Say It Succinctly

By Philologos

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Forward reader Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe writes to ask: “In German, Torschlusspanik means a fear of diminishing opportunities. As one gets older, for example, women worry about having passed the age for having children. Middle-aged people worry about losing their jobs and having difficulty finding new ones. Is there a Yiddish word for ‘a fear of diminishing opportunities’?”

I’m afraid there isn’t. One could, of course, copy Torschlusspanik, which means, literally, “a door-shutting panic,” and say a tirshlisung behole, but that wouldn’t mean much to the Yiddish speaker who wasn’t already familiar with the German word.

Indeed, there may be no other language on earth that has a single word for “a fear of diminishing opportunities.” This is the claim of author Howard Rheingold, who, in his 1988 book “They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases,” includes Torschlusspanik in his list of words with exotic meanings that can be found in one language alone. Although Torschlusspanik, Rheingold writes, is most widely used in German in relation to female sexual anxiety, “[its] metaphor is widely applicable. The way publishers all seem to produce their own version of a fad book as soon as one of that category is successful, the frenetic search for an affordable home when mortgage interest rates drop below a certain level, even the arms race — all are varieties of Torschlusspanik.”

Rheingold comes up with some truly wonderful words. There’s biga peula, for example, from the Kiriwina language of New Guinea, which means “potentially disruptive, unredeemable true statements” — that is, things blurted out that you afterward regret forever, not because you didn’t mean them, but because you did. And there’s Russian razbliuto, “the feeling a person has for someone he or she once loved but now does not.” Like biga peula, razbliuto is something that practically every one of us has experienced, which makes it seem strange that only Russians have a succinct way of saying it.

Or how about mamihlapinatapei, which refers, in the native language of Tierra del Fuego, to “a meaningful look, shared by two people, expressing mutual unstated feelings”? Why don’t we have a word for mamihlapinatapei in English?

To get back to Yiddish, however, I must say that, here, Rheingold’s choices are rather disappointing. For instance, the first of the several Yiddish terms that he includes in his book is aroysgevorfeneh gelt — literally, “thrown-away money” — defined as “a bad, irretrievable investment.” There’s nothing wrong with this definition, but what language in the world doesn’t have a similar expression? And to find a more colorful one you would have to go no further than Hebrew, in which to make such an investment is to put your money al keren ha-tsvi, “on the horn of a deer” — from which, as can easily be imagined, the chances of getting it back again are not great.

Rheingold could have done better in Yiddish with the word gelt. He might, for example, have chosen the expression rebe gelt, literally, “rabbi’s money,” definable as “a costly or painful experience that is worth having gone through because the lesson learned from it will prevent even more costly or painful experiences in the future.” If there’s another language besides Yiddish that can say all this in two words, I don’t know of it. In Eastern Europe, rebe gelt was, when not used metaphorically, the tuition paid to heder teachers, who had a reputation for being a harsh and wrathful class of people. Or take Rheingold’s choice of kale, “bride” (spelled by him as “kolleh”), which he speaks of as “an appropriate word to use when you want to show someone how to recognize that certain circumstances grant a kind of beauty to a person that transcends conventional aesthetic notions. It doesn’t have to be limited to brides.”

This seems to be suggesting that when you call a bride a kale in Yiddish, you are saying that, whether she is good-looking or not, she has been made beautiful by the occasion. But kale, in fact, means no such thing. It is a perfectly neutral word, just like “bride” is in English, and although one does have the expression sheyn vi a kale, “beautiful as a bride,” there is nothing inherently contradictory in Yiddish about speaking of a homely or plain-looking kale, as well. If Rheingold was looking for a unique Yiddish expression with kale in it, he should have picked khosnkaleshaft — literally “groombridehood” — which could be defined as “the state of being, or of having to adjust to being, a young married couple or a young couple planning to get married.” That would be more like mamihlapinitapei.

Of course, if Rheingold could make such a mistake in Yiddish, he might well have erred in other languages, too. How do we really know that mamihlapinitapei means what he says it does? And indeed, we don’t. Yet the overall point remains valid: Some languages can say in a few syllables what most other languages may need a long sentence to express. Perhaps it is true, as Walter Benjamin once wrote, that every language is only a fragment of the complete language of mankind, which consists of all the world’s languages combined.

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






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















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

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.