One Yiddish saying that made its way unscathed into my English speaking childhood was a beautifully distilled bit of pessimism:
Es vet hilfn vi a toytn bankes.
The word bankes is two syllables (BANkiss). Translated, the saying means, “That will help like cupping a dead man.”
For those who like grammar, or who can at least bear with grammar for couple of sentences**, yes the word order is, to an English speaker, tsemisht. Plus, a word or two have been left out (Yiddish speakers seem to be able to pick up on things with a minimum of information). So, literally, and in order, “It will help like a dead person cupping.”
In English, which relies heavily on word order, this might seem like the dead person is doing the cupping. But the little nun (-n) at the end of the word ‘toytn’ tells us otherwise. Toyt (dead) is an adjective. A toyter (dead person) is a noun, the –er ending being the equivalent of “one who is…” And when you do something to a toytn (or to any other adjective-made-noun that gets declined [oy vey!] by gender, number and case), then you put it in the accusative (or sometimes dative) case. Hence the –n ending.
Horrible as this is, I grudgingly admit that it does allow a great deal of flexibility. “The dog bites the mailman” and “The mailman is bitten by the dog” mean the same thing, but the latter requires adding more words. In Yiddish, if you want to emphasize the target you can move it forward in the word order and slap an ending on it which tells you it’s the object, not the initiator of the action. Something like “The mailmanem bites the dog.”
I digress, as usual. But this tagging the noun as the object also allows some words to be left out in the saying. Really it means “this will help like cupping will help a dead man.”
** If you can’t stand grammar, skip to here. But you missed the good part.
When we talked about this saying in our Yivo grammar class, our teacher asked who knew what cupping was. Only a few didn’t, but it’s a little obscure, particularly to Americans, so he explained about putting warm cups on the skin, ostensibly to draw toxins out. One of our Chinese students immediately recognized it, but just hadn’t known the English word ‘cupping’.
Our teacher opined that cupping in fact doesn’t help anybody, but was swiftly challenged by our Eastern Europeans and both Chinese students, all of whom knew people who had done this and believed it helps. He retreated, and settled for universal agreement on the fact that cupping will not help a dead person. After all, we had a lot of area to cover. Would the saying be an even better depiction of uselessness if everyone agreed the treatment was useless even when applied to living people? No. It’s not necessary. Useless is useless.
This morning I opened my computer and saw that cupping is in the news! See, Yiddish lives. And now a whole new generation of teachers will not have to take class time explaining what it is.
Michael Phelps. (Photo by Matt Slocum/Associated Press).