‘Dear Philologos: Can this be? It’s not some etymological sleight of hand from an antisemitic cabal? Say it isn’t so, please!”
These heartfelt words come from Ruth Seldin of White Plains, N.Y., who is devastated to learn that the word “kaput” does not have a Jewish origin. Browsing in the Merriam-Webster “Word a Day” Web site, she writes, she found the following explanation of it:
“‘Kaput’ originated with a card game called Piquet that has been popular in France for centuries. French players originally used the term capot to describe both big winners and big losers. To win all 12 tricks in a hand was called faire capot (“to make capot”), but to lose them all was known as etre capot (“to be capot”). German speakers adopted capot, but respelled it kaput, and used it only for losers. When English speakers borrowed the word from German, they started using ‘kaput’ for things that were broken, useless, or destroyed.”
Although I wish I could say it ain’t so, it is. The Merriam-Webster etymology for “kaput” is correct, even if it is inexact to say that it was English speakers who started using the word for “things broken, useless, or destroyed.” Capot and kaputt were used this way in both French and German well before “kaput” entered English, which seems to have happened in the late 19th century, although Eric Partridge’s 1937 Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English intriguingly cites a Devonshire dialect expression “to go capooch,” meaning “to die,” as having been recorded slightly earlier.
Piquet itself is a very old game that is said, possibly apocryphally, to have been invented by a Frenchman of that name for the amusement of King Charles VI (1368-1422), also known as Charles the Mad and Charles the Well Beloved. It is one of a large number of card games, such as bridge, whist, pinochle, clobyosh, klaberjas, Sixty-Six and so on, in which two, three or four players, each having been dealt a hand from the deck, bid for the right to win a declared number of “tricks” or points — a “trick” being a round in which every player lays a card on the table and the highest card captures the others.
Although these games differ in endless details, they all have certain things in common, such as a numerical value assigned to all the picture cards and the existence of “trump” — a strong suit, the lowest card of which takes the highest card in every other suit. A version of Piquet called belote is still highly popular in France, and a capot or total victory for one side, in which every trick is won by it, remains a standard belote term. Generally, belote games end when one side has amassed 1,000 or 2,000 points, one of several features that make the game a close relative of an Eastern European card game that some of you might know as “a thousand.”
Why faire and etre capot came to mean what they did is not entirely clear. Capot entered French from Provencal and apparently derives from Provencal cap, meaning “head”; cap also forms part of French chavirer, “to capsize,” from Provencal cap virar, to be turned on one’s head or overturned. Cap virar in turn is related to the archaic Spanish word for “capsize,” capuzar, which is in all likelihood where English “capsize” comes from. Thus, faire and etre capot probably had the original meaning of “sinking” or “being sunk by” one’s opponent. Already in use as a French card term by the 17th century, capot was borrowed by the Germans during that age’s Thirty Years War and given the sense of “rout” or “defeat.” Its subsequent meaning of “broken” appears also to have originated in German and subsequently became something of an international word.
This is why one should not feel too bad about thinking that kaput comes from Yiddish, because geyn kaput and vern kaput, in the sense of to die, be lost or perish, are indeed good Yiddish expressions, and it is quite possible that Ms. Selden first came across “kaput” in Yiddish or Jewish conversation before encountering it elsewhere. The word occurs in many other European languages, too, such as Polish kapyto, Dutch kapotte, Russian kaput and so on.
Indeed, since — apart from Partridge’s citation of Devonshire dialect — “kaput” does not turn up in English until after the beginning of the massive Eastern European Jewish immigration of the late 19th century, one cannot rule out totally the possibility that the word actually did enter ordinary English usage via, or with the help of, Jews. Words, like other things, are sometimes multi-determined; although the Merrian-Webster Web site is almost certainly right that English first borrowed “kaput” from German, Yiddish still could have been a reinforcing element. That’s the most I can do for you, Ruth Selden, and I hope it’s comfort of a kind.