Listen to Me a Chess Move?

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published December 05, 2003, issue of December 05, 2003.

From Zelde Krulewitz comes a letter asking about the Yiddish expression folg mir a gang. “I would dearly love to know,” she writes, “not only the literal translation of this phrase but its meaning and correct usage — i.e., under what circumstances one would say such a thing.”

A literal translation of folg mir a gang (folg mikh a gang in the speech of some Yiddish speakers) is more easily asked for than given. Folg is the imperative of the verb folgn, i.e., to obey, follow or listen to someone. Mir is the dative form of the first-person singular pronoun (mikh is the accusative), variously translatable as “me,” “to me,” “for me,” “from me,” et cetera. Gang is a noun defined by Uriel Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary as “walk, gait, pace, move (as in a game), errand, course, process, method, manner, habit, drift, trend, complete set, suite, gear of an automobile.”

Obey me an errand?

Listen to me a chess move?

Follow from me the advice an automobile gear?

Perhaps we should start with what folg mir a gang actually means, which isn’t any of the above. Weinreich defines it as, “It’s quite a distance.” Alexander Harkavy’s Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary gives us, “This is quite a job.”

That’s definitely an improvement. But to what could an expression meaning both “It’s quite a distance” and “This is quite a job” possibly be an appropriate response?

Which brings us to Ms. Krulewitz’s third question: When and why would you say folg mir a gang?

Well, you might say it to a friend who has just asked you to drive 40 miles to where his car has broken down. Or to a wife who has told you to fix the old vacuum cleaner that hasn’t worked in five years. Or to a husband who has phoned from work to say he’ll be home in 20 minutes with his boss and expects to find a special dinner on the table.

Folg mir a gang!

In real-life English you might say, “That’s a tall order,” or “That’s asking a lot,” or even, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

Just why folg mir a gang should mean that is a good question. Assuming that folg a gang originally meant something like “follow a [long] way,” what is the mir doing there? Wouldn’t it be more logical to have dir, the dative of the second-person singular pronoun, with folg dir a gang having the sense of “That’s a long way to have to go for you”?

The answer, I think, is that the dative case here is a peculiarly Yiddish construction that doesn’t function like the dative in English. The mir in folg mir a gang doesn’t mean “me” or “for me,” but rather “As far as I’m concerned” or “The way I feel about it is…” It’s the construction one finds in a common Yiddish phrase like zay mir gezunt, in which the mir is added to zay gezunt, “be well.”

Zay mir gezunt: “I wish you well,” “I wish you good health.”

Folg mir a gang: “I’m telling you, that’s a tall order!”

* * *

Marvin Kastenbaum of Fort Meyers, Fla., writes:

“Like many other people who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home, I retain in the recesses of my brain many old words and expressions that often pop up out of nowhere. The most recent one is kimpetorin, ‘a woman who has just given birth.’ What is its derivation? The best guess I can make is that it has to do with the biblical Hebrew word peter, ‘opening,’ as in peter-reh.em, ‘opening of the womb’ or first-born.”

Mr. Kastenbaum has made an imaginative guess, but there’s no need for so much imagination. Kimpetorin comes from German Kindbetterin, from German Kindbett, “child-bed,” whence Yiddish kimpet. Zi ligt in kimpet, “She is lying in kimpet” is the Yiddish way of saying “She is giving birth.” Kimpet also gives us kimpetkind, “a newborn child,” and kimpetbrivl or “kimpet-letter,” an amulet hung by the cradle of the newly born to protect it from the evil spirits or demons who seek to harm or kidnap it.

* * *

Finally, Bertrand Horwitz of Asheville, N.C., remembering his childhood too, recalls that “When something was great or wonderful it was called a mekhaye, and when it went beyond great to become superb, it was referred to as a mekhaye mit lokshn. What is the origin of mekhaye and why would adding lokshn rather than, say, kreplach make it superb?”

I suppose that if the phrase used in his childhood had been a mekhaye mit kreplakh, Mr. Horwitz would want to know why it wasn’t a mekhaye mit lokshn. To use another Yiddish expression, de gustibus non est disputandum. The word mekhaye (me-KHA-yeh), in any case, comes from the Hebrew meh.ayeh, “restorative” or “life-giving,” and can be used as a superlative not only for noodle and dumpling dishes but for any food or beverage, though not for most other things. A superb glass of tea, bowl of soup or dish of chopped liver can all be mekhayes; so can a superbly hot bath, a superb dip in the ocean or the superb aroma of freshly ground coffee; but not, no matter how superb, a new computer or a winning lottery ticket. If you can’t taste it, feel it or smell it, a mekhaye it isn’t.

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



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