What Kind of Fool am I? (part one)

“And he answered that it is certainly human to make mistakes, but there are some human beings who make more than others, and they are called fools,…” Umberto Eco, in The Name of the Rose.

A fool, an ignoramus, a blockhead, a tyro, a ninny, a moron, a dolt, an idiot, a yokel, a clod, a simpleton… Yiddish is not the only language that has an impressive lexicon of words for someone who gets things wrong. But it is famous for it.

A Nar, a shoyte, a beheyme, a tipesh, a shtik holts mit tsvey oygn, an amorets, and on and on… If you want such lists, they are not hard to come by. You can google Bashevis’ “banquet speech”, or better yet (despite the poor sound quality) this excerpt from the New Yiddish Reperatory Theater. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbBo6URNbxM

In this blog, I usually try hard to avoid subjects that smack of shtick. Frankly, I dislike it. I’m not devoid of humor, but it bugs me that people laugh at Yiddish rather than in it. Still, it is a time for feeling foolish. And this subject matter is a familiar enough one that I can use it to talk about synonyms.

Now any poet knows there is no such thing as a true or perfect synonym. Every word has a different sound, a different history of usage and so a different flavor. But this is one of the hardest things to learn in a new language. And of course, anyone learning makes mistakes, and feels stupid sometimes. It helps to have a good-natured sense of humor about it. My brother in Germany fondly told me a story about an incident that happened soon after he had moved there. At a new job, the room where they were rehearsing was stifling, and when they stopped to take a break he loudly proclaimed, “Man, am I horny!” intending to say simply that he was hot. Brought the house down.

How would you explain to a non English-speaker the difference between a newbie (my brother in the story above) and an ignoramus? How about a dolt vs. a ninny? The humor of the New Yiddish Rep routine, above, comes precisely from the audience’s knowing simultaneously that on the one hand an imbecile is an imbecile. On the other hand, each derogative has its particular twist. Cumulatively, they indicate a vast and (to the American audience) nearly uncharted continent of idiocy, a universe of stupid, in which “The cantor’s turkey in the town of Chelm” is a fools’ fool’s fool.

When is ‘shoyte’ a better word to use than ‘nar’? Since I’ve been feeling foolish, I wished there was a way to learn more about the nuances of these specific forms. Meanwhile, in my online class, we are reading Sholem Aleichem’s story The Enchanted Tailor. The title character Shimon-Eli is a tailor who has read a lot, and therefore thinks he is very learned. He can’t say anything without throwing in a quotation in Hebrew or Aramaic, but is constantly either misquoting the Talmud or twisting its meaning. Our teacher has helped us to understand the story by hunting down and explaining the source passages that this tailor is mangling. In the story, his fellow craftsmen do not know any better, and esteem him highly. But Sholem Aleichem’s audience was in on the joke.

Shimon-Eli has an inkeeper relative who is an “amorets”, or an ignorant person. He looks down on this man who has no Torah learning all, who presumably cannot even read the holy tongue. The spelling of amorets shows the Hebrew origin of the word: Am (ha)orets, or “man of the earth”.


It occurred to me that now that I have a copy of the new Comprehensive English – Yiddish dictionary, I have a new tool for understanding near synonyms. I can look up English words that are very close together in meaning, and see what the Yiddish is. So I try it:

IDIOT – an idiyot; dos platshike kepl, der khamer חמור
DOLT – shoyte or tipesh
HICK. Here the dictionary gives ‘zhlub’ זשלאָב, but depending on context it might also include words that just mean a rural person [yishuvinik, dorfsyid…] My zeyde in one of his stories had a character deride another character as a yishuvnik. I suppose it’s all in the tone of voice. And of course, there is Amorets, as I described above,- meaning an uneducated man, in particular with regard to Jewish learning.
IMBECILE – Pereodem פּרא־אָדם. Can someone help me out with the Hebrew on this one?
There’s no entry for “NUMBSKULL” [Maybe here is where we can use “a chunk of wood with two eyes”].
BUFFOON lets לץ (pl. leytsim)

When one is translating, leyhavdil, poetry, this going back and forth from the English definition of the Yiddish, back to the Yiddish definition of the English can be extremely helpful. More about that soon, I hope. For now, as is well known, brevity is the soul of wit. But there is a work-around. Not being clever enough to write short blog posts, I have learned to serialize. And so, thus endeth part one.


Shmerl the Fool. Illustration by Lillian Fischel, from Solomon Simon’s “The Wandering Beggar”.

2 thoughts on “What Kind of Fool am I? (part one)

  1. פֶּרֶא-אָדָם is Hebrew for someone who is “wild, savage, rude, uncivilized, barbarous, ill-mannered” according to Alcalay’s Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary.


    • Thank you! That’s a great starting point. Sometimes, or even often, Hebrew and Yiddish usages diverge. The English word ‘Imbecile’ has a clinical, perhaps genetic feel to it, not to mention being both dated and derogatory (a subject I hope to get to in part 2). But in any case, it has a very different feeling than the synonyms you gave. What does the פֶּרֶא part by itself mean?


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