Filed under: culture, Dictionary of Jewish Words, Yiddish | Tags: language, Martha Stewart, maven, word use, writing, Yiddish, Yiddish words
maven: Yiddish noun. An expert or connoisseur, a specialist. A person who considers him or herself to be an expert in a particular area.
When we say “maven,” we conjure up the image of a Jewish expert, like an accountant who’s really good with numbers or a shopper who’s memorized the dates of Nordstrom’s annual sale. Or, we picture someone who is knowledgeable about a Jewish subject or something tangentially Jewish.
When we were looking for a title to go under our joint byline, we dubbed ourselves The Word Mavens. We fit our definition: We’re Jewish and we wrote a Jewish dictionary.
We are not the only word mavens. William Safire was called a “word maven” in his obituary; he wrote a New York Times column called “On Language.” Random House offers The Mavens’ Word of the Day on its website (though its maven is anonymous). We’ll concede that these two are legit, but we get annoyed when the term is thrown around heedlessly and thoughtlessly. These days, it seems like everyone’s a maven. Excuse us while we kvetch about it.
The following confirms our suspicions:
Martha Hall Foose, a Mississippi cookbook author known for her Southern recipes for deviled eggs and skilled fried corn, was lauded as a “cookbook maven.” We think that if you’re going to be a cookbook maven, you there should be recipes for knishes and rugelach somewhere in the equation.
A New England mom of three calls herself and her website “the maven of savin’.” She posts deals, sales and upcoming shopping bargains. Last December she featured Kohl’s holiday kitchen towels with gingerbread, snowmen and Christmas trees. Not a dreidel dishcloth to be found from the “maven of savin’.”
There’s no denying that June Ambrose is a beautiful African-American fashion stylist. She works with celebs like Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey and Missy Elliott. The website blackgaygossip.com called her a “black fashion maven.” We hope she knows what it means when Mariah demands, “No more shmattas. I want to be all fapitzed for the Grammys.”
In the headline of her obituary, Hawaiian orchid grower May Arstad Neal Moir was called a “gardening maven.” She was famous for introducing tropical plants to the Nu’uanu Valley and for breeding dozens of new orchid varieties. People may have called this Hawaiian native a ke aloha kumu (beloved teacher), but we doubt anyone ever called her a maven.
Martha Stewart seems to be the quintessential maven. She’s been called a “media maven,” “homemaking maven,” “food maven,” and “entertaining maven.” We think she could also be called the “penultimate makeover maven” for the way she reinvented her life and reenergized her empire upon her release from prison.
We concede that there are a lot of mavens out there running around being experts about all kinds of things. We can’t hold on to the exclusive use of the word. When they are calling football stars “mavens of the gridiron,” we realize that ship has sailed. We’ve got to learn to share.
Filed under: Dictionary of Jewish Words, ethnicity, Yiddish | Tags: Clint Eastwood, cockamamie, Dictionary of Jewish Words, finagle, Oprah, words, Yiddish words
Joyce’s husband was surprised when a non-Jewish patient told him she would need to “finagle time from work” to have surgery.
“How did she know that Yiddish word?” he asked. Turns out, even though it rhymes with bagel, finagle isn’t Yiddish.
Finagle and some others words sure sound Yiddish – they’ve got the “chuuch” or the “fah…” and the insulting adjective quality. Like the whole list of Yiddish words for no-goodnik people, such as shlemiel, shlimazel, shlump and shnook. But don’t be confused: that schnauzer is not a Yiddish dog.
Finagle has been traced to the old English dialect word “fainaigue,” meaning “to cheat or renege.” Today it means something more along the lines of finding a way to get what you want – we’re talking clever, not dishonest.
Evan Morris, the Word Detective, explains finagle this way: “The usual use of the word carries the implication of bending, perhaps twisting, but not breaking the rules. Your average finagler is just looking for an angle, an insider’s discount on storm windows or use of the company truck after work.”
All those kids who get the wrong answer on their algebra homework should know about Finagle’s Constant, a mathematical device that’s inserted into a formula to make the answer come out right. Why didn’t we use it when balancing our checkbooks?
Cockamamie, an adjective meaning absurd, ridiculous or foolish, is mistaken for a Yiddish word so often that we had to put it in our Dictionary to explain that it isn’t.
Cockamamie is an alteration of the French word decalcomanie, combining the French words for “tracing” and “mania.” Decalcomania – transferring designs to pottery or artwork, was popular in the mid-1800s. When the transfers were marketed to children as temporary tattoos in the 1940s and ‘50s, the name was intentionally changed to cockamamies, because it was easier for kids to pronounce.
Today the word refers to more than tattoos. It’s anything that’s a crazy idea or an implausible proposition, as in “My kid says he wants to go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. What a cockamamie idea!”
Clint Eastwood isn’t Jewish and doesn’t speak Yiddish, but in the movie In The Line Of Fire, he is a veteran Secret Service agent who tries to convince his frightened younger partner to stay on the job. He says that quitting is a “cockamamie” idea and then tells the younger man he should use the word every once in a while to keep it alive.
Oprah Winfrey, the maven of popular culture, made up her own Yiddish word. She combined shlump (a dull colorless person) with her diminutive suffix dinka. She uses the word to describe shlumpy housewives who don’t care how they look. Wearing baggy sweatpants or bad mom jeans, no makeup, and hair gathered in a ponytail, a shlumpadinka is in need of a makeover. In fact, Oprah devoted more than one show to getting women out of their shlumpadinka rut. We were just happy to see that Oprah spells Yiddish words like we do – with “sh” and not “sch.”
So nu? We’re done our spiel for now. We have to go get all ongepotchket. We’re going to meet friends for a nosh at the deli. (All real Yiddish words!)
Filed under: jewish food, Yiddish | Tags: family, Jewish food, Leo Rosten, Mechayeh, nosh, shmutz, shnorrer, Yiddish words
We love sprinkling our conversations with Yiddish words. After all, we are The Word Mavens. There’s nothing wrong with calling it shmutz when you’re sweeping up crushed Cheerios from the kitchen floor. But when we thought about it, we realized that our definition of shmutz is far removed from what our ancestors were describing in the shtetl when they used the word.
Mechayeh literally means “resurrection” – a feeling of pleasure, delight or relief. The word comes from the Hebrew root chai (life) – a mechayeh brings you back to life. “It’s uttered with a smile, a grin, or a pleased cluck,” writes Leo Rosten, author of the definitive book, The Joys of Yiddish. We imagine that back in the shtetl, it was a mechayeh when the Russian soldiers rode by and didn’t stop to break down your door.
Decades later, our definitive definition of mechayeh comes from Mitzi, Joyce’s mother-in-law, who described it as the feeling she had at the end of the day when she wiggled out of her tight girdle. Today, we say it’s a mechayeh when we’ve been running errands all day long in the heat and our last stop is a store that’s air-conditioned, when we slip off our high heels under the table at a wedding reception or we take that first sip of fresh coffee in the morning.
Shnorrer comes from the Yiddish “to beg.” A shnorrer is a freeloader, a moocher, or someone who borrows with no intention of repaying. Leo Rosten describes him as “no fool, not a simpleton… he comes from a long tradition of begging and mooching.”
Rosten tells this story:
A shnorrer knocked on the door of a rich man’s house at 6:30 in the morning.
The rich man cried, “How dare you wake me up so early?”
“Listen,” said the shnorrer, “I don’t tell you how to run your business, so don’t tell me how to run mine.”
These days shnorrers don’t beg; they just take more than their fair share. They love buffets. You can find them by the free sample table at Costco and Trader Joe’s.
Joyce always accepts the free sample slice of bread at Metropolitan Bakery, but never buys a loaf. Does that make her a shnorrer? We think not, because she felt guilty at the Italian deli accepting the toothpick sample bite of $100 a pound Spanish ham without making a purchase. It didn’t seem to bother the man next to her; he ate five samples.
Which leads us to wonder: Are you a shnorrer if you. . .
- routinely toss the tiny hotel shampoo and conditioner bottles into your suitcase,
- are one of the legion of grandmothers who steal Sweet & Low from coffee bars,
- say to your family, “Come on, that’s us,” when the maitre d’ calls out something unintelligible while you are waiting for a table
- still accept dinner invitations from the family that has had you over three times when you’ve never had them back?
There’s no question that the grandmother Joyce once saw tilt an entire plate of brisket into her plastic bag-lined pocketbook was a shnorrer.
Nosh comes from the German “to nachen,” which means to eat on the sly. A nosh is a snack, a tidbit, something in between meals. Our pal Leo Rosten says that “Jews loved to nosh, long before they went to a cocktail party.”
In the old days, they’d nosh on gribenes (fatty chicken skin fried with onions and goose fat) or a kichel (a plain egg cookie). Our grandparents’ idea of a good nosh was with chicken fat, chopped liver or herring shmeered on pumpernickel.
Today in our houses, a pre-dinner nosh might be baby carrots dipped into hummus, a sushi roll, or the chicken Caesar wrap left over from yesterday’s lunch.
Jewish delis have a proud heritage of giving out noshes. As customers stood in line, deli guys would pass out samples of pastrami or put a plate on the deli case so customers could help themselves. After a few bites of free pickle, a slice of salami and a nibble of cheese –who needs lunch? It’s a shnorrer’s dream…