Wordsmith.org: the magic of words


About | Media | Search | Contact  


Today's Word

Yesterday's Word



AWADmail Issue 640

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language

Sponsor's message: Summer is an action verb, and it's not past tense yet. This is a last call-to-action for all you tan double-domes out there, especially this week's Email of the Week winner, Susan Grodsky (see below). Purchase One Up! -- The Wicked/Smart Word Game -- a real steal at $15 (with FREE shipping), and we'll throw in a jokey lagniappe valued at "priceless" -- since we all know you can't buy brains. Today only.

From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
Subject: Interesting stories from the net

Slang for the Ages
The New York Times

Improving Babies' Language Skills Before They're Even Old Enough to Speak

From: Suzanne Sperry (suzsperry comcast.net)
Subject: Yiddish

Yea! Thanks for the Yiddish. I grew up in a neighborhood that was almost entirely Jewish -- except for my family! I learned -- and loved -- a lot of Yiddish slang from my playmates, whose parents mostly were born in "The Old Country". I remember one jump rope chant that began "schlemiel, schlimazel ..."

Suzanne Sperry, Corvallis, Oregon

From: Alex McCrae (ajmccrae277 gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--luftmensch

Aficionados of the popular '90s-era sitcom, Seinfeld, would likely almost unanimously agree that the spaced-out regular ensemble character, Cosmo Kramer, played by Michael Richards, would rank as the quintessential "luftmensch".

Over the course of the series' solid nine-year run, edgy hipster doofus Kramer never really held a meaningful, paying job for more than a week. As diehard fans would recall, he was always concocting cockamamie schemes that he was thoroughly convinced would either make him lots of money, or cure some pressing societal ill.

But invariably the best-laid plans of this crazed pie-in-the-sky dreamer never came to fruition... save his "Coffee-Table Book"... a one-hit-wonder to be sure.

Alex McCrae, Van Nuys, California

From: David Kaufman (jdkaufman massmed.org)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--pisher

Used long ago by my forebears and myself as a child. Calling another kid a pisher was truly a put down.

David Kaufman, Massachusetts

From: Helen Colvin (tcolvin sympatico.ca)
Subject: pisher

Another use of the term "pisher" is in the birdwatching community, where a 'pisher' makes sounds like "pish, pish, pish" produced through the lips and spoken softly and rapidly. It is known as pishing. It can attract otherwise elusive birds who are drawn to the sound.

Some purist birders object to the practice, but experienced birders are often able to pish quite a few species which would otherwise have been missed.

Helen Colvin, Mountsberg, Canada

From: Jonathan Gellman (jonathansg yahoo.com)
Subject: ganef...gonoph What the Dickens!

Actually, with the spelling gonoph, ganef has been in published English since Charles Dickens used it in Bleak House in 1853: "He's as obstinate a young gonoph as I know." That came as a welcome surprise when I was reading that novel.

Jonathan Gellman, New York, New York

Email of the Week (Courtesy One Up! -- Playing mind games is wicked fun!)

From: Susan Grodsky (sjgrodsky yahoo.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--ganef

My understanding of this word contains a few nuances. First, a ganef (also spelled gonif) is a clever thief -- so clever you might not realize you are being swindled. Bernie Madoff illustrates this aspect of ganefism.

Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, lists six definitions, most of them variations of the "thief" concept. But his third definition is "An ingenious child". His example is of a proud grandparent saying "Oh, is that a gonif." God forbid, Rosten adds, that you should think a grandparent is lauding a child's criminal characteristics.

I've never heard this usage myself. But I heard Madoff described as a ganef and worse.

Susan Grodsky, Potomac, Maryland

From: Barry Palevitz (bpclaylover8 gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--macher

The word macher is usually preceded by the word 'big'. That is, a big macher. It adds an additional connotation: somebody who's a big shot.

Barry Palevitz, Athens, Georgia

From: Haluk Atamal (atamal ada.net.tr)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--kibitzer

Today's word reminds me of a joke: A man is starting a journey in the Sahara. Asking what he should take along, he is advised to take a pack of cards. His "I cannot play alone" remark gets the answer, "You start playing and for sure there will be some kibitzers in no time."

Haluk Atamal, Antalya, Turkey

From: Michael Barr (barr math.mcgill.ca)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--kibitzer

Back when I played bridge, we recognized three kinds of onlookers: kibitzers, dorbitzers, and tsitsitzers. A kibitzer had permission of a player and is permitted to talk to that player but to no one else; a dorbitzer had permission from a kibitzer and could speak to that person but to no one else; a tsitsitzer had no one's permission and could speak to no one -- he could only sit there and say tsi-tsi.

Michael Barr, Montreal, Canada

From: David Frost (morganfrost yahoo.com)
Subject: Kibitzer

My grandparents used the word to mean one who is joking or being silly, not one who is giving unwanted advice. I've heard the word used quite a bit (by various people), but never once with the meaning you gave.

David Frost, Silver Spring, Maryland

From: Valerie W. Stephenson (valeries1 comcast.net)
Subject: kibitzer

This set of words I fear defines me. My entire family were kibitzers, came over from Germany with my great-grandmother, landing eventually in NJ, which probably describes me as a "Jersey Girl" (not on TV). However, I disagree with the definition given as a busybody (your source of 1927). I would refer you to Tina Fey's book, Bossypants, which my bossy kibitzing middle-aged children gave me for Christmas two years ago. It has now been passed on to two daughters-in-law and a stepniece, who all fit the definition you gave.

I could kibitz about this forever, but I know editors have time and space issues. So take your macher role and run with it. All we left out was the chicken and dumplings, called wiener schnitzel, that my father loved and I, under 10, thought was pure horror food with sauerkraut.

Valerie W. Stephenson, Jacksonville, Florida

From: Joan Perrin (perrinjoan aol.com)
Subject: Yiddish Words

My two favorite things in the world are Yiddish words and limericks. This week's theme gave me the opportunity to engage them both.

Young Max's face got redder,
When told he was a bedwetter.
He said to the disher,
"So, I was a PISHER,
But, at least now I am better."

Wrote off as just a LUFTMENSCH,
Izzy toiled at his workbench,
But he wasn't a fool,
And invented a tool,
We now call the monkey wrench.

It was a bit of a shocker,
Though known as an alter cocker*,
Sol got his condo board,
To achieve an accord,
Proving he was a big MACHER.
* An old person who habitually complains

Joan Perrin, Port Jefferson Station, New York

From: Richard Alexander (alexander triton.net)
Subject: Earliest documented use

What struck me about this week's words, which I regularly heard from my dad and his relatives (except for "luftmensch" -- no idle dreamers allowed in this family!), was their "earliest documented use" -- each from the first half of the 20th century. So, when I was called a "pisher" -- which I undoubtedly was -- its "earliest use" was only about fifteen years prior!

These relatively recent appearances made sense when I realized there was no good reason for Yiddish words to appear in written English until after the great wave of Eastern-European Ashkenazi migration to the US, from the late-19th to the early-20th century. (The Jewish population in the US increased about 17-fold between 1880 and 1930.)

Richard Alexander, Grand Rapids, Michigan

There is no more irritating fellow than the man who tries to settle an argument about communism, or justice, or liberty, by quoting from Webster. -Mortimer J. Adler, philosopher, educator, and author (1902-2001)

We need your help

Help us continue to spread the magic of words to readers everywhere


Subscriber Services
Awards | Stats | Links | Privacy Policy
Contribute | Advertise

© 1994-2024 Wordsmith