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By Me, By You

In an e-mail entitled “Schadenfreude,” reader Sam Weiss of Paramus, N.J., writes about my September 5 column on foreign place names:

“I couldn’t help noticing your misuse (a classic among Yiddish speakers) of the word ‘by’ in the sentence, ‘Or take the Chinese, who don’t mind our speaking of Shanghai when by them it’s Shangkhai.’”

Before we talk about “by,” let’s look at “schadenfreude,” a German term that does not appear in my 1966 “Random House Dictionary of the English Language” but that — defined as “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others” — is found in my 1992 “American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,” indicating that it won official recognition as an English word during that 25-year period.

I don’t think anyone would object today to English’s borrowing of “schadenfreude” from German, since it is a useful word with no native English equivalent. If someone were to suggest that we should start calling a street in English a “strasse” because this is the way the Germans say it, we would find this absurd, since English has a perfectly good word of its own. But it did not have one for “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others,” which makes “schadenfreude” a welcome enrichment of the language.

And now, let us consider the case of “by,” as in “by them it’s Shangkhai” — which, as observed by Mr. Weiss (whose schadenfreude derives from the well-known satisfaction of catching a language columnist using “bad” English), derives from Yiddish. “So how’s by you?” “By me is okay” — such expressions come from the Yiddish bei. Among bei’s many meanings in a combination like bei mir, “by me,” as listed by Leo Rosten in his “Hooray For Yiddish!,” are: “1. To me. 2. With me. 3. In my opinion. 4. In my house. 5. In my circle.”

Rosten attributed the original popularization of this usage in American literary and theatrical circles to the story, told by the playwright and screenwriter Samuel Raphaelson, of how, returning from a Caribbean cruise with a captain’s cap, he asked his mother how she liked it. In Rosten’s version:

“Mrs. Raphaelson surveyed her son’s splendor, read the gold braiding that said ‘Captain,’ and replied, ‘Sammy, by me you’re a captain. By you you’re a captain. But tell me, by a captain are you a captain?’”

Joking aside, I would, in attempting to determine whether “by them it’s Shangkhai” is “bad” English, put two questions to Mr. Weiss. The first is: Is it permissible for English to borrow from other languages, not just single words like “schadenfreude,” but a whole series of lexically generated expressions like “by…”? And the second question is: If it is permissible, on the condition that such expressions be linguistically enriching like “schadenfreude,” does “by ….” as used in Yiddish meet this requirement?

To Question 1, I can only answer: I don’t see why not. Modern English has done this before — think, for example, of the borrowing of the Latin cum in such combinations as “apartment-cum-studio” or “salary-cum-expenses.” Although cum in Latin simply means “with,” its function in English as a verbal plus sign indicating the whole formed by two parts distinguishes it from “with” and justifies its use.

As for Question 2, one way of telling whether the Yiddish-influenced “by….” does or does not enrich English might be to see what happens when we substitute a more conventional English expression for it. Does, for example, Samuel Raphaelson’s story lose something if Mrs Raphaelson says to her son, “Sammy, in my opinion you’re a captain and in your opinion you’re a captain, but in the opinion of a captain are you a captain?”

Clearly, it does. It’s not as funny. But why not? Solely because “by me you’re a captain…” is Yiddish-influenced speech, and the comedy lies in the opposition between the pretentiously WASPy cap and the homey, immigrant Jewish mother. But in that case, it should be just as funny if Mrs. Samuelson were to say with a Yiddish accent, “Semmy, I t’ink you’re a captain and you t’ink you’re a captain, but does the captain t’ink you’re a captain?” — and it isn’t, not quite. What’s missing in “I t’ink” and present in “by me” is the perception that whether someone is a captain or not does not just depend on what different people think about it. It depends on the knowledge, background, values, skills, competence and social world of the people doing the thinking — in a word, on those concentric circles of inclusiveness indicated by Rosen in defining “by me” as “…. in my opinion, in my house, in my circle” — and no circles could be further apart than Mrs. Samuelson’s and a sea captain’s.

This inclusiveness, and the often comic ambiguity as to exactly which of these circles one is referring when one says “by me,” does make it, I think, an expression that enriches the English language and therefore has its justifiable uses when writing or speaking it. I wouldn’t use it too often, or on too formal an occasion, but by me, Mr. Weiss, saying “by them it’s Shangkhai” isn’t a mistake or an “incorrect” Yiddishism. It’s as legitimate an English usage as “schadenfreude.”

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