Sniffing Out a Devil or Two
Dr. Cyril Sherer writes:
“Perhaps you can help me with some words I heard during my childhood. (I am now 89.) I grew up in the East End of London, speaking Yiddish with my immigrant grandparents. My vocabulary at that time was limited, since our only subject was food. My father, who was British-born, spoke a good deal of Yiddish at home, and there was one phrase he used when he was exasperated, which was frequently. It sounded like ‘khapssen der riach’ or ‘khapshen der riach.’ Have you any idea what this could be?”
What Dr. Sherer’s father said when frequently exasperated was “Khapt shoyn der ruekh” — literally, “The devil take it,” although in contemporary English we would be more likely to say “Goddamn it” or “To hell with it.” The phrase is composed of the third-person imperative of the verb khapn, “to grab” or “take”; the versatile Yiddish adverb shoyn, “already,” which acts here as an intensifier or signifier of impatience (as it does in a Yinglish sentence like “To hell with it already!”); the definite article der, and ruekh (from Hebrew ru’aḥ), an evil spirit. Dr. Sherer’s father’s pronunciation of riakh would tend to place his family’s origins in the Southeastern Yiddish speech area, which encompassed southern Poland, Galicia, Ukraine and the Carpathian Mountains.
And this from Bert Horwitz of Asheville, N.C.:
“My wife and I are unable to agree about the meaning and derivation of the Yiddish word for ‘smelling’ or ‘to smell.’ I claim that it’s shmekn. She says that it can’t be, because shmekn is the same verb as German schmecken, which means ‘to taste,’ not ‘to smell.’ Who is right?”
Like the rabbi in the old joke, I can only say that Mr. Horwitz and his wife are both right. Shmekn in Yiddish means ‘to smell,’ schmecken in German means ‘to taste,’ and the two are, historically speaking, the same word.
That’s how it sometimes is in related languages. The French call such words faux amis, “false friends,’ and French and English have many of them. Thus, for example, even though the English verb “to assist” comes from French assister, j’assiste in French means not “I’m helping,” but “I’m attending” (as in, “I’m attending a conference”) and j’attend means not “I’m attending,” but “I’m waiting.” Such “false friends” can often mislead us into thinking that we have understood one language on the basis of another, as they did Mr. Horwitz’s wife.
“To smell” in German is riechen, from Old German riecchan, a cognate of our less pleasant English “to reek.” In Yiddish, however, there is no such verb, its place having been taken by shmekn, while “to taste” is farzukhn, like German versuchen. Although the primary meaning of versuchen in German is “to try,” it can also mean “to sample” or “to take a taste of,” just as we might say in English, “Try this apple pie.” In Yiddish, on the other hand, farzukhn means only “to taste,” and “to try” is pruvn, thus making farzukhn and versuchen “false friends,” just as shmekn and schmecken are.
Since smelling and tasting are associated activities (our sense of smell is so much part of our sense of taste that we taste less when our noses are stuffed), there’s nothing very strange about a word for one such activity turning into a word for the other. Yet did German schmecken originally mean “to taste” and change its meaning to “to smell” in Yiddish, or did it originally mean “to smell” and change its meaning to “to taste” in German? In theory, it could have happened either way.
In actual fact, the change took place in Yiddish. We know this not only from old German sources, but also from schmecken’s English cognate of “to smack” of something. Although today this is a verb that is used only abstractly, as in, “That smacks of favoritism,” it once meant “to taste” in the full sense of the word, as in an old English rhyme, “Though pepper be black, it has a good smack.” Since German and English are sister languages going back to a single, prehistoric parent, schmecken/smack’s joint ancestor must have meant “to taste,” too.
This leads to a second question. Assuming that early Yiddish had a word for “to smell” like Old German riecchan, did it first lose riecchan, then have shmekn change it meaning to take riecchan’s place and then have farzukhn occupy the place vacated by shmekn? Or did farzukhn first replace shmekn, which then replaced riecchan?
A moment’s reflection tells us that the latter was probably the case. After all, riecchan couldn’t just have disappeared by itself and left Yiddish with no word for “to smell” at all. What must have happened was, first, that farzukhn lost its primary meaning of “to try” and came to mean only “to taste”; second, that shmekn, rendered redundant by this development, lost its meaning of “to taste” and took on the meaning of “to smell,” and third, that riecchan, rendered redundant by shmekn, disappeared entirely. Words in a language can behave like species in a forest, competing for living space, driving one another out of customary niches, and either mutating and finding a new niche or becoming extinct. In Yiddish, shmekn found one. Riecchan didn’t.