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Any linguists or Yiddish experts out there? I would like some help settling a dispute with my wife, please. Early on in our relationship, she introduced me to a brilliant new word: beshwiggled. Ever put on a jacket over a bunch of layers and everything feels crumpled and you’re all hot and bothered? You’re beshwiggled. Ever tossed and turned at night and your bedsheets feel tangled and uncomfortable? Beshwiggled. Evocative with a satisfying mouthfeel: I reckon Lewis Carroll would have had a good chortle at the word. It sounds like something he might have conjured up in Jabberwocky.

Carroll didn’t invent it though. According to my Jewish-American wife, beshwiggled is a Yiddish word. Curious about the etymology, I spent a while Googling different spellings of beshwiggled (geshwhiggled, b’swiggled) and consulting online Yiddish dictionaries, but couldn’t find any information. I think your family made it up, I finally informed her. “No,” she insisted. “It’s a real word!” I don’t want to be a schmuck, but I’m not sure it is.

You’ve just discovered how language works. Each and every family – heck, any social grouping – has its own neologisms. Sometimes those take off and infect an entire language grouping. Mostly they don’t. Even those that do tend to do so on a regional basis. Which is how we get accents and dialects and over time those develop into new languages. There are centralising forces too – mass media being an obvious one. Print was an earlier example. Most European languages got nailed down to a single one of those regional variants with the publication of the first vernacular Bible (for some reason I know that there was considerable argument over which version of Slovak should be used).

Give it a couple of millennia and we’ve got Latin breaking up into Romanian, Spanish, Portugee and so on. Or the varied Italians. Yes, other influences too, but absolutely part of it is just families and groupings inventing a word and it takes off among a wider group but not all Romance language speakers. We have another example in the Bantu languages, again over a couple of millennia. Or, of course. Old Germanic into German and Scandi and the influence upon English (which is an oddity, being a blend across two major groups) or the varied forms of Slavic.

At some point some Lombard started using birra instead of cervisia and it spread, but not to the similarly Latin speaking Spanish or Portugee. Same with tavola instead of mensa.

That’s just how it all works. Languages are naturally fissiparous precisely because families always do invent their own new words.

22 thoughts on “Congratulations!”

  1. Not worth bothering with the substantive content of this one.

    It’s just a Guardian lesbian finding an excuse to drop the word “wife” into an article. Normalising stuff that upsets the bigots.

    Coming soon in the Guardian: “My hoss whinnies when I bum him. Is this because he’s an Appaloosa?”

  2. I have a facsimile style copy of the original Spectator from 1711 and found a letter in there that uses “bamboozle”. I always thought it a modernish word, so that was a great discovery.

    My missus was an Austen fan, but I’ve forgotten which book she said it was in. Anyway in it one of the heroines “quizzes” a young man. I thought only the police reported in the papers did this.

    When I lived in Munich, the Irish and Americans with whom I had lunch would anglicise German words. “Geniessing”something was enjoying and “gerning” something was liking and/or wanting something. I’d go to the local biergarten for a “quick schank”.

  3. Languages are fascinating. I have to cope with both Spanish & Portuguese. Which are similar languages have gone in slightly different directions. I have trouble with some of the vowel+vowel combinations in Portuguese. The english palette doesn’t exactly prepare us for them. (It’s similar in speaking French)
    There’s also the teaching english side. Got confronted by the words here & hear recently. Sounding exactly the same in modern english. They didn’t always, though. They were both two syllable words & would have sounded distinctly different.
    Middle-english poetry is good for understanding your own language.

  4. Can great minds think alike, at least sometimes?

    As a former grad student in Linguistics, can I just say that I like this blog because I find areas of agreement such as this post?

  5. Yeah, Tim. Not much use in PT. But, of course, PT’s hardly the centre of portuguese culture, is it? Nor’s Spain the centre of hispanic. Colombians speak much better spanish than the spanish. And english is not the centre of english culture. That must be off the coast of California somewhere.
    Due to where I grew up, I have a fair bit of yiddish. It does have some great words for concepts would take an entire sentence of english. There’s a joke I shared with someone from a similar background, recently, plays on this. Not only do you have to understand the yiddish in it but have the cultural basis to see it as funny. Jews undoubtedly do the best jewish jokes.

  6. Sam Vara : “My hoss whinnies when I bum him. Is this because he’s an Appaloosa?”

    That’s no appaloosa, that’s a strawberry roan with monkeypox.

  7. Technical, cultural, environmental, all change language; sometimes as a quick shorthand of “What’s the etbol for that?”, sometimes as a Thief’s Cant to mark an in-group versus an out-group (“the rentboys will be stonking them with dolly mixtures until H-5 minutes”)

    Sometimes as simple as environment: Isaac Asimov described trying to come out as a science-fiction writer to his father, an Eastern European immigrant to New York. His father wanted young Isaac to stay in chemistry, which seemed a more reliable trade: science-fiction had ‘been done’ and all the good stories already written by ‘Zoolvern’.

    ‘Zoolvern’? asks young Isaac, bemused (being a fan as well as a would-be author. Who’s this ‘Zoolvern’?

    Old man Asimov explains in his thickly accented English. “You know Zoolvern! I buy you his stories, you love them! Men who go to centre of earth! Men who go to moon! Submarine go twenty thousand league-”

    And young Isaac gets it, in his best Bugs Bunny Brooklyn. “Oh! You mean Joolz Voyne!


  8. I missed the opportunity for a gag there!
    Jews undoubtedly do the best jewish jokes.
    Ask any two jews & you’ll get three opinions on this.

  9. @BiS

    That’s one of my favorite expressions! Especially useful when leftists are baffled by the existence of Jewish conservatives.

    Fun fact, medieval Jewish writers referred to Muhammad as המשגע(“ha-meshuggah”), or “the crazy one.”

  10. I’m always baffled by the existence of jewish leftists. Since the left has been trying to eradicate them for the past century.

  11. “Anyway in it one of the heroines “quizzes” a young man. I thought only the police reported in the papers did this.”

    Seems doubtful. The OED’s earliest citation of it as a verb is from 1819, and it doesn’t often miss. It does mention that Austen used the word, but in a different context: Northanger Abbey, “Where did you get that quiz of a hat?”. That’s very early, within a couple of decades of its earliest citation, but clearly not the modern definition. (Reading between the OED’s lines, it seems to have originated as the English name for the bandalore, an early form of yo-yo.)

    Jason Lynch: that story’s highly reminiscent of Wodehouse’s The Clicking of Cuthbert.

  12. Bloke in North Dorset

    The German for to complain is beschweren. So maybe they missed it with the English word wriggle?

  13. Otto,re: Jane Austen, “quiz” in the early 19th century meant “look at” (as in quizzing glasses), so maybe she was looking at a young man?

  14. Thank you Sam and Rowdy.

    I know that she had read Northanger Abbey. not sure if I kept it, when I gave away her books.

    She wouldn’t have bothered reading the notes ( it was a Penguin, I think ).

  15. English has (most linguistics types would agree) the widest vocabulary on the planet, with well over half a million distinct words. Many of them are recorded in dictionaries, perhaps no longer used but silently and patiently awaiting their return to common speech. There’s a great example in the Second Edition OED, which identifies rare words with a [1] (only a single recorded instance of its use in print) ore even [0] (never recorded in use, but present in earlier dictionaries). One of the [0] words is nippily, for which in 1930 they could find no recorded example of its usage – today, it’s difficult to find a car review that doesn’t describe handling in this way.

  16. I used to work at a place where “forbidden” meant that the management would prefer that you didn’t; “verboten” meant genuinely forbidden. I imagine that verboten had been picked up from war films or comics.

    One of my German students went back home and rejoined his old football club. The new coach remarked on their “gefighting”.

  17. One of my German students went back home and rejoined his old football club. The new coach remarked on their “gefighting”.

    Oh lordy. I listen to German footy commentaries in open mouthed horror. “Gefightet”has me biting the curtains.

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