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Thursday, May 15, 2008

I Got Bupkes

I love it when the sound of a word evokes the same feeling as the word's definition. I don't mean straight onomatopoeia (e.g., boom, bang, etc.), though I'm fairly certain there's a word for what I'm describing and I just don't know it yet. Help dear readers?

Examples of what I mean can commonly be found in musical terms. For example staccato, meaning shortened or detached when played or sung, sounds like its definition with its three short syllables. Another example might be the word whine, which sounds a lot like the act of whining itself, helped along by the long I vowel sound (that usually kicks off a good whine session).

I'm certain that I'm not the only person who thinks about the way a word sounds when I write, though I imagine this is even more important in poetry, which I have no experience with. However, I do believe that word selection is very important in any writing to evoke the proper gut response in your reader.

Last night, my roommate mentioned using the Yiddish word kvetch, which means to complain a lot, and strikes me with the same sound/meaning effect, and I couldn't help appreciating how many Yiddish words fall into that category.

For your reading pleasure, here is a list - maybe not so well transliterated - of Yiddish words and phrases that you may or may not know that sound like their meanings:

alter cocker - an old and complaining person
balabusta - a bossy woman
bupkes - nothing or worthless
chutzpah - nerve, gall
ferblunjit - mixed up
fercockt - fucked up
kibitz - tease or joke around
klutz - an uncoordinated person (favorite example, Jack Tripper from Three's Company)
mishuggena - crazy person
nebbish - a nerd, loser
nudnik - a pest, an annoying person
pisher - literally a bed wetter, but used for an insignificant person
shlep - carry, drag from place to place
shlimazel - an unlucky person
shmooz - to gossip, chat
shnoz - a nose
shvitz - to sweat

More Yiddish words and phrases can be found here.

I half wonder, though, if I don't feel this way about these words because I learned them very early in my childhood and so subconsciously connect the sounds with their meanings. I would love to know what you all think.


Sven said...

I can agree with you on this one. Having not grown up around anyone who spoke Yiddish I do find it easier to figure out what the words mean when I hear them for the first time.

MichaelK said...
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stu said...

There might not be any automatic connection between the sound of a word and the meaning, but the sound is still important. All sorts of different words can be fun, because they seem to capture something perfectly. I have a certain fondness for old scots and scots gaelic words, but even words unique to local dialects of English can be great.

eloise said...

My favorite Yiddish word was invented by Larry David and it is Shmohawk --- something that you yell at a bad driver! I find myself using this made up Yiddish world nearly ALL of the time now. At least I think it is made up...

anyway I agree with you about Yiddish words ! I love them. Schlep... to drag something the same was you have to drag through the s, c, h, and l when you pronounce!

Anonymous said...

Oh Gawd! Fercockt has long been my favorite bit of yiddish. It's actually in one of my favorite lines from a play. The play is "Ruthless" and the line is "My grandaughter's in some fercockt Pippi Musical." Yes, the line does refer to a Pippi Longstocking musical... and it makes me laugh every time.

My fave non-yiddish that sounds like what it is: Flatulent. Say it right and it sounds just like a fart.