‘What’s Fuhgeddaboudit in Yiddish?” The Wall Street Journal’s Brett Stephens asks in a column in which he concludes that, following President Obama’s Syrian chemical weapons shuffle, the president’s promise to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon has lost its credibility.
Was Stephens suggesting that “Fuhgeddaboudit” is an English version of an original Yiddish expression? Or was he simply trying to say that the unreliability of the presidential pledge must be of special concern to Jews?
Probably the latter, because “Fuhgeddaboudit” has no Yiddish antecedents to speak of. Although the expression, as the look and sound of it indicate, almost certainly originated in New York, and most probably in Brooklyn, it did so, apparently, among Italian Americans, not Jews.
One says “apparently” because Italian and its many dialects — like Sicilian, which was commonly spoken by Italian immigrants to New York — do not seem to have a parallel idiom, either, and because it is difficult to trace “Fuhgeddaboudit” to Italian immigrant culture.
In fact, it is difficult to trace it any further back than Joseph Pistone’s 1988 book about being an FBI agent in the underworld, “Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia,” and its 1997 film adaptation. “Fuhgeddaboudit” occurs frequently in both book and film, and Johnny Depp, the actor who plays Pistone, actually gives a speech about it to a puzzled FBI co-worker.
Of course, “Forget about it,” without its heavy New York accent, has always been a perfectly normal variant of “Forget it.” Yet “Fuhgeddaboudit” is not “Forget about it.” Apart from its dropped “r” and [voiced “d’s,”] it has a more strongly stressed second syllable, generally comes with an exclamation point and has, as Johnny Depp points out, a wider range of meanings, which include, “It’s so great that there’s no point trying to describe it to you” and “You’re so dumb that there’s no point in trying to explain it to you.” You still don’t see the difference? Fuhgeddaboudit!
Was “Fuhgeddaboudit” actually a common Brooklyn or mafia expression before it was popularized by the film?