A Real Metsiya!

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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The Forward’s features editor, Erica Brody, tells me she knows a dedicated subscriber whose Yiddish-speaking family had a “hullabaloo” about the word metsiya. What precisely this “hullabaloo” was about I don’t know, but I can imagine. How many words are there that also mean their opposite and can be confused with their homonym in the title of a volume of which they are a main subject?

The Hebrew noun metsi’ah (pronounced “meh-tsee-AH”), from the verb matsa, “to find,” means something found and, by extension, a “find” or a bargain. As the Yiddish and Yinglish metsiya (pronounced “meh-TSEE-yeh”), it retains the latter two of these meanings. A metsiya can be an antique table bought at a used furniture store for $30, a ticket to a Broadway hit given to you by a friend down with the flu or the wealthy bachelor who has just gotten engaged to your cousin’s daughter. But it can also be a piece of junk bought in an antiques store for $750, a ticket to the opening night of the biggest flop in town or your cousin’s daughter’s fraud of a boyfriend turning out not to have a credit card to his name.

This is because when someone says “a metsiya,” he or she can mean one of two things: 1) It really is a metsiya; 2) It not only isn’t a metsiya, but also should never have happened to you.

In short, the word is often used sarcastically. But can one tell from the speaker’s tone of voice whether metsiya is sarcastic or not, or does this have to be guessed from the context?

Let us imagine the following two exchanges:

A: “Did you hear the news? Jennifer inherited her aunt’s apartment in London. She has to fly to England to sign the papers.”

B: “A metsiya!”

And:

A: “Did you hear the news? Jennifer inherited the tatty old sofa in her aunt’s apartment in London. She has to fly to England to get it.”

B: “A metsiya!”

Does the second of these metsiyas sound any different from the first? Not necessarily. It might if the first is genuinely enthusiastic and the second dry and deadpan — but then again it might not: Metsiya 1 could be stated matter-of-factly enough to sound sarcastic, and Metsiya 2 could be colored by feigned enthusiasm. If there’s no danger of confusion in this particular case, it’s only because an apartment is obviously worth flying to England for and an old sofa isn’t. But how about the following:

A: “I just bought three packages of frozen drumsticks in the supermarket and was given a fourth for nothing.”

B: “A metsiya!”

In this case, you would have to have some idea of how B felt about supermarkets, frozen drumsticks and shopping specials in order to know whether metsiya was sarcastic or not. You might even think it was and say something nasty when it wasn’t. That could cause a hullabaloo indeed.

Just to confuse things more, although there is a tractate of the Gemara, the talmudic commentary on the Mishna, that is called Bava Metsiya and is all about metsiyas, this happens to be pure coincidence.

In fact, if you’ve ever studied any Gemara, Bava Metsiya is very likely what you studied, since it’s traditionally the tractate that new students are started on. Perhaps this is because it discusses many homey, everyday situations, such as what to do with lost-and-found objects. Its opening debate concerns a mishnaic text that begins:

If two men are holding a cloak, one saying “I found it” and the other saying “I found it,” or one saying “It’s all mine” and the other saying “It’s all mine,” let the first person swear that he owns at least half and the second person swear that he owns at least half and let them divide it.

You’ll have to read on to find out why the cloak should be divided when one of the men is obviously lying. Here I can only tell you that while the Mishna is written in Hebrew, the Gemara is largely in Aramaic, in which Bava Metsiya means “The Middle Gate” (from Aramaic bav, “gate,” and metsiya, “middle”), a name given it because it is the second part of the corpus of Nezikin or “Torts.” The part before it is called Bava Kama or “The First Gate,” and the part after it, Bava Batra or “The Last Gate.”

Moreover, the first chapter of the tractate of Bava Metsiya, the one beginning with the cloak, is known as Sh’nayim Okhazin, because it starts with the Hebrew words for “If two men are holding.” And the next chapter is called Elu Metsi’ot, or Elu Metsiyas in its Eastern-European pronunciation, meaning “Which are the things that are found,” because it starts with the Mishna’s question: “Which are the things that are found that must be declared [so that the loser of them may have a chance to claim them]?”

Thus it is that Chapter Two of Bava Metsiya is Elu Metsiyas. And yet despite all the metsiyas in Bava Metsiya, the two words are entirely unrelated. If that’s what the hullabaloo was about, I hope this settles it.






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