoi or “doglike ones” was the name given in ancient Athens to a school of philosophers who rejected the conventional customs and values of society and called for a return to a simple, natural life. The name originated with Diogenes (circa 410-323 BCE), known to his fellow Athenians as “Diogenes ho [the] kynikós” for his extreme habits of sleeping in the streets, foraging in them for food, and even urinating and defecating in public.


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