Week 39: The Curses

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 262 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 152 hours
I have reviewed 3,092 individual flashcards

This past week I worked my way up past 3,000 flashcards in my collection, which we can approximate as about 3,000 words, even though quite a few of my flashcards are complete sentences. Most of those contain words that are unique to the sentence, and I am at the point where I have to approximate how many words I have learned, as there is no longer any way to pinpoint the exact number of words I have used.

When I used to care about vocabulary acquisition as the path toward fluency, 3,000 was an important mark, as the 3,000 most frequently used words comprise about 90-95 percent of all words used in speech and writing, from what I have read. However, I moved away from studying frequently used word to words I find amusing, so, as an example, perhaps 50 words in my vocabulary are various euphemisms for sexual organs.

Still, 3,000 is an accomplishment, and so if I have a drink tonight, I will drink to myself, and all the terrible, terrible Yiddish I have learned.

Speaking of terrible Yiddish, I have started to teach myself curses. The subject is a popular one, since Yiddish curses can be so flamboyant -- flamboyant beyond credibility, as some of them are protracted, and who is going to stand around and listen to someone describe every one of their body parts and what should happen to them? I sometimes wonder if there wasn't some sort of semi-formal cultural environment for curses, like the African-American tradition of the dozens, where you try to top each other by insulting each others' mother, and everybody knows it to be a game and doesn't get especially offended.

There are a few books of Yiddish curses out there, and various curses that show up in popular Yiddish language books, but these were mostly not done by Yiddish speakers or scholars, and so are not reliable. I tracked down a book called "Let's Hear Only Good News: Yiddish Blessings and Curses" by Yosef Guri, who is the senior lecturer emeritus in Russian and Slavic Studies at The Hebrew University, and Guri was a native of Lithuania who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household (until he fled to Russia during the Holocaust), so I assume his book is both good Yiddish and good scholarship.

I have just started to learn these curses, and I don't know when I will need to know how to say, oh, syphilis should eat your skin. But it's better to know how to say it and not need to than to need to say it and not know how to.