Back on the Blogging Wagon

Idioms and more idioms. Without any big resolutions, or promises of turning over a new leaf for the new year, I’m back at it.

Once again, I can think of no better way to get back on the blogging wagon than to talk about some idioms. Now “getting back on the _______ wagon” can apply to anything, but just being on the wagon is about alcohol specifically. Apparently, the original idiom was being “on the water wagon.” Water wagons, a precursor of street sweepers, were a common feature of urban life when the streets were full of wagons and horses (and their leavings) and had to be kept clean. The implication was that “I would jump on the wagon for a drink of water rather than drink alcohol.”

After I told K this was how I was opening my blog, she suggested that it should be “getting back on the horse”. But I like the blogging wagon better. I haven’t had a bad experience or been hurt; I merely lapsed. Wagons also seem a more substantial platform on which to stack a bunch of idioms. But different people and certainly different languages will have different associations. Had I started straight out with “On a wagon…” the reader might have thought of the lyrics of the Yiddish song Dona, Dona, Dona. Rather than drinking or resolutions, this evokes a calf, bound to a wagon, headed for slaughter. My dictionary also seems to take a somewhat gloomy view of being on wagons. It tells me that when you’re “on the wagon with someone” in Yiddish, it means the two of you are in the same boat.

Wagons are everywhere in Yiddish literature, from the sublime opening sentences of The Brothers Ashkenazi (admittedly, the only sentences I’ve read so far), to the comical alliteration in the first words of my grandfather’s Di Heldn fun Khelm: “Finf furn forn fun Khelm keyn Shedlits.” Five wagons rode from Chelm towards Shedlitz. I, too traveled this week, by car to Rochester, where I had the pleasure of seeing my old friends. Together, we read a few paragraphs of the I. L. Peretz memoir in the most recent Pakn Treger. Two turns of phrase involving wagons came up, albeit one of them tangentially.

First, we encountered the word for creditors, balekhoyves (בעלי-חובות) and I, being the designated baleksikon, noted that there were several pages of such compound words with ‘bal’ a hyphen, and then a noun. I think of them almost as little idioms. The בעל derives from the word for ‘master’, but the meaning can’t always be derived from ‘master’ plus whatever word follows. For example, according to the dictionary, a balnes can mean a miracle worker, but also someone who has been healed miraculously. It seems to me that a balteyve, a hedonist, is the opposite of someone who has mastered their passions or desires (teyves). Rather, someone who has been mastered by them. Another inscrutable example comes at the very beginning of that same Peretz piece in form of the tongue-twisting word word balkorkhekho בעל-כרחך, which means ‘whether you want to or not’. How the parts of that word are put together, I honestly do not know. Here’s one case when I might like the English version (willy-nilly) better.

The most common of these constructions is balebos or baleboste, which comes from ‘master of the house’ and in various permutations can be master (or mistress) of the house, but also landlord, boss, or housekeeper. Some of my friends didn’t know that balagole, which means wagoner or coachman, comes from a similar construction, and is spelled בעל-עגלה. It derives from the words for ‘master’ and for ‘wagon’. Yes, we already had the word fur for wagon, above. But Yiddish often has more than one word for something. Fur is derived from German. Agole comes from Hebrew. It seems to share a root with eygl, the golden calf. So we’re back to our calf, riding on a cart, and to bad things about to happen.

The other example was when Peretz’s grandfather iz aheymgekumen, vi men zogt, mitn baytshl. He “came home, as they say, with a whip.” The English translator helps us out a little, by saying “with nothing but his whip.” This idiom made immediate intuitive sense to me. The cart, and all the merchandise on it are gone. The horses, gone. Without the horse and cart, being left there holding a whip is somehow even more pathetic than having nothing at all. We have no equivalent in English.
I have not been completely idle while I’ve been away from blogging. I hope not to return with a whip but, rather, that soon I’ll have something to say about the project that kept me busy all last fall. Meanwhile, looking forward, I’m about to get a little more systematic. To that end, I just snagged a copy of volume two of Sheva Zucker’s Yiddish textbook. And, in the first lesson, in the first dialog the author completely charmed me with… more idioms!

Binyomin has been to a meeting where officers were elected. Reyzl asks him who won. Mottl agreed to take another term as club corresponding secretary, but wants them to buy him a computer equipped with Yiddish word processing. Reyzl says, “Oyf mir gezogt!” Then she asks who the kasir (treasurer) is going to be. “Berkovitch,” Binyomin tells her. Reyzl replies, “Berkovitch! Oykh mir a kasir!

Oyf mir gezogt means, “It should happen to me!” Literally, “It should be said about me.” By contrast, for the definition of Oykh mir a kasir, the author gives, “not much of a treasurer.” But the origin of it is clearly something such as, “He’s a treasurer like I’m a treasurer.” Nothing with Bal nor with horses and wagons, though.

I’m going to have to learn tenses and adjective conjugations, and get better at speaking. I’m going to have to learn to read cursive. There’s still a lot to do. Still, it can’t hurt to have a little fun while I’m at it.

It’s true, supposedly, that Kreplakh esn vert oykh nimes, you could even get sick of eating kreplakh. But so far, my appetite for Yiddish idioms, proverbs, and interesting word constructions ha nsot decreased. If you want to jump on the bandwagon and contribute your own wagon idioms, or bon-mots with ‘Bal”, feel free to comment. Help me out and show me what balemoykhes (braniacs) and baleleshoynes (masters of language) you are.



A horse-drawn water wagon, for street cleaning. Photo taken in the 1890s shortly before the first recorded use of the expression ‘on the wagon’, as the temperance movement began to pick up steam. None of which has anything to do with Yiddish, far as I know.

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