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Drinking and Writing

In a column two weeks ago titled “Dispatches From the Great Vodka War,” veteran New York Times journalist Serge Schmemann, a fancier of the drink, had a paragraph discussing some words for it. “Vodka,” he wrote there, “is a Russian word, a diminutive of ‘water’… The Poles may put ‘vodka’ on their bottles, but among themselves they call it ‘gorzalka’ (it’s ‘horilka’ in Ukrainian), from the root ‘to burn,’ which tells you something about their stuff.”

Schmemann may be a maven in vodka (although not if you ask an insulted Polish-born friend of mine), but he isn’t much of one in Polish. In the first place, the Poles regularly call vodka wódka, as do the Russians. And secondly, while deriving from the verb gorzeł, to burn, gorzałka, which can refer to any hard liquor or brandy and not just to vodka, is called that not because it burns but because it is “burned.” (Ditto horilka.) It is the Polish equivalent of — and, in all likelihood, originated in — German Branntwein, “burned wine” or brandy, which in turn comes from Dutch brandewijn. From the latter also descends English “brandy,” which was shortened from “brandywine” in the 17th century.

Brandy is “burned wine,” because it is distilled from wine that is heated in a still or pot — once upon a time, this was done over an open fire — until some of its liquid, including all its alcohol (whose boiling point is lower than water’s), evaporates. The vapors then pass through a tube into a second, cooler pot in which they condense, their alcohol content now much higher than the original wine’s, and the distillation is generally repeated a second time. The same process, brought to bear on fermented fruit juice, or fermented grain or potato mash, yields other such spirits as applejack, kirschwasser, vodka, scotch, rye, bourbon, aquavit, gin and so on.

It’s from German Branntwein that we get our Yiddish bronfn — which, like Polish gorzałka and German “schnapps,” does not necessarily mean brandy (a word referring specifically to distilled wine) and can denote any hard liquor. Indeed, among Yiddish speakers in such countries as Russia and Poland, where this sort of liquor was almost always vodka, bronfn almost always meant vodka. (Schmemann’s incorrect remark about Polish could actually apply to Yiddish, whose speakers rarely used the Polish and Russian words wódka or vodka.) It makes me smile when, reading in English translation some Yiddish story or novel set in an Eastern European shtetl, I come across a sentence such as “Lomir trinken a bisl bronfn,” rendered as “Let’s have a bit of brandy.” As if the average Jew in such places had ever seen a bottle of brandy — a very expensive drink — in his life!

Yiddish has two other words for distilled spirits besides bronfn. The more common of the two is mashke, from Hebrew mashkeh, which in Hebrew simply means “beverage” and has to be qualified by the adjective h.arif, “strong,” to become liquor. The other word is yash, an acronym of Hebrew yeyn saraf or yayin saruf — that is, “burned wine.” Like bronfn and mashke, yash can refer to any hard liquor: vodka in Russia, it could mean grappa in Italy, slivovitz in Yugoslavia and calvados in Normandy. The closest English equivalent to all three might perhaps be “booze,” which has, however, a somewhat pejorative connotation that the Yiddish words do not.

Yash goes back to the rabbinic literature of the Middle Ages and is one of those lovely old Hebrew words that have vanished from modern Israeli Hebrew, in which liquor in general, as I have said, is mashkeh h.arif, and brandy is konyak. This has not yet, to the best of my knowledge, caused a suit to be filed by the cognac makers of France, who several years ago took successful legal action to have “cognac” removed from the label of any brandy not produced from white wine made out of grapes grown in the vicinity of Cognac, a city in southwest France. Israelis are not easily intimidated — and besides, while there may be class actions in which 5 million people sue a city, how can a city sue 5 million people?

A number of you, including Vincent Daly, David Levine, Stephen Menn and Sheldon Stolowich, have written to point out that I incorrectly stated in my column of April 6 that William Liebknecht, editor of the German socialist newspaper Vorwärts, was executed, along with Rosa Luxemburg, for playing a part in the 1919 Spartacus uprising in Germany. It was in fact Liebknecht’s son, Karl Liebknecht, who was the Spartacist. William, who was born in 1826, died in 1900, and would in any case have been a bit too old in 1919 to have been manning the barricades with Luxemburg.

Also, from Arieh Lebowitz comes the information that in 1896, a year before the Yiddish Forward’s founding, a Greek socialist-anarchist newspaper named Epi ta Proso, meaning “Forward,” began to appear in the Greek city of Patras in the Peloponnese. Since the editors of Epi ta Proso were soon after arrested by the Greek authorities for their alleged involvement in the headline-making anarchist assassination of a wealthy Patras banker, it’s not impossible that Abraham Cahan and the founders of the Forward had heard of the publication.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].


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