Plant Names in Yiddish


By Philologos

Published September 09, 2005, issue of September 09, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

‘Di geviksn-velt in yidish,” or, as it is titled in English, “Plant Names in Yiddish,” is a volume of botanical terminology, in part assembled and in part newly coined by Yiddish linguist and scholar Mordkhe Schaechter, that recently has been published by New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. It is both an impressive work and a historical curiosity.

Why a historical curiosity? Well, you tell me: How many people in the world today are interested in knowing that the madrone, or Arbutus andrachne, to give this tree found in the American West its scientific name, should be called in Yiddish a mayriv-amerikaner pozemke-boym? (This term, invented by Schaechter and translatable as “west American wild strawberry tree,” is perfectly logical. The madrone’s fruit resembles a strawberry, and the tree’s Spanish name of madroño, from which the English descends, derives from a probable medieval Spanish word morotonu, related to Spanish dialectal meruendano or morodo, meaning strawberry or blueberry. Other varieties of Arbutus are also known as “strawberry trees” in various European languages.)

Now multiply. How many people are interested in knowing thousands of such Yiddish terms? Yiddish, alas, has long since ceased to be a language in which botanical studies are conducted, and its only current perpetuators, the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic communities of the United States, Israel and a few other countries, have about as much interest in botany as most botanists have in the Talmud. Just for whom, one might ask, was this large book, the product of so many years of scholarly labor and ingenuity, compiled?

For those who believe that Yiddish has a long-term spoken future, of course, such a question may seem irrelevant or even impertinent. Yiddish, they will answer, is a living language, and living languages need books on botany, too! Can I swear that the day will never come on which a curious young Hasid in New York or Jerusalem will want to know what to call a madrone tree in Yiddish?

Indeed I can’t. But Schaechter’s book has great value even if that hoped-for day never arrives. After all, even if Yiddish does not have a glorious future, it has a glorious past — and native speakers of it, as well as students of Yiddish literature in the original, will be happy to find in “Di geviksn-velt in yidish” hundreds of botanical terms, encountered by them in their childhoods or in their reading, that cannot be found in ordinary dictionaries. (Unfortunately, these terms are listed alphabetically only in English-to-Yiddish, not Yiddish-to-English, and this limits the book’s usefulness.)

As Schaechter points out in an illuminating introduction, Yiddish, contrary to the conventional wisdom that its botanical terminology was extremely limited (a corollary of the equally false belief that Eastern European Jews had little contact with nature), was in fact rich in words for trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants. This vocabulary, however, was highly regional and differed greatly from place to place. Thus, to take one example, in different parts of Eastern Europe a sunflower was known as a zunroyz, royz, zunblum, levone-kveyt, levone-tshatshke, soneshnik, shontshenik, tshondzhenik, aylbit, shaynperl, zumerglants, eyerblime, and tabikblime. In the absence of standardized forms, Yiddish authors tended to use whichever of these words they grew up with.

As in other areas, Yiddish was influenced in its botanical terminology by Jewish traditions and associations. Among the examples that Schaechter gives are shayne-boym for a willow tree, from hoshaynes (Hebrew hosha’not), the prayers said with willow branches on the Feast of Tabernacles; tishebovlekh for burrs (from the fast day of Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, on which children customarily amused themselves by throwing burrs into grown-ups’ beards and hair; and khazer-eplekh, “pig apples,” for tomatoes, which were superstitiously considered to be poisonous and thus no more kosher than pork.

Sometimes, originally non-Jewish terms were given Jewish folk etymologies. One interesting case discussed by Schaechter is that of a variety of pears known in some places as nile-barlekh or ne’ilah pears, after the closing prayer on Yom Kippur, and in others as yenkipper-barlekh or kol-nidrei barlekh. Challenging the accepted notion that they were so called because they ripened at the time of the Day of Atonement (most other pear varieties, he points out, ripened then, too), Schaechter plausibly argues that the oldest word for them, nile-barlekh, derives from Ukrainian hrusa hnyla or “hnyla pear.” Interpreting the Ukrainian word as a Jewish liturgical one, Jews then invented still other Yom Kippur-related terms for this fruit.

There is something heroic about a devotion to Yiddish that insists on treating it as the equivalent of any other major language with the same need for a panoply of technical terms in all walks of life. And yet one wonders about the desire to maintain such an illusion. Linguistic studies of old Yiddish words can be fascinating and instructive; attempts to coin new ones for Fucus vesiculosus, the bladderwrack rockweed (penkher-fukus), or Desmodium gyrans, the telegraph tickclover (telegrafke), strike one as a charming yet ultimately eccentric hobby. But perhaps our botanical Hasid will yet come along.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

Find us on Facebook!
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.