'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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This comes from the Forward’s Naomi Zeveloff:

“I just did a story it appeared in this newspaper’s October 4 issue on how Chabadniks figure out who is Jewish during their Sukkot street outreach. One of them described ‘bageling’ for me, by which he meant the process by which one Jew on the street subtly recognizes another and the two share a moment together. The piece has drummed up a lot of discussion on the Web about the roots of the term ‘bageling,’ which I understand is also a word used to describe anal sex. Maybe you’d want to take it on in your column?”

“Bageling” is a slang word that has taken off in recent years, proliferating geographically and semantically. Presumably this has something to do with the proliferation of the bagel itself, a food that was once, until 50 or so years ago, a distinctively Jewish one of exacting requirements: the classic Jewish bagel has a hard, smooth, glossy, light-brown exterior and a white, plain-tasting, jaw-achingly tough-to-chew interior.

Today, of course, what passes for a bagel can be practically anything as long as it has a hole in the middle (a lumpy-crusted cakey crumb bagel, for example, or an effortlessly masticated honey whole-wheat bagel, or a spinach-and-cheese bagel flavored like a quiche), and the verb “to bagel,” it would seem, can mean practically anything, too — especially if it’s something weird. This includes:

  • To shut out an opponent in an athletic contest like tennis or baseball. This is the oldest slang use of “to bagel” attested to, and it may have originated with the old stadium scoreboards on which the zeros, with their white rims and black insides, were manually slipped into place after a scoreless inning, like a bagel onto a plate.

  • To go out with friends for bagels or attend a bagel brunch at someone’s home.

  • To pelt pedestrians with bagels from a moving vehicle. (If you don’t believe me, you can check this out on the Internet’s Urban Dictionary.)

  • To decorate or deface someone’s yard or lawn with bagels. This is apparently an offshoot of a custom known as “TPing,” in which one does the same with toilet paper. TP-like bageling was awarded the “best new prank” of the year prize by The Austin Chronicle in 2004. The things they do in Texas!

  • 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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