Sunday, August 28, 2005

Safire, you schlemiel

Comes now William Safire, soi-disant language maven, with the latest in a series of loopy lexical fabrications. Today's effort (page 12 of today's Times Magazine) contains a list of Top 10 Yiddishisms in English: klutz, glitsch, kosher, bagel, maven, mensch, schlock, schmooze, tush and chutzpah. "If you don't know these words, you will have difficulty being understood in English," our maven proclaims.

That's a rather stiff assertion. Surely Mr. Safire doesn't mean that not knowing from mensch is as harmful to comprehension as, say, positive "anymore." Or not understanding the difference between count nouns and noncount nouns. Or trying to determine case by inflection rather than word order ("give Safire the shark" and "give the shark Safire" are roughly the same sentence in Latin but somewhat different in English). What he probably means is that you'll have trouble understanding English, which is a more than slightly vexed assertion itself. And sort of the opposite of what he said, but hey: English is a flexible language.

I have no problem with the assertion (made by a scholar, not Safire, which helps) that klutz "has largely replaced the English oaf in common usage."* What Safire doesn't seem to get is that elements of a language don't diffuse into another language at the same rate or in the same ways. Everybody** who speaks American English knows what a "taco" is, but those who don't live in an area that has a reasonably high degree of contact with first-language Spanish-speakers are a lot less likely to know Taco Bell from tacos al pastor.

That means we can put bagel in a different category from the start. Unlike klutz, it's not Yiddish for, oh, something the Canterbury pilgrims were throwing at each other at the Tabard Inn. It's the word we have for the concept of "bagel." And if you don't care for bagels, your life isn't that badly hampered by not knowing the word (Repeat after me: No me gustan los doughnuts de cardboard).

The rest of his list underlines the diversity of language diffusion around the country (as recently as 1970, remember, Yiddish could claim more first-language speakers in the U.S. than Swedish and Norwegian combined). I'd put them in three stacks for convenience:

Klutz, glitch ("glitsch"?) and kosher: Near universal.

Schlock and schmooze (knowing sax players whose response to some arrangements is "Melt the chicken fat," HEADSUP-L is tempted to ask: What, no schmaltz?): Great words, extremely handy. Nothing else quite gets it in one syllable. But, again, just because some Greenland Eskimos might need only one "word" for a type of snow that American skiers use three to describe, it doesn't mean anybody's comprehension is at risk.

Maven, mensch, tush,*** chutzpah: Nice but optional. Sorry, but I can't recall any of these playing a major part in my language use. I'm not one to contend that my dialect is better than Safire's, but the other side of the coin is that his is no better, and certainly no more universal, than mine.

I am happy, though, to assert that my proposition, which is grounded and testable, is better than his. And if Safire disagrees, I'll make an offer: I'll crunch the numbers if he'll spring for the traditional slice-and-a-drink that undergraduates get for their contribution to research at this Major Midwestern University.

The only reason this is worth any bandwidth at all on the first Sunday night of a new semester is the wasted-opportunity-osity of it all. Sheez, Bill, you have a weekly language column in the nation's most revered daily, and the best you can do is this? You've got Sol Steinmetz on the line, and you can't ask why a language that's been shedding native speakers for three decades is still such a powerful -- even a growing -- influence? Or if the exhibit on Jewish vernaculars at the Diaspora Museum has any cool new stuff? Or whether Israel Radio is still doing a weekly broadcast in Ladino? Please.

OK, fake science mode off.

* Though one does sort of pine for the day when "oaf" was a common epithet, doesn't one?
** OK, "everybody in the first three standard deviations." Lighten up.
*** You can bring up the ZZ Top song if you want, but you have to explain the vowel variation yourself.


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