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.

To the Greeks and Romans, a Cynic was a follower of the philosophy of the kynikoi. The word disappeared from medieval Europe, when pre-Christian Greek and Roman thought was forgotten, and turned up again only after the Renaissance, with the rediscovery of the Classical world and its philosophical schools. Gradually, “cynic” detached itself from philosophy and took on the meaning of a chronic faultfinder who regularly casts aspersion on the motives and integrity of others. In English, its first documented use in this sense dates to 1596. Similarly, the earliest use of “sarcastick,” also borrowed from Classical literature, dates to 1695, although we find “sarcasmus” in the sense of jesting mockery already in 1579.

We might ask Mr. Szubin: Does this mean that, prior to the late 16th century, English had no way of referring to a person who was cynical or sarcastic? Obviously not. English had many native words — “scoffer,” “sneerer,” “mocker,” “railer,” “jeerer,” etc. — that were capable of doing the job. If lower-case cynics are not exactly the same as scoffers or sneerers, this is because they still harbor a faint residue of the upper-case Cynic, so that we may attribute to them if not a philosophical outlook, at least a set of responses to the world slightly more all-embracing than the scoffer’s or the sneerer’s. Yet the difference is small — and that between “sarcasm” and “jeering” or “mocking” is even smaller.

The case with Yiddish and Hebrew is the same. Neither ever lacked words for scoffers or mockers. Yiddish had shpeter, khoyzek-makher, hetzker and others; Hebrew had letz, lo’eg, melagleg and still more. The fact that both languages borrowed (probably from Russian or German) versions of the originally Greek “cynic” and “sarcastic” 200 or more years after English did tells us something about the relative insularity of Jewish culture in Europe prior to the 19th century, but it is no indication of the absence in that culture of cynicism or sarcasm itself.

In general, one has to be careful about jumping to conclusions about cultural perceptions or attitudes on the basis of apparently missing terminology. Although many so-called “primitive languages,” for example, lack distinct words for certain colors, such as blue and brown, tests show that their speakers are perfectly aware of these colors’ existence; if pressed, they might say that the daytime sky is “light black” or that a tree trunk is “dark green,” but they see blue and brown and can tell them apart from black and green just as well as we can. Calling a cynic a “habitual scoffer,” or a sarcastic remark a “jestingly mocking” one, is similar. We don’t need Greek to be able to recognize such things or talk about them.

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


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