This post is in response to “Yenta’s Dirty Roots,” which ran on The Sisterhood on February 10, 2013.
One of the many interesting things about Yiddish is that no one is entirely sure how it started. Though it originated in Medieval Europe, its exact roots are the subject of competing hypotheses among scholars.
What isn’t in doubt, however, is the origin of the term “yente,” which connotes a gossipy woman. In a February 10 blog post on The Sisterhood, Rachel Rosmarin speculated that it might have something to with the American Yiddish slang term “yentsn,” which means “to f–k.”
In fact, the word “yente” goes back to the very beginning of Yiddish, when there was a strong influence from Romance languages like Old Italian and Old French. It is derived from the name Yentl, which comes from the Old Italian word “gentile” meaning noble, or refined. In English we have words like “gentle,” “genteel” and even “gentile,” that come from the same source. In his book “Dictionary Of Jewish Usage: A Guide To The Use Of Jewish Terms,” the linguist Sol Steinmetz points out a number of Yiddish words that come from these languages, including “bentshn,” to bless, and tsholnt (or cholent), everyone’s favorite Shabbos lunch.
Over time “Yentl” also became “Yenta” through a slightly complex process involving the diminutive form of the name, “Yentele,” as explained by David Braun in this 2011 article in Pakn Treger, the magazine of the Yiddish Book Center. Yentl never disappeared however — think of the Isaac Bashevis Singer story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” later made into a film starring Barbra Streisand.
But how did a name meaning “refined” come to mean a gossip? The fault lies with the Forverts. In the 1920s and ‘30s, B. Kovner (whose real name was Jacob Adler) wrote a series of comic sketches about a henpecking wife named “Yente Telebende.” (You can read an example of Kovner’s column here.) The sketches were so popular that the name simply took on the colloquial meaning of a gossip, which it retains to this day.
“Yentsn,” on the other hand, comes form a completely different source. As Michael Wex explains in his book “Born to Kvetch” (which Rosmarin cites), “yentsn” is a made-up word that comes from the pronoun “yents,” which means simply “that” or “the other.” Thus, as Wex explains, “yentsn” originally meant ‘to do that thing which I shall refrain from naming,” and “now means nothing but ‘fuck.’” Is it possible that “yente” and “yentsn” have something to do with one another? Just to be sure, I asked Paul Glasser, dean of the Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. His response? “Absolutely not.”
One more quibble: In her post, Rosmarin casually asserts that while people know words in Yinglish, “almost nobody speaks the original tongue anymore.” In fact, according to the 2010 U.S. census, 148,155 people spoke Yiddish at home — and that’s just in the U.S.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.
Yenta's Real Yiddish History