Week 25: Idioms

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 174 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 95 hours
I have reviewed 2,439 individual flashcards

I've been working on idioms lately, specifically from Fred Kogos' book "A Dictionary Of Yiddish Slang & Idioms." Kogos has another book that is a collection of Yiddish proverbs, and I'll start on that next.

This is part of my building toward being able to construct Yiddish sentences, and it both has and has not been helpful. Most of us express ourselves pretty idiomatically, so it's important to know that if someone says, in Yiddish, that you should stop knocking a teakettle, that it means you're bothering them. But I don't know how useful knowing this is when it comes to more general conversation, unless that conversation happens to be about someone who actually has a teakettle and has started knocking it.

Kogos' book can be a little frustrating, as it's literally just a list of words and phrases. They are transliterated without also being offered in the aleph beys, the Yiddish alphabet, and the words are not offered in any sort of context, so, with many of them, it's not entirely clear how you might use them. One critic on Amazon wrote that "This book appears to be a first draft. No pronunciation help. Does not show how use the words. It would be worth buying if the author finishes it." The review was written in 1998, and the book was published in 1969. Additionally, Mr. Kogos passed away in 1974, so it's probably safe to say that no second draft will be forthcoming.

I've learned about 200 idioms from Kogos' book, which is a fraction of what he has to offer. I picked the ones that seemed most immediately useful to me, and will likely go back and add more to my vocabulary in the future. But I am going to give myself an idiom merit badge, and memorizing 200 idioms seemed like a perfectly decent accomplishment.

Their grammatical value is probably limited, as idioms, by their nature, are not always entirely proper sentences. But they are easier to learn than proverbs, as they are usually only a few words. I've already added a few proverbs into my mix of flashcards , and some of them I have had the devil of a time trying to memorize. Here's one, loosely: You should see something you want but not have the money to buy it. It took me an entire week to remember how to say this sentence.

But as I have learned idioms, I have found my ability to learn and remember longer sentences has gotten better. It's a different skill than simply learning a new word -- I have to learn the sentence in smaller groupings of a few words at a time, generally words that seem logically clustered together. In the above example, it might break down like this:

1. You should see
2. Something you want
3. But not
4. Have the money
5. To buy it

That's not precise, of course, because the Yiddish doesn't translate exactly the same, but it gives a sense of how I cluster words. And parts of the cluster I memorize quickly, while other parts I seem to misremember every time.

I plan to learn 200 proverbs, and I will be curious to see if it gets easier to learn them with practice, or if this will be a constant challenge. I will also be curious as to the effect memorizing Yiddish proverbs has on me. Individual words might offer some insight into the Yiddish world (for instance, the fact that Yiddish speakers use the same word for "foot" that they do for "leg," and that the word for "toe" could fairly be translated as "finger from leg," which is, frankly, bizarre.) But proverbs provide a more complicated glimpse into the Yiddish mind.

Years ago, I memorized a particular Yiddish phrase which I have often pulled out as a sort of party trick, which translates as "It's best to learn to shave on a stranger's beard." I memorized it because it was humorous and also a bit odd, but once you memorize something, you end up thinking about it a lot.

And I have learned more about beards. I have learned that, before the era of the safety razor, shaving was a spectacularly dangerous undertaking. It was easy to get nicked by a straight razor, and a nick, back in the days before we understood the need for cleanliness,could lead to infection. These infections could turn fatal. Composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin died of a nick that became septic in 1915. Henry David Thoreau's brother contracted tetanus from a razor and died of it. A bad shave could be so dangerous that, without a dependable barber, many men chose to forgo a clean shave, which may be why there were so many beards during the Victorian era.

So this little gem of Yiddish is literally suggesting that if you've got to learn how to shave, and somebody might die from it, it probably should be a stranger. At least, that's how I take it, and I suppose it's good advice, if a bit sociopathic. Of course, these phrases were often meant ironically, and a little psychopathology can really spice up a joke.

It's a good lesson in another way: Even the most innocuous Jewish phrases can hide a sharply ironic worldview. Hidden in a simple Yiddish sentence there might be a razor, and advice for who it should kill.