Wednesday, September 30, 2015

phrase of the day: Zee helft ihm vee a toyten bahnkess

In Bernard Cooper’s novel, A Year of Rhymes, the young narrator has an aunt who occasionally lets out a Yiddish word or phrase. I am familiar with Yiddish only in the most banal sort of way — oy vey, say, or mensch.

When I came across Zee helft ihm vee a toyten bahnkess I didn’t know what to do with it.

Here’s the context: The young teen narrator has a brother almost ten years his elder and this brother is dating a young woman of whom the family doesn’t quite approve. Marion and Bob step out to the patio thinking they are having a private argument but, of course, everybody in the house overhears. Aunt Ida, disgusted by the scene, prods the younger brother to retreat to his bedroom:

”Say good night,” she commanded.


“Because,” said Ida, “the sun has sunk.” … Ida stomped through the dining room, dragging me behind her. … All the way down the hall, Ida spat Yiddish invective. She shut the door to my bedroom behind us, leaned against it, and glared toward God. “Zee helft ihm vee a toyten bahnkess.

This is Yiddish invective? I tried Googling the whole phrase but got nothing. I tried Google Translate and got — nothing. I approached my husband for ideas. He suggested trying just the phrase “toyten bahkess, as he thought it might be the most important part.

I did get something then. Maybe my lack of result earlier had to do with Cooper’s nonstandard spelling — if there is a standard. The best explanation I found for the phrase spells it rather differently: ES VET HELFN VI A TOYTN BANKES. That’s so close to Cooper’s phrase that I figure it must be the same thing. Right?

Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe translates it: "It will help like blood-cupping a corpse; it's absolutely hopeless; wasted effort; useless.”

Blood-cupping. This is what Wikipedia says about that, “Cupping therapy is an ancient form of alternative medicine in which a local suction is created on the skin; practitioners believe this mobilizes blood flow in order to promote healing. Suction is created using heat (fire) or mechanical devices (hand or electrical pumps).” The suction is used to affix cup or small bowl to the skin, presumably to help draw illness out of the body.

Since cupping is a treatment for sickness I suppose, like any treatment for sickness, cupping would be pointless when used on a corpse.

Before the internet developed its many useful and easy tools I wouldn’t have done more than shrug at this bit of language. What could I have done to make it accessible? Get out the phone book and find a Yiddish language expert? Write a letter to the author? It’s common in literature to encounter bits of other languages plopped untranslated into English. Typically it’s Latin or, even worse, Greek. But I’ve stumbled (or skipped blithely) over French and German, too. When reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer I put in placemarks wherever I came across untranslated French. Later I typed up all the bits and made them a DIR post. A less-than-useful post, I’m sure, as I didn’t know how to include the curlies and hooks on the letters to make them authentically French.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Notes toward an autobiography by others (Liz Prince edition)

Yes, I blamed the cat, too. Of course, he’s usually at fault as he snores.

read this in Alone Forever: the singles collection by Liz Prince
2014. Top Shelf Productions, Marietta GA

where I took the image from: Liz Prince’s Live Journal

Monday, September 28, 2015

word of the day: fungate

[There was] a mass in her pelvis the size of a child’s fist. In the operating room, it proved to be an ovarian cancer, and it had spread throughout her abdomen. Soft, fungating tumor deposits studded her uterus, her bladder, her colon, and the lining of her abdomen.

Before I get to the definition I have to say that if I saw the word “fungate” without context I would concentrate on the first syllable, which, after all, is a word with a lot of nice connotations. If told “fungate” was a verb I might guess it had something to do with fungus. Given the context we find it in, I have to grant there’s nothing pleasant that comes to mind.

definition (courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary): To grow up with a fungous form or appearance; to grow rapidly like a fungus

source: Being Mortal: medicine and what matters in the end by Atul Gawande
2014. Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt & Co., NY

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

word of the day: frumenty

So that night all was feasting, and if Ann and Roger and Eliza found the taste of roast venison disappointing (maybe because of the deer they had seen all alive and beautiful in the forest), at least they were too well brought up to say so. And dessert, which was wild strawberry junket and frumenty, was dandy.

definition: A dish made of hulled wheat boiled in milk, and seasoned with cinnamon, sugar, etc.

definition source: The Oxford English Dictionary

I didn’t know “junket” in this context either. According to the OED it is, “Any dainty sweetmeat, cake, or confection; a sweet dish; a delicacy; a kickshaw.”

A kickshaw?

A junket could also be more specifically a dessert made with sweetened curds and cream. There’s not enough context to say. Frumenty seems to have been chosen by Eager for its medieval flavor. Perhaps “junket” had a suggestion of old-timey-ness, too.

Ann and Roger are adventuring with Robin Hood in a magical version of Sherwood Forest.

quote source: Knight’s Castle by Edward Eager.
Illustrated by N. M. Bodecker
1956 / 1984. Odyssey / Harcourt Brace & Co., New York

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

word of the day: charabanc

… their places are taken by another population, with views about nature,
Brought in charabanc and saloon along arterial roads;
Tourists to whom the Tudor cafes
Offer Bovril and buns upon Breton ware
With leather-work as a sideline: Filling stations
Supplying petrol from rustic pumps.

W. H. Auden didn’t title his poems early in his career. The lines above are, according to editor Edward Mendelson, “from ‘The Dog Beneath the Skin’: 1932, ? 1934”.

definition: A kind of long and light vehicle with transverse seats looking forward. Also, a motor-coach.

What Americans would call a tour bus?

definition source: The Oxford English Dictionary

Auden uses “saloon” in a way unfamiliar to me. According to the OED, a saloon isn’t just another word for a drinking establishment but also “A type of motor car with a closed body for four or more passengers.” Among the exemplary quotes is the very line above.

I didn’t know “Bovril.” It’s “The proprietary name of a concentrated essence of beef, invented in 1889 by J. Lawson Johnston,” according to the OED. And, yes, the OED quotes the “Bovril and buns” line as an example of usage.

I’m following in the footsteps of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary!

source for Auden lines: Selected Poems W. H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson
1979. Vintage Books / Random House, NY