Shmoozing With the Word Mavens

The Great Knaidel Konundrum

It’s been almost a week now, but we are still draying about the winning word in the 86th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Here’s a hint: After the definition as “a small mass of dough” and the question, “Is that from the German?” yes – the winning word was: knaidel! (or, as we affectionately call them, matzah balls). And it was spelled the same way the Word Mavens spell it: K-N-A-I-D-E-L. Woot! Woot! International spelling validation! chickensoup

The 13 year-old winner, Arvind Mahankali, is from Queens, NY. We thought he must have run into a few knaidels in his day, but we read that he has never tasted the deliciousness of matzah ball soup. He’s just been studying those really difficult words of German origin that tripped him up three years ago when he was a finalist.

As the authors of the Dictionary of Jewish Words, we got to spells hundreds of Yiddish words the way we thought they should be spelled. But we know there is no official way to transliterate languages, like Yiddish, that are not written with Roman characters. We chose to spell words (mostly) the way they sound so that modern American readers could pronounce them correctly.

For the Yiddish for matzah ball, we settled on knaidel, and although we were thrilled that Scripps agreed with our spelling, Arvid wouldn’t have been wrong to spell it knaidle, knaydle or knaydel. Maybe it occurred to you, as it just occurred to us, that knaidel rhymes with dreidel, which leads to our worst-case scenario – the spelling of that December holiday with the menorah and the latkes. Is it Chanukah, Hanukkah, Hannukkah or Hanukah? We picked Hanukkah. We nixed the Ch version; we didn’t want anyone to say CHA-nu-kah.

To decide their official spelling, the Scripps Spelling Bee folks relied on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. So did we. We used it as a source for the more common Yiddish words that are used in American life.

Friends sent us links to The New York Times article on the knaidel controversy. They wanted to make sure we knew that our beloved matzah ball soup was the big news of the day, and they wanted to find out how we – The Word Mavens – felt about it.

But everyone thinks that he or she is a maven. We answered a tweet from a woman who called us out for not using the official transliterated Yiddish decided upon by linguists at the  YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.  YIVO says that the “preferred” spelling has historically been kneydl. But they would also prefer to spell Yiddish short story author Sholem Aleichem’s last name Aleykhem – and that has never caught on.

But back to Arvid’s big win: We think it’s unfair to try to trip up these young expert spellers with so many foreign words. After all, would a Jewish kid know that there are two Ks in tikki masala or a double A in naan?knaidel

In our book, all the kids who made it to the finals are khokhem (wise men)!

Words Have a Life Too

We’ve been on the Jewish Book Council’s mailing list for years, ever since 2006, when The Word Mavens  were lauded as two of “the hottest new authors to hit the literary scene for Jewish book programs.” That’s because of our Dictionary of Jewish Words. By “hot new authors,” did they mean those authors who get hot flashes or that our book was so exciting it would soon become a movie? Who would be cast as the bagel and the knish?

The Jewish Book Council has announced the five finalists for its 2012 Sami Rhor Prize for Jewish Literature, which will be awarded next month to an emerging writer who seeks to add to the knowledge and understanding of Jewish history and culture.

According to their release, the “$100,000 prize is among the most generous in the literary world.” (You’re telling us. We know writers who kvell over a $35 reprint check. Just saying.) This year, the nominees are for nonfiction and one of the contenders (which is waiting in the piles alongside our night table) is the much-lauded When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry by Gal Beckerman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Beckerman, a reporter for The Jewish Daily Forward, wrote an exhaustive tale of the  “refuseniks,” Russian Jews who were denied permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union. The word was coined in the 1970s – and it’s a combination of the English word “refuse” and the Hebrew diminutive ending “nik” (like kibbutznik), meaning “person.”

For the book, Beckerman plowed through recently released Soviet government documents and conducted numerous interviews with refuseniks in the former Soviet Union, Israel and the United States. He also spoke to members of the Diaspora Jewish communities who organized, fundraised and worked for the refuseniks’ freedom. The result is a compelling, moving and too-often-forgotten story.

For The Word Mavens, refusenik is a good example of how language changes and mutates. And yes, it is in our dictionary. The movement to free Soviet Jewry reached its height in 1988-90; now, years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the word is no longer needed. One of the most famous refuseniks was Anatoly Sharansky, who gained permission to emigrate to Israel after serving nine years in a Siberian prison camp. He changed his name to Natan, lives in Israel and has served in the Knesset for many years.

a rally in support of Soviet Jewry (note the sign mentioning refuseniks)

We’re clearly not the only word nerds. We came across a now-abandoned blog in which a Cleveland writer posted an obsolete word of the day, a dictionary of obsolete English, and an online campaign to adopt an obsolete word from the Oxford English Dictionary.  It must have worked because now his blog is obsolete….

 It’s good news when a word like refusenik has served its purpose and is no longer needed. But we hope that some words, like shmooze and chutzpah and fapitzed will never go out of style. We will make sure of it.

We Babka Chocolate…..
October 29, 2011, 11:15 am
Filed under: jewish food, Yiddish | Tags: , , ,

Just heard from my sweetie in Somerville. Jessie knows that her Mommy is always on the look-out for random misuse of Yiddish, so she snapped this photo for me in her local Panera Bread restaurant:

Oy! Although it’s not as bad as the large display of sparkling apple cider and plastic champagne glasses, arrayed in the supermarket above the sign urging us to “celebrate the Jewish New Year!”  — we’re generally not in favor of people turning nouns into verbs.  As in:  “Don’t disrespect us by lumping our beloved pastry with your bear-claws.”

This technically is Panera’s second offense; my MIL insists on calling the chain cafe, “La Panera” as if to embody it with a bit of Frenchified high-class when we take her there for a salad.

We like our babka chocolate from the deli without the “la.”



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