Mar 2004 Journal

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A shot in the arm for English

Much has been made of late of the infinite malleability of English, of how the language is constantly enriched by words or phrases drawn from other tongues, or slang, or technology. In this process impersonal forces are at work, but individual writers can also participate, at least marginally.

One such is Howard Jacobson, whose The Mighty Walzer has been reviewed in our columns. Jacobson demonstrates that an infusion of Yiddish would sanitise English and draw the sting of nastiness that clings to certain words and phrases. Take the ubiquitous four-letter word, without frequent recourse to which many English speakers would be quite tongue-tied. The Yiddish five-letter equivalent of this word is shtup - which to my ears sounds unmusically comical and neither obscene nor threatening. Can anyone imagine a situation where a shout of 'Shtup you!' could lead to fisticuffs? As for the second most widely used Anglo-Saxon four-letter word, Jacobson replaces it with the euphonious chazzeray - also a great improvement on the original.

Jacobson is at his most insouciant when he uses Yiddish verbs according to English grammatical usage. A girl shries, an old lady kriched, a grandmother kvitched and klogged. (I found the last-mentioned particularly evocative because The Mighty Walzer is set in Lancashire, the country of clogs. In the novel, of course, klogging means lamentation and not a form of folk-dancing.) I also enjoyed some of the hybrid idioms. One character says of himself: 'I'm not oifgeblozzen with pride' and claims that another character 'is ongishtoppt with gelt'.

Ultimately, I got so carried away by Jacobson's indulgence in Yiddish that I shall try to follow his example. I therefore conclude with the admittedly run-of-the-mill exhortation 'Kvell and the world kvells with you, kvetch and you kvetch alone'
Richard Grunberger

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