By Me, By You

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published October 17, 2003, issue of October 17, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In an e-mail entitled “Schadenfreude,” reader Sam Weiss of Paramus, N.J., writes about my September 5 column on foreign place names:

“I couldn’t help noticing your misuse (a classic among Yiddish speakers) of the word ‘by’ in the sentence, ‘Or take the Chinese, who don’t mind our speaking of Shanghai when by them it’s Shangkhai.’”

Before we talk about “by,” let’s look at “schadenfreude,” a German term that does not appear in my 1966 “Random House Dictionary of the English Language” but that — defined as “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others” — is found in my 1992 “American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,” indicating that it won official recognition as an English word during that 25-year period.

I don’t think anyone would object today to English’s borrowing of “schadenfreude” from German, since it is a useful word with no native English equivalent. If someone were to suggest that we should start calling a street in English a “strasse” because this is the way the Germans say it, we would find this absurd, since English has a perfectly good word of its own. But it did not have one for “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others,” which makes “schadenfreude” a welcome enrichment of the language.

And now, let us consider the case of “by,” as in “by them it’s Shangkhai” — which, as observed by Mr. Weiss (whose schadenfreude derives from the well-known satisfaction of catching a language columnist using “bad” English), derives from Yiddish. “So how’s by you?” “By me is okay” — such expressions come from the Yiddish bei. Among bei’s many meanings in a combination like bei mir, “by me,” as listed by Leo Rosten in his “Hooray For Yiddish!, are: “1. To me. 2. With me. 3. In my opinion. 4. In my house. 5. In my circle.”

Rosten attributed the original popularization of this usage in American literary and theatrical circles to the story, told by the playwright and screenwriter Samuel Raphaelson, of how, returning from a Caribbean cruise with a captain’s cap, he asked his mother how she liked it. In Rosten’s version:

“Mrs. Raphaelson surveyed her son’s splendor, read the gold braiding that said ‘Captain,’ and replied, ‘Sammy, by me you’re a captain. By you you’re a captain. But tell me, by a captain are you a captain?’”

Joking aside, I would, in attempting to determine whether “by them it’s Shangkhai” is “bad” English, put two questions to Mr. Weiss. The first is: Is it permissible for English to borrow from other languages, not just single words like “schadenfreude,” but a whole series of lexically generated expressions like “by…”? And the second question is: If it is permissible, on the condition that such expressions be linguistically enriching like “schadenfreude,” does “by ….” as used in Yiddish meet this requirement?

To Question 1, I can only answer: I don’t see why not. Modern English has done this before — think, for example, of the borrowing of the Latin cum in such combinations as “apartment-cum-studio” or “salary-cum-expenses.” Although cum in Latin simply means “with,” its function in English as a verbal plus sign indicating the whole formed by two parts distinguishes it from “with” and justifies its use.

As for Question 2, one way of telling whether the Yiddish-influenced “by….” does or does not enrich English might be to see what happens when we substitute a more conventional English expression for it. Does, for example, Samuel Raphaelson’s story lose something if Mrs Raphaelson says to her son, “Sammy, in my opinion you’re a captain and in your opinion you’re a captain, but in the opinion of a captain are you a captain?”

Clearly, it does. It’s not as funny. But why not? Solely because “by me you’re a captain…” is Yiddish-influenced speech, and the comedy lies in the opposition between the pretentiously WASPy cap and the homey, immigrant Jewish mother. But in that case, it should be just as funny if Mrs. Samuelson were to say with a Yiddish accent, “Semmy, I t’ink you’re a captain and you t’ink you’re a captain, but does the captain t’ink you’re a captain?” — and it isn’t, not quite. What’s missing in “I t’ink” and present in “by me” is the perception that whether someone is a captain or not does not just depend on what different people think about it. It depends on the knowledge, background, values, skills, competence and social world of the people doing the thinking — in a word, on those concentric circles of inclusiveness indicated by Rosen in defining “by me” as “…. in my opinion, in my house, in my circle” — and no circles could be further apart than Mrs. Samuelson’s and a sea captain’s.

This inclusiveness, and the often comic ambiguity as to exactly which of these circles one is referring when one says “by me,” does make it, I think, an expression that enriches the English language and therefore has its justifiable uses when writing or speaking it. I wouldn’t use it too often, or on too formal an occasion, but by me, Mr. Weiss, saying “by them it’s Shangkhai” isn’t a mistake or an “incorrect” Yiddishism. It’s as legitimate an English usage as “schadenfreude.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • "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?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • 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.