Plant Names in Yiddish

‘Di geviksn-velt in yidish,” or, as it is titled in English, “Plant Names in Yiddish,”is a volume of botanical terminology, in part assembled and in part newly coined by Yiddish linguist and scholar Mordkhe Schaechter, that recently has been published by New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. It is both an impressive work and a historical curiosity.

Why a historical curiosity? Well, you tell me: How many people in the world today are interested in knowing that the madrone, or Arbutus andrachne, to give this tree found in the American West its scientific name, should be called in Yiddish a mayriv-amerikaner pozemke-boym? (This term, invented by Schaechter and translatable as “west American wild strawberry tree,” is perfectly logical. The madrone’s fruit resembles a strawberry, and the tree’s Spanish name of madroño, from which the English descends, derives from a probable medieval Spanish word morotonu, related to Spanish dialectal meruendano or morodo, meaning strawberry or blueberry. Other varieties of Arbutus are also known as “strawberry trees” in various European languages.)

Now multiply. How many people are interested in knowing thousands of such Yiddish terms? Yiddish, alas, has long since ceased to be a language in which botanical studies are conducted, and its only current perpetuators, the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic communities of the United States, Israel and a few other countries, have about as much interest in botany as most botanists have in the Talmud. Just for whom, one might ask, was this large book, the product of so many years of scholarly labor and ingenuity, compiled?

For those who believe that Yiddish has a long-term spoken future, of course, such a question may seem irrelevant or even impertinent. Yiddish, they will answer, is a living language, and living languages need books on botany, too! Can I swear that the day will never come on which a curious young Hasid in New York or Jerusalem will want to know what to call a madrone tree in Yiddish?

Indeed I can’t. But Schaechter’s book has great value even if that hoped-for day never arrives. After all, even if Yiddish does not have a glorious future, it has a glorious past — and native speakers of it, as well as students of Yiddish literature in the original, will be happy to find in “Di geviksn-velt in yidish” hundreds of botanical terms, encountered by them in their childhoods or in their reading, that cannot be found in ordinary dictionaries. (Unfortunately, these terms are listed alphabetically only in English-to-Yiddish, not Yiddish-to-English, and this limits the book’s usefulness.)

As Schaechter points out in an illuminating introduction, Yiddish, contrary to the conventional wisdom that its botanical terminology was extremely limited (a corollary of the equally false belief that Eastern European Jews had little contact with nature), was in fact rich in words for trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants. This vocabulary, however, was highly regional and differed greatly from place to place. Thus, to take one example, in different parts of Eastern Europe a sunflower was known as a zunroyz, royz, zunblum, levone-kveyt, levone-tshatshke, soneshnik, shontshenik, tshondzhenik, aylbit, shaynperl, zumerglants, eyerblime, and tabikblime. In the absence of standardized forms, Yiddish authors tended to use whichever of these words they grew up with.

As in other areas, Yiddish was influenced in its botanical terminology by Jewish traditions and associations. Among the examples that Schaechter gives are shayne-boym for a willow tree, from hoshaynes (Hebrew hosha’not), the prayers said with willow branches on the Feast of Tabernacles; tishebovlekh for burrs (from the fast day of Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, on which children customarily amused themselves by throwing burrs into grown-ups’ beards and hair; and khazer-eplekh, “pig apples,” for tomatoes, which were superstitiously considered to be poisonous and thus no more kosher than pork.

Sometimes, originally non-Jewish terms were given Jewish folk etymologies. One interesting case discussed by Schaechter is that of a variety of pears known in some places as nile-barlekh or ne’ilah pears, after the closing prayer on Yom Kippur, and in others as yenkipper-barlekh or kol-nidrei barlekh. Challenging the accepted notion that they were so called because they ripened at the time of the Day of Atonement (most other pear varieties, he points out, ripened then, too), Schaechter plausibly argues that the oldest word for them, nile-barlekh, derives from Ukrainian hrusa hnyla or “hnyla pear.” Interpreting the Ukrainian word as a Jewish liturgical one, Jews then invented still other Yom Kippur-related terms for this fruit.

There is something heroic about a devotion to Yiddish that insists on treating it as the equivalent of any other major language with the same need for a panoply of technical terms in all walks of life. And yet one wonders about the desire to maintain such an illusion. Linguistic studies of old Yiddish words can be fascinating and instructive; attempts to coin new ones for Fucus vesiculosus, the bladderwrack rockweed (penkher-fukus), or Desmodium gyrans, the telegraph tickclover (telegrafke), strike one as a charming yet ultimately eccentric hobby. But perhaps our botanical Hasid will yet come along.

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