A Hill of Bupkis


By Philologos

Published August 19, 2005, issue of August 19, 2005.
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Bert Horwitz writes:

“In The Wall Street Journal of July 29, under the headline ‘Inside the World of Corporate Finance and Wall Street,’ I was surprised to read a story that ended by declaring that a search for information had ‘turned up bupkis.’ ‘Bupkis’ is a word that I have been recently hearing, even more than ‘chutzpah,’ spoken by ordinary Americans. Yet when I checked an unabridged English dictionary for it, I found, well, bupkis. Undaunted, I went to my Weinreich and my Harkavy Yiddish-English dictionaries — bupkis again. My wife had the same result with her German-Yiddish dictionary. Could you please explain the subtle meaning and origin of ‘bupkis’ and how it differs, say, from ‘gornisht’?”

Mr. Horwitz’s inability to find “bupkis” in a good English dictionary can be explained by the word’s meteoric rise. Ten years ago, I daresay, The Wall Street Journal wouldn’t have printed it, nor would the Journal’s non-Jewish readers have known what it meant. It’s a good bet that 10 years from now, no good English dictionary in print will be without it. “Bupkis” is, in fact, an excellent illustration of how, 100 years after the peak of the great Eastern European Jewish immigration to the United States, new Yiddish words continue to find their way into ordinary English.

On the other hand, Mr. Horwitz’s missed “bupkis” in Alexander Harkavy’s 1925 Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary (a better place to look than Uriel Weinreich’s 1968 Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary) because he consulted the wrong spelling. Had he looked under bobkes, which is how (with the “o” like the vowel in English “or”) Eastern European speakers of Yiddish pronounced the word, he would have found both “Bobke. Dung of sheep or goats” and “Bobkes! Nonsense!”

Yinglish “bupkis,” of course, does not mean nonsense but rather something of no or little value, and Yiddish bobkes can have this meaning, too. On the face of it, it’s obvious why it should. Dung is dung, and just as we have English “bulls—t,” so we have the Yiddish version. (The only difference is that neither “bupkis” nor bobkes is vulgar, although they are perhaps just racy enough for Weinreich, who was a bit of a prude about these things, to have barred them from his dictionary.) Bobke is the diminutive form of bob, the Yiddish word for a broad bean that has a Slavic origin (compare Polish bob, Russian bob, Ukrainian byb, etc.). Indeed, since broad beans (or fava beans, as they often are called), though green in the pod, turn brown when cooked — and since the dung of goats and sheep, unlike that of cows and horses, consists of small, beanlike pellets — the connection between Yiddish bob and bobke is obvious, too.

And yet when one reflects further on the matter, a doubt arises. No less than dung, beans, too, are used by many languages to denote something worthless. Thus, we have English, “It isn’t worth beans”; French, “Des haricots!” — “Beans!” or “Nothing doing!”; German, kuemmern sich nicht die Bohne darum — not to give a “bean” or damn, for something, and so on. Slavic languages have similar expressions. Zadac komu bobu, to give someone a bean, means to take advantage of someone in Polish, while Russian ostatsya na babakh, to be left with beans, means to be taken advantage of.

Is the original bobkes of “bupkis,” therefore, dung or beans? On the one hand, dung seems the better choice, since Yiddish dictionaries do not list a diminutive form bobke, meaning “little bean.” Yet, on the other hand, diminutives can be added freely to almost any word in Yiddish — and Polish does have the diminutive bobik, another translation of bean. If beans all over the world symbolize what has no value, isn’t it likely that they once did the same in Yiddish?

Although this is admittedly a somewhat academic question, it is interesting to speculate why beans have such a low reputation. Is it because they are the cheapest form of concentrated protein, an indispensable part of the diet of poor people all over the world who cannot afford meat? Because eating them produces certain well-known digestive symptoms that are not as funny to live with as to joke about? Because fresh fava beans (and bear in mind that until the discovery of America, these were the only beans known in Europe, Asia and the Middle East) can produce a sometimes deadly allergic reaction called favism? Whatever the answer, the prejudice against beans is old. “Eating fava beans and gnawing on the heads of one’s parents are one and the same,” went a rather peculiar saying of the ancient Greek Orphics.

Are bobkes, asks Mr. Horwitz, different from gornisht, which is Yiddish for “nothing”? In one sense, they are: Nothing is the absence of something, while bupkis is something that’s worth nothing. Yet as used by a growing number of Americans, this fine distinction is being erased. For them, the only difference between bupkis and gornisht is that gornisht hasn’t yet made it to The Wall Street Journal.

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

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