Talking shit (and pish and farts) with Yiddish-language maven Michael Wex
By Joe Eskenazi
The recitations of St. Augustine don’t usually make a cameo during lectures on the dynamics of the Yiddish language.
And yet, earlier this month, there was Michael Wex quoting the Fourth Century church father -- albeit about substances more commonly found in a chamber pot than a lecture chamber.
“St. Augustine said, ‘Inter faeces et urinam nascimur’ – ‘we are born between feces and urine’ so we shouldn’t be too proud of ourselves. Looking at it from a Yiddish point of view, you can see that St. Augustine was a nice guy – but, ultimately, a bit of a goyishe kop.”
The Saint got it all wrong, see? We start with urine and end with feces – at least in Yiddish. A young person is a “pisher,” hearkening to a newborn pissing babe. And an old man is an “alter kocker” – an “old shitter” and you know all too well what this hearkens to.
“Life is simply one long waiting period from one movement to the other with increasing discomfort as we get closer and closer to the anti-climax of life,” said Wex, author of...
“Born to Kvetch” and “Just Say Nu,” at this month’s Jewish Community Center of San Francisco Bookfest.
“This is a group of people for whom life is just one long trip to the toilet.”
Wex’s lecture was as good an excuse as any for a master linguist and humorist to talk to an adult audience about farts and shit. But this isn’t any ordinary shit – Yiddish is a far richer and more textured language than English, so its fecal curses and references are almost profound.
In English, you get lost. In Yiddish, one dithers along “like a fart in soup.”
“I know of no other language that has managed to come up with this,” confirms Wex. “My life’s ambition was to become the first drama critic to describe an actor doing this: ‘Gielgud stumbled through the second act like a fart in soup…’”
Or, take the term “kocker” for example. Not only does it literally mean “shitter,” but it also can be utilized to refer to someone who “whatever they do turns to crap” – the anti-Midas touch, one could say.
Finally, there’s the now ubiquitous term “kvetch” a marvelously useful word which can be employed as a verb to describe the act of ranting and complaining or a noun to describe an incessant whiner.
Along with terms like “schmooze,” “shtick” and “klutz,” “kvetch” has, as Maude Lebowski would put it, entered the parlance of our times. But its origin – you guessed it. More fecal references.
Literally, the word means “To strain at stool. It’s about the tone of your voice, what someone who is kvetching sounds like – and the effect they’re having on people,” says Wex.
“People say ‘Oh, Yiddish is obsessed with food. Well, Yiddish is not obsessed with eating. Yiddish is obsessed with having eaten. Yiddish doesn’t want to eat, it wants to complain about what we just ate, in one way or another.”
Finally, in a shameless plug, you can read my own mother’s review of Michael Wex’s latest book, “Just Say Nu,” right here in the Chicago Jewish United Federation News. Hey, can’t a proud son kvell a little?
Photo of Michael Wex | Suzanne McLaren