The Joys of Yiddish: Outwitting history

I’ve sent a few e-mails in an exchange with Redmonk’s James Governor, in response to his request that resulted the the post Say it ain’t so, Sam.. In his blog James wrote as follows:

Open source maven and IBM change agent Dave Shields.

To which I replied:


I forgot to thank you for the nice comment, “Open source maven and IBM change agent Dave Shields.”

Maven! You are definitely not a “nig-nog.”

My wife’s mother spoke Yiddish and so she has more than the usual vocabulary in Yiddish. Since I’ve known her she has referred to someone who was clueless as a “nig-nog.” I always thought it came from Yiddish, as does “maven.” I used the term often, to demonstrate my own knowledge of Yiddish.

Then I recently learned she made up the term on her own several decades ago, so all those folks had no idea what I was talking about. I guess that’s often the case, even when I don’t say “nig-nog.”

If you’re in the NY area in the next few days, stop by and we’ll make some latkes just for you.


And thinking of Yiddish reminded me of a remarkable book by Aaron Lansky, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books.

It is a truly wonderful book. It has many great stories and is very well-written.

Perhaps the most memorable is about the salvation of a book that survived in only one copy. Back in the 1920’s a scholar in the Ukraine spent years compiling a dictionary or lexicon of the political vocabulary (or perhaps it was the history) of various political terms in Yiddish.

As the book was being printed and bound for distribution, an American visitor happened to be in the plant, and was given a copy. The Soviet Secret Police arrived within hours after he left, and systematically destroyed the printing plates and every copy of the book. People knew about the book, but since it had never been published, all assumed it had been lost.

Then the single surviving copy was found as part of Mr. Lansky’s work, and so the book wasn’t lost after all.

Writing lost forever is forever a loss to humanity.

Mr. Lansky’s book also reminds us that just one college course can set the course of one’s life. Mr. Lansky took a course in Yiddish, and the rest is history.

This was also the case with many of the students of a Williams College Professor of Art, as recounted in my post S. Lane Faison Jr., 98, Dies; Art Historian and Professor. Some of his students went on to pursue careers in art, and some achieved great success in doing so — all because of his teaching.

Another great book about Yiddish is The New Joys of Yiddish, by Leo Calvin Rosten, Lawrence Bush, R. O. Blechman (Illustrator), R. O. Blechman (Illustrator), Lawrence Bush (Revised by). It’s an update of the classic “Joys of Yiddish” published several decades ago.

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