Bonjour! My family and I recently returned from a trip to Paris, which got me to thinking about Yiddish’s long relationship with French. Indeed, that relationship has been one of Yiddish’s longest lasting. One need only hear the echo of Old French in “tsholnt” (cholent), ultimately from Latin for “something hot,” to feel the intimacy of the relationship. Indeed, whoever those Jews were who would have populated the Rhineland, the cradle of Yiddish, they had to have included groups coming from what is now France. Names, too, reveal a Gallic layer, as in Bunem (or Binem if you hail from Galicia), with its echo of Bonhomme, or Beyle (originally from Belle), which means “beautiful.” It is from there we get the internal translation into the name Sheyne.
The other earliest lingering intimacy is in the commentaries of Rashi (1040-1105) on the Bible. There we find many Biblical terms glossed in the Old French with which Rashi was clearly familiar. There is an expression in Yiddish, “er lernt bay Ráshin frantséyzish” (literally, he learns French from Rashi), meaning someone whose knowledge comes completely from a book and is, as such, not necessarily sound.
France in Yiddish is “fránkraykh;” a Frenchman is a “frantsóyz” or a “frantséyz,” and a Frenchwoman a “frantséyzin;” and the French language is “frantséyzish.” It is interesting that France features in images of the good old days, olden times, or auld lang syne. To say “farn altn frantséyz” means in the olden days. You may remember from another column that a similar concept is given in the phrase “fun méylekh sabétskis tsaytn,” literally “from the days of King Sobieski,” a Polish monarch in whose reign the Jews were less ill-treated, whence the phrase’s meaning: “in the good old days.” Olden times is also the meaning of the phrases “fun napoleóns tsaytn” (from the days of Napoleon) and “ven napoleón iz geven a yunger” (when Napoleon was a boy). Moreover, while one way of saying “old-fashioned” is “alt-módish,” another equally common one is “alt-frénkish.”
On a less kindly note, certain diseases get associated with certain populations for a variety of reasons, often playing on unseemly stereotypes and social and political agendas. “Frantsn” is thus the Yiddish word for syphilis, which among the English, Germans, and Italians is also known as “the French disease,” so called ostensibly because an early European outbreak was said to have occurred during a French invasion of Naples in the 15th century. Not to leave the insult hanging, the French refer to it as the Neapolitan disease. Other cultures similarly reserve the epithet for their enemies. The adjective for someone afflicted with this malady adds a Slavic suffix to the noun, creating “frantseváte.” This becomes rather generally applied to odium, literal and figurative. So if someone figuratively has a filthy mouth, they are said to have a “frantseváte moyl.”
Once French became an international culture language, all sorts of words entered Yiddish. One can, for example, have a lovely time drinking “shampányer” (Champagne), which to some might be considered something of a “kliché” (cliché). A “klyosh” is generally either a serving-bowl or a bell-shaped, or flared, garment. In English, however, a cloche is more often a bowl-shaped dome to protect food before it is served, or a specifically bell-shaped hat. The origin is French “cloche,” meaning bell. From this we get the almost inevitable “klyóshhoyzn” — bell-bottoms.
I would like to emphasize again the readiness with which Yiddish adopts and adapts elements from other languages. So, in thinking of clichés, we might mention that stereotypical bit of French cuisine, the escargot. In French, “escargot” is simply the word for snail, in both its zoological and culinary senses. The word does exist in English — a similarly adoptive and adaptive language — but only in the culinary sense. While one cannot see an escargot in one’s garden, one certainly can on one’s plate, treated ever so lovingly with butter and garlic. Now, when looking up the word “escargot” in an English-Yiddish dictionary I encountered “ésevdiker shnek” (edible snail). (On a whim, I checked a German dictionary and encountered “eßbare Schnecke,” so there is some warrant for it.) While technically correct, something’s amiss. Despite the fact that snails are “treyf” (not kosher) there is no hindrance to employing the word “eskargó” in Yiddish. In fact, I would argue, it might actually be de rigueur.
One way to express the idea that one is living the life of Riley is “lebn vi got in odés,” literally, to live like God in Odessa, that most Jewish city. It’s a hard phrase to get out these days, given the mismatch between the phrase’s meaning and reality. But it actually represents a later substitution. The original expression was “lebn vi got in fránkraykh” — to live like God in France. Many a true word.
So let’s celebrate liberté (fráyheyt), egalité (gláykhkeyt), fraternité (brídershaft), and as always, “léyent gezúnterhéyt” — read it in good health.
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