Luck of the Eye-er-ish
Writing this column is most fun when I manage to solve a linguistic mystery that Forward readers present me with. This time, I have Bernard Smith of Saratoga Springs, Fla., to thank for the opportunity. He writes:
I come from Glasgow and although I didn’t grow up speaking Yiddish, my family did use some Yiddish words. I always thought these were used by all Yiddish speakers, but now I wonder whether some were a unique Scottish-Yiddish that grew out of the experience of Jews living in Scotland in the early part of the 20th century. For example, we used the word “beitz” (pronounced “bites”; plural, “beitzemer”) to refer to a young ruffian. My Yiddish-speaking friends from elsewhere are not familiar with this term — which, my grandmother once explained to me, came from the fact that uncouth country folk from Ireland used to sell eggs (beitzim) from pushcarts. Could there be any truth in this?
My initial reaction to Smith’s grandmother’s explanation was skeptical. To begin with, the Hebrew word beytzim (pronounced “bay-TSEEM,” singular beytzah), which indeed means “eggs” in Hebrew but has the additional, semi-vulgar meaning of “testicles,” means only “testicles” in Yiddish; it would not normally have been used by a Yiddish speaker, even in Glasgow, for eggs. And secondly, while Irish immigrants in early 20th-century Glasgow may have had the reputation of ruffians, it stands to reason that the egg sellers among them would have behaved themselves. You don’t pick fights from a pushcart piled with eggs.
Was it possible that “beitz” was not a Hebrew/Yiddish word but rather a Scottish one? Genuine Scots English, now a vanishing form of speech, has a huge vocabulary all its own, as can be glimpsed even in the following few entries from Alexander Warrack’s “Scots Dialect Dictionary”:
• bate 1. to cease. 2. to reduce the price.
• beit same as beet.
• beet to rouse or kindle a passion.
• bait the grain or cleavage of wood or stone.
• bait the lye in which skins are steeped.
• bite…. 3. pasturage. 4. a hoax. 5. a taunt, scoff. 6. a disappointment in love.
• bite and brat food and clothing.
• bite and buffet food and blows.
• bite and drap something to eat.
But no “beitz” or “beitzemer.” Could “beitz” in the sense of an unruly egg seller have come from the “bite” of “bite and buffet?” This seemed not only unlikely in its own right but offered no explanation of the Hebraically pluralizing “-em” of “beitzemer.”
No, “beitzemer” was not Scottish. Were young ruffians called “beitzemer” by Glasgow Jews, I speculated doubtfully, because, as one might put it in the American vernacular, they were “ballsy”? The word certainly had nothing to do with eggs, since an egg in Yiddish is….
An egg in Yiddish is an ay, pronounced “eye.” And eggs are ayer, pronounced “eye-er.”
The original “beitzemer” of Glasgow Jews were not Irish egg sellers but quite simply the “eye-er-ish” — or to spell it more conventionally, the Irish!
To resort to such a double play on words, first punning on ayer and then translating the latter into Hebrew as beytzim, might seem an unnecessarily complicated way of saying “Irish.” One must bear in mind, however, that the original point of words like “beitzemer,” as of much Yiddish vocabulary, was to enable Jews to speak of certain things without being understood by non-Jews. Even if two Jews conversed in Yiddish, the words “irlender” or “ayrishman” would inform any Irish person in their presence that he or she was being talked about; beitz and beitzemer were a way of encoding this. If they eventually took on the meaning of “ruffian[s],” this must have been because the Glasgow Irish were indeed a tough lot.
Elementary, my dear Watson! Or should I say, my dear Smith?
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P.S. before sitting down to write this column, I looked up “beitz” and “beitzemer” in the index of Nahum Stutschkoff’s Yiddish thesaurus “der oytser fun der yidisher shprakh” and didn’t find them. Now, however, browsing in Stutchkoff’s Section 236, which lists Yiddish terms for non-Jews, I see that both words appear there. Given, without explanation, as synonyms for Irishmen, they are preceded by the notation “Am,” which means that Stutchkoff considered them Americanisms unknown in Eastern Europe. Were they then terms coined not by Scottish but by American Jews that crossed the Atlantic to Glasgow? (Of course, it could have been the other way around.) If so, there should be readers besides Smith who remember them. Let’s hear from you!