The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Pisher

Pisher is a crude word, or, at least, in theory it is. It means "pisser," but, then, so does "squirt," and it seems like everybody in America in the 1950s called their little brothers squirt. At least, that was the case in the juvenile literature I used to read, where kids also said things like "dang" and "golly" and "gol durn it." "Squirt" seemed about as offensive as any of the other mild oaths of childhood, which is to say, not offensive at all, darn you.

But it is a mistake to assume that Yiddish is used the way English is. Even in Yinglish, while one might affectionately call someone a little pisher, there is often a note of contempt to it. Pisher is used for people who are inconsequential or incompetent. Dictionaries seem to enjoy suggesting the word evokes the act of pissing the bed. I haven't found any evidence of this, but there is certainly a deliberate hint of the juvenile to the word. Children are pishers (female children are pisherkes), and adults who have the same social standing as children are pishers. It's not quite so affectionate as "squirt."

Neither did pisher enter the English language through juvenile literature, but instead through an adult magazine: The furthest back I can trace the word in English is February, 1942, when it was used in Stag Magazine. For those unfamiliar, this was one of the men's magazines that featured shirtless and impressively burly men battling each other or nature on the cover -- snakes, octopuses, and headhunters all appeared here, alongside with erotically charged stories with titles like "City of Harems" and "House of 1000 Girls." In fact, the magazine eventually transitioned into actual pornography, and the presence of the word pisher in it suggests that the word was more substantial than a mild oath.

The word appeared in the magazine as part of a phrase, "Call me pisher," which Leo Rosten defined years later in "The Joys of Yiddish" as meaning "I don't care," a sort of Yinglish equivalent to "sticks and stones may break my bones." One assumes that you would tell a friend that you were planning on really letting your boss have it for making you work all those extra hours, and your friend would opine that maybe you shouldn't, because the boss might not take it so well, and you'd shrug and say "he can call me pisher," meaning "what's the worst that can happen? He refers to me a someone who urinates?" Later that night, you think better of the whole thing and never bring it up again, because the worst thing that can happen is he fires you.

It's hard to know whether a crude phrase originated with foul-mouthed Yiddish speakers in the old world or if it is a new invention by foul-mouthed Yinglish speakers in America, but I suspect "call me pisher" was originally a Yiddish phrase because of the lack of an indefinite article. When thing are rendered in a sort of Slavic Yoda-speak, they often originated with Yiddish speakers too-literally translating an idiom into English.

Indeed, there is an almost identical phrase in Yiddish, ruf mir knaknisl, which translates as "call me a nutcracker," but literally as "call me nutcracker," so "Call me pisher" is consistent with how it would be said in Yiddish. Why a nutcracker? I don't know, but Jews have a thing about nutcrackers. According to Michael Wex, the nickname for one of our fingers is nutcracker, which I suppose makes sense, as other fingers are called "fiddle player" and "butter holder," and these are, in fact, things you do with your fingers. But our pinky and thumb are called "little Jew" and "big fat goy," so you tell me what's going on here.

I don't know. I'm not an expert on these things and never claimed to be. I like Yiddish and spend a lot of time looking into it, but, honestly, at best, I'm a bit of a pisher.

Some uses of the word in a sentence:

The Bright Silver Star: A Berger and Mitry Mystery, David Handler: "'And I've got plenty to spill, believe me. Hell, I've known her since she was typing letters for the children's book editor and I was the little pisher in the next cubicle.' 'You're still a little pisher.'" 

Poison Blonde: An Amos Walker Novel, Loren D. Estleman: "The pisher in the Geo wasn't worth more than five minutes of a life half-lived. That was as much time as I gave Rosecranz and Gilia before I turned out the lights and closed the blinds over the window. I spread two slats to watch him."

Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel, Marty Jezer: "Not skilled at (and lacking the patience for) richly detailed anecdotal stories, he honed his autobiographical reminiscences to punch home the point that he was a rebel from the 'get-go': a cocky little street-smart wise guy, a pisher with a keenness for schoolyard justice and a willingness to fight for it."

Ten Nobodies (and Their Somebodies), Martin Drapkin: "I was, when I met that lovely man, a gangly Jewish pisher living in Florida with my mother but originally from Brooklyn. My beloved Brooklyn."