Menorah Rotenberg of Teaneck, New Jersey writes:
“The other day, I was telling someone about a recipe that I no longer make because it is too much of a ‘potchkie’ — that is, it has too many ingredients and is too time-consuming.
“I then thought of ‘umgepotch,’ too much or over the top, as in the joke about the man in MoMA who sees a painting that is all white with a small black dot at the bottom and says to his wife, ‘I don’t like it, it’s too umpgepotch.’
“Is there any relationship between ‘potchkie’ and ‘umgepotch’ based on a Yiddish word that both derive from? And if so, what does that word actually mean?”
There most definitely is a relationship, since the Yiddish adjective ongepatshket, cluttered, messy or sloppy, is a past participle of the verb onpatshkn — which, like its alternate form of patshkn, means to soil, stain or (when applied to writing) scribble. This gives us Judeo-English “potchkie” or “potchkee,” which the eminent Leo Rosten defines in his “The Joys of Yiddish” as “1: A slap, usually playful…. 2. To fuss or ‘mess around’ inefficiently and inexpertly [as in sentences like] ‘I spent all day in the kitchen potchkeeing around,’ [or] ‘He potchkees around with paint and they call him a painter’…. 3. To dawdle, waste time.”
Perhaps in Chicago, where Rosten grew up in the early twentieth century, a “potchkee” was a playful slap, but I never heard it used that way in New York a generation later. In my own experience, a slap (and not necessarily a playful one) was a “potch,” as in, “If you don’t behave I’ll give you a potch in the tuchus.” This is also how one says “slap” in proper Yiddish, although it is then generally transliterated as patsh. Patsh comes from patshn, which is an entirely different verb from patshkn and should not be confused with it.
Confusing, too, is the fact that both verbs have possible Slavic as well as German etymons. Patshkn originally entered Yiddish either from German patzen, to stain, soil or (when the context is musical) sing off-tune, or from Polish paćkać, to smear or daub, and one of these languages must have borrowed the word from the other just as Yiddish did. The same holds true for patshn. Polish has the verb pacnać, to slap, and the interjection pac! or “slap!” (as when mimicking the sound of one object hitting another); German has patschen, to smack, slap or splash, and patsch! in the exact same sense as Polish pac! (Polish c is pronounced “ts,” while ć is like an English “ch”; in German, z is “ts” and sch is like English “sh.”) Since Germans and Poles have lived in close proximity to each other since time immemorial, it’s difficult to say who took what from whom.
In any event, the “k” of Yiddish patshkn, which distinguishes it from patshn, is clearly the influence of Polish. This same “k,” or rather its absence, also tells us that the English word “patzer,” a mediocre or sloppy doer of something, does not come from Yiddish, as it has sometimes been said to, but rather from German. While “patzer” originated in the chess world, where it refers to a poor player, one sometimes encounters it in other contexts as well. One can be a patzer — that is, an amateur whose love for an art or occupation exceeds his or her talent for it – at almost anything
As a rule, however, one doesn’t “patz around” in English. What one does is “futz around,” an expression that has generally been taken as a euphemism for “f–k around,” although it is possible that the “-tz” ending owes something to “patzer” (and perhaps to Yinglish “putz”), since the traditional American euphemisms for “f–k” are “fudge” and “frig.” While “futzing around” and “potchkying around” mean pretty much the same thing, the futzer is a bit more pathetic. One can potchkie with a certain amount of dignity and even succeed in the end, whereas futzing is intrinsically condemned to failure.
Apart from its query directed to me, Ms. Rotenberg’s letter raises two additional questions. One is her use of the word “potchkie” as a noun, as when she describes a recipe as being “too much of a potchkie.” Having never come across “potchkie” as anything but a verb (the nominal forms known to me are the gerundive “potchkying” and the Yiddish potchkerei), this leads me to ask: Is “potchkie” in this sense now part of American Jewish speech, or is it simply Ms. Rotenberg’s own idiosyncracy? I’d appreciate any knowledge you may have about this.
The same applies to Ms. Rotenberg’s spelling of “omgepotch.” Is this how some or many American Jews now pronounce the Yiddish word? Whether it is or not, in Leo Rosten’s version the incident of the all-white canvas takes place at the home of an art collector named Fleishman, who is showing his friend Meyerson, a connoisseur, the second of two paintings he has bought. The first had one black dot, and Meyerson loved it. The second, hung by Fleishman over his fireplace, has two black dots, and Meyerson takes a quick look at it, makes a face and says, “Too ongepatchket!” The Museum of Modern Art had nothing to do with it.