Scooping Up Satisfaction

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published July 15, 2005, issue of July 15, 2005.
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This letter comes from Esther Tabak:

“I have to ask you about an expression I grew up with: ‘sheb nakhes,’ which refers to the nakhes or satisfaction we get from life’s gifts, such as the pleasures associated with children and grandchildren. No matter what area of the world a Yiddish speaker comes from, every one of them seems to use the same expression. Now I am reading a book written and published in Great Britain, and the expression appears there as ‘shlep nakhes.’ Is this an error on the part of the author?”

My first reaction was to think that it was. Indeed, Ms. Tabak’s version of sheb nakhes struck me as erroneous, too, since I have only encountered the phrase as shep nakhes. “B” and “p” are, of course, closely related sounds, and I would, out of curiosity, throw Ms. Tabak’s question back at her: Is sheb nakhes purely her own idiosyncrasy, or is it a variant that belongs to a speech community of which she is a member?

However, getting back to shep (from the Yiddish verb shepn, to draw or scoop something up, as water from a well) versus shlep (from shlepn, to pull, drag or carry burdensomely): Much to my surprise, it turns that not only is shlep nakhes just the private error of our British author, but it also isn’t even an error unique to English speakers, some of whom might be expected to confuse shep with shlep because shlep is a common and freely used Yinglishism, whereas Yinglish shep occurs only in conjunction with nakhes. My authority for saying this is an exchange on the Yiddish Web site Mendele that took place exactly 10 years ago, on July 15, 1995. There, in a discussion of this same issue, Mendele correspondent Arre Komar wrote:

“As to ‘shepn’ vs. ‘shlepn nakhes,’ I have always heard the idiom used as ‘shlepn’ rather than ‘shepn.’ I have also inquired among Yiddish speakers vos shtamn fun di zelber gegent [who come from the same area], un zey aykhet zogn shlepn un nit shepn [and they also say ‘shlepn’ instead of ‘shepn’]. I always understood the idiom to mean that the deeds that provided the nakhes were hard to observe or appreciate, except by a doting parent. Hence shlep and not shep.”

Although Komar did not say to which area he was referring, a phonetic analysis of his English transcription of Yiddish points to Lithuania. Why would Yiddish speakers in Lithuania have said shlepn nakhes instead of shepn nakhes? These things don’t always have a reason, but it is worth observing that while shlepn nakhes is an idiom that, despite Komar’s commentary, doesn’t make a great deal of literal sense (why should one have to “pull” or “drag” satisfaction?), shepn nakhes doesn’t make much more sense (how does one “scoop up” satisfaction?). This may help explain why, faced with two equally illogical-seeming alternatives, Yiddish speakers somewhere in Lithuania chose the “wrong” option instead of the “right” one.

Where does the expression shepn nakhes actually come from? As often turns out to be the case with Yiddish expressions, the answer probably lies in the Bible. Yiddish nakhes comes from Hebrew nah.at, “tranquility” or “contentment,” words with only a few biblical occurrences. One of these is in the verse in Ecclesiastes, Tov m’lo khaf nah.at mim’lo h.ofnayim amal u’re’ut ru’ah., “Better a handful of tranquility [nah.at] than two hands full of toil and vexation” — or, to paraphrase it in contemporary English, “Better to relax and enjoy life than always to strive and be frustrated.”

The image of a “handful” and “two hands full” on which this verse is based suggests the act of reaching into something — a sack of wheat, a pot of food, a bucket of water or whatever — and scooping up, or trying to scoop up, its contents. It’s wiser, the Bible tells us, to scoop up less and get pleasure from it than to scoop up more and have to struggle to keep it.

In Yiddish, as we have said, to scoop is shepn. It’s easy to imagine old Yiddish translations of this biblical verse that would have gone something like, besser shepn nakhes mit eyn hant eyder pratze un reytz mit tsvey hent, “Better to scoop nakhes with one hand than toil and vexation with two hands.” From here, it would have been but a short step to a Yiddish idiom, shepn nakhes.

In modern Hebrew, shepn nakhes is lisbo’a nah.at, from the verb sava, to be satisfied or sated with. Almost certainly the choice of this verb was influenced by Yiddish shepn, to which it bears a resemblance in sound if not in meaning. Once again we have a case in which Hebrew first had an effect on Yiddish, and then, in a linguistic turnaround, was affected by it. Throughout their history, the two languages have had this kind of symbiotic relationship, each being the lender and borrower in turn.

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






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