'Bageling' Means Many Things — Not All of Them Fit for Family Paper

50 Shades of Meaning for a Word That Used To Have One

A Fine Distinction: These are bagels. And they have just about nothing to do with the many definitions of bageling.
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A Fine Distinction: These are bagels. And they have just about nothing to do with the many definitions of bageling.

By Philologos

Published October 13, 2013, issue of October 18, 2013.
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  • To indulge in any one of a number of sexual practices that involve… but I’ll leave this to your imaginations. If they’re fertile, you’ll be surprised by what you can come up with.

  • In Japan, to inject silicon into one’s facial tissue and then stamp bagel-like shapes onto it. (This gruesome fad, fortunately not yet spread to other countries, can be viewed on the Internet, too. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.)

  • To — we’ve finally gotten there — either try to guess whether someone in your presence is Jewish or let someone in your presence who appears to be Jewish know that you are, too, in such a way that will avoid embarrassment if you’re wrong.

You might, for example, bagel someone by suddenly clapping your hand to your cheek, as if you had just remembered something distressing, and saying, “Oy vey!” The bageled person might then say: A) “Oy vey is right — you don’t know what happened to me today” (mission accomplished); B) “Excuse me, but what did you say?” (To which you might answer, “Oh, I was just trying to remember the name of my mother-in-law’s dentist.”); C) nothing at all. Answer C would not definitely establish, of course, that you’re not talking to a Jew, but it would be a pretty good indication that if you are, he or she doesn’t think it’s any of your business.

Simply stepping up to people on the street and asking them if they’re Jewish, as Chabad mitzvah peddlers often do, is thus not bageling at all in the true sense of the word. It’s far too direct, as was the Jew on the subway who stared and stared at the black man reading a Yiddish paper opposite him until he finally asked, “Mister, zayt mir moykhl, ober zayt ir a yid?” (“Excuse me, mister, but are you Jewish?”)

Without looking up from his paper, so goes the joke, the man replied: “Vos far a shayle iz dos? Aza a meshugener bin ikh nisht.” (“What kind of a question is that? That crazy I’m not.”)

Where does the last meaning of “to bagel” come from? Probably from “a bagel” being used disparagingly for a Jew, a never very widespread slang term going back at least to the 1950s. As those were days in which no one but Jews ate bagels, the term was not an inappropriate one, and “to bagel” would have arisen to mean doing or saying something that only other Jews would do or say, too.

The problem, from a linguistic point of view, is to explain why an old slang word that was used by non-Jews and went out of circulation decades ago should suddenly have resurfaced in the language of Jews. Or was it there all the time without being noticed? If any of you remember hearing or using “to bagel” in Meaning 7 before, say, the year 2000, I’d be interested in knowing.

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


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