Like many of you who have been cooped up at home these many months, my family decided to get a pet, in our case a terribly sweet little cat we originally named Kugel. As I’ve watched her acclimate to our family I got to thinking about cats in Yiddish. I’ll start by using cats to introduce a little grammar and then move on to some of Yiddish’s more colorful cat talk.
Like many languages Yiddish has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Since nouns and adjectives agree in gender it is important when learning Yiddish to memorize a noun’s gender as well. A noun’s gender is most clearly marked in the definite article (“the”), so let’s take some “cat” words as examples: “der kóter” (masculine; the tomcat); “di kats” (feminine; the cat); and “dos ketsl” (neuter; the kitten). Luckily, there is no gender marked in the plural, so you only have to learn one plural form: “di kóters” (the tomcats); “di kets” (the cats); and “di kétslekh” (the kittens). The word for kitten is a diminutive form (which are always neuter). Yiddish actually also has a second-degree diminutive, which is used to indicate a strong degree of intimacy and affection. For example: “shtot” (city), “shtetl” (town), “shtétele” (dear little town). So “ketsl” (kitten) can become “kétsele,” which is a term of endearment for one’s darling or sweetheart.
Some of Yiddish’s cat-related expressions are ones we will all likely be familiar with. For example, “az der kats geyt avék shpiln zikh di mayz” (when the cat’s away the mice will play). Others will make sense from casual observations of cats: “tsúgeyn vi a kats tsu smétene” (to hurry toward something, literally “to come running like a cat to the cream”), or “yogn zikh vi a kats nokh a moyz” (to hurry like a cat after a mouse), or even “úmtrogn zikh vi a kats mit a moyz” (to parade oneself around boastfully, literally “to strut around like a cat with a mouse”).
Other idioms are less typical. To say that something is very wet, for example, one might say that it is “nas vi a kats vos iz aroys fin zóyermílekh” (as wet as a cat that’s come out of the soured milk). To get across the sense of English idioms such as “like father like son” or “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” one could say “az es kumt aróys fun a kats makht es myáu” (when it comes out of a cat it meows). And to speak very rudely to someone is to “varfn a kats in pónem” (to throw a cat in their face), something I certainly don’t recommend.
Several of Yiddish’s feline idioms make specific mention of a cat’s tail. For instance, to refer to someone who is good for nothing one says “er ken nit a kats dem ek farbíndn” (he can’t tie a cat’s tail). And when one wants to indicate a very small amount of something one can speak of “vos a kats ken fartrógn afn ek” (what a cat can carry on its tail).
One of the more common idiomatic contexts in which cats are mentioned for some reason has to do with sacks. By far the most common is “koyfn a kats in a zak” (to buy a pig in a poke, literally “to buy a cat in a sack”). The feline version of this idiom is by far the most widespread among languages (such as German “die Katze im Sack kaufen,” or Polish “kupić kota w worku”), and it seems likely that the Yiddish strongly influenced the Hebrew “liknot hatul ba-sak.” The other sack-related idioms are more clear-cut: “aróyslozn di kats fun zak” (to let the cat out of the bag) and “vi tsvey kets in a zak” (fighting like cats and dogs, literally “like two cats in a bag”).
The final set of expressions is less straightforward. A “kétsisher móyekh” or a kétsener móyekh” refers to a particularly weak memory. The expressions “hobn a kátsnkop” (to have a cat’s head) and “hobn a kátsnmóyekh” (to have a cat’s mind) both refer to being forgetful or scatterbrained, as does “hobn seykhl vi di kats fun mítvokh” (literally, “to have the intelligence of Wednesday’s cat”), where in Yiddish idioms Wednesday often implies something very ordinary or everyday. This association of cats with unretentive memories seems to have deep roots in the Jewish tradition. In the Talmud (Horayot 13a) we learn that Rabbi Eleazar believed eating mice caused forgetfulness. This durable belief led to Eastern European boys being discouraged from even petting a cat for fear of the risk to their memories.
Thankfully we are now more enlightened about the manifold benefits of cats and can relegate such beliefs to purely idiomatic functions.
Enjoy your pets and whatever else adds brightness to your lives in these topsy-turvy times. And as always, “léyent gezúnterhéyt”—read it in good health!
Dr. Finkin, the Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian at the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, writes a monthly column for The American Israelite, on Yiddish, the area of his academic expertise. Please address questions for Dr. Finkin to firstname.lastname@example.org.