Answering a Reader Who Tried and Tried Again

By Philologos

Published October 20, 2006, issue of October 20, 2006.
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Doris Gahler does not give up easily. Like many of you, she found that her first e-mail to me received no answer. There are good reasons for this when it happens. They include: 1) Laziness; 2) Procrastination; 3) Lack of space in my next columns; 4) Not knowing the answer to your question; 5) Having already answered your question in a previous column. In a perfect world I would write back to each of you and let you know into which category you fall, but alas, although the world, so we are told by the first Torah reading from the book of Genesis recited in synagogue this week, was created perfect, it did not last that way for long.

Unlike most of you, however, Ms. Gahler tried again and wrote me a second time, chiding me:

“This is my second request because I would really like to know the answer. What is the origin of the word untam? It means a clumsy person and seems to be used only by German Jews. I have yet to meet a Yiddish speaker who knew this expression. Why is this so?”

And because there is a limit to procrastination, and I have no other topic to address this week, and I have never answered this question before, and I even know what the answer to it is, here goes.

When Ms. Gahler refers to “speakers of Yiddish,” she has in mind, of course, speakers of Eastern-European Yiddish as it was spoken until recently in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Russia. But there was also, although it is today an extinct language, and was for all practical purposes already one by the time of the Second World War, such a thing as Western-European Yiddish, which as late as the early-19th century was still the daily tongue of hundreds of thousands of German, Dutch, Swiss, and Alsatian Jews. Like its Eastern-European counterpart, it was written in Hebrew characters and had a Germanic base with a heavy admixture of Hebrew words, though it naturally lacked the Slavic component of the Yiddish spoken further east.

The relationship between Eastern and Western Yiddish is a matter of scholarly contention. Did Eastern Yiddish develop from Western Yiddish, as most Yiddish linguists think, when Jews migrated eastward and northward from Germany in the middle ages? Or was it rather, as others hold, an independent development that paralleled that of Western Yiddish but did not stem from it directly? Although I tend to agree with the former view, the question (which I have written about in the past) is a complicated one, having to do with such issues as medieval Jewish demography and migration routes, German dialectology, the previous language or languages of the first Eastern-European Yiddish speakers, et cetera.

In any event, while Eastern and Western Yiddish shared a great deal of vocabulary in common, both of Germanic and Hebraic provenance, each also had many words and expressions that the other did not, or else used the same words and expressions differently. For instance: Whereas the Hebrew word bitah.on, “faith,” “trust” or “confidence,” turns up in Eastern Yiddish as bitokhn, and also as betukhes, “self-assurance,” the adjective betukhte, “trustworthy,” is found only in Western Yiddish. Similarly, the Hebrew word shakhen, “neighbor,” gives us Eastern Yiddish in shkhenis mit, “next to,” and shkhenisdik, “adjacent,” but not shkhune, “neighborhood,” as in Western Yiddish.

To turn now to untam: The first thing to say about it is that Ms. Gahler’s informants were not entirely accurate in what they told her. Although there is indeed no such word as untam meaning “clumsy” in Eastern Yiddish, there is a word umtam meaning “distaste,” as in er hot gekukt af im mit umtam, “he regarded him with distaste” — and a moment’s reflection will convince us that we are really talking about the same word.

In old Western Yiddish texts untam is spelled mrh-pe`, thus making it clear that it is composed of the Hebrew word ta’am, “taste,” “point” or “sense,” and the German negativizing prefix un-, which functions exactly as “un-” does in English words like “unattractive” or “unappealing.” An untam was originally, therefore, something tasteless or senseless, and by extension, a tasteless or senseless person — and it is easy to see how such a word could eventually have come to mean “clumsy.” There is not, after all, a great difference between saying “she’s a tasteless dresser” and “she’s a clumsy dresser,” or between “he spoke senselessly” and “he spoke clumsily.”

Since German and Western Yiddish un- regularly becomes um- in Eastern Yiddish, untam became umtam while changing its meaning from “tasteless” to “distaste.” “Tasteless” in Eastern Yiddish is on a tam, i.e., “without a ta’am,” which also means “pointless,” as in the expression on a tam un on a gram, “without rhyme or reason.” And how do you say “clumsy” in the Yiddish of Eastern Europe? That’s umgelumpert or leppish. No doubt this is what fooled the Yiddish speakers whom Doris Gahler consulted. I’m glad she persevered.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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