Now that we are a year into this “pandémye” (pandemic) and can begin to see a wee glimmer of hope in the distance I’d like to take a few moments to talk about some Yiddish expressions for illness. Ill health and sicknesses (“kránkaytn” or “krénken”) were perennial concerns for the Jews of Eastern Europe. As the saying goes, “béser a gezúnter óreman éyder a kránker gvir” (it’s better to be poor and healthy than sick and wealthy).
Yiddish employs as descriptive an array of terminology as any other language to talk about ill health, from the everyday “véytik” or “veytog” (pain) to the disease most dreaded of all by Jews, namely “kholyére” or “kholyérye” (cholera). Though the name of the disease is of Greek origin, medieval Jewry elevated its provenance with a Hebrew folk etymology, “choli ra’” (evil disease), presumably owing to the respect and dread in which it was held.
Following this Hebrew thread, while words for most Yiddish illnesses come from Yiddish’s Germanic stock, some common ones are taken from Hebrew. Fittingly because Passover is almost here, the word “máke” can mean a plague in Yiddish, but it is also a common word for a boil. “Khalóshes” is a feeling of faintness or nausea. Suffering from the Germanic “farkílung” (common cold) or the French-derived “grípe” (flu) may well be accompanied by a “kadókhes” (fever). “Mayóve kadókhes” (literally May fever), however, is febrile only in rare cases, as this phrase refers to one’s seasonal allergies; English also employs a feverish terminology here: hay fever.
There may be a bit of apotropaic wishful thinking here, but when used with the indefinite article “a máke” means “no way!” and “a krenk” means “nada, zilch.” The latter meaning can equally well be expressed with a word you may have heard before: “bóbkes,” which has rolled its way into English as bupkis. What may be less obvious is that “bóbkes” are goat droppings, not an especially valuable commodity to be sure.
Staying with “krenk” for a moment, it can be used in several other expressions that show how infectious the language of illness can be. “Shlepn,” a Yiddish verb you might be familiar with, means to drag or pull something; “farshlépn” means to drag out or prolong something. A “farshlépte krenk” is therefore a prolonged or chronic illness. The phrase can also refer to a person who is constantly making jokes. But the chronic jokester can often become tedious, and a “farshlépte krenk” will sometimes also be used for a pest. Like the “farshlépte krenk” who always has a joke on his lips like a dog with a bone, one can say “er farshtéyt a krenk” (literally, he understands an illness) to mean “he’s as stubborn as a mule.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up one of the most storied medical conditions in Yiddish. I am put in mind of the khéyder (heder) student who was having a terribly difficult time remembering the Hebrew word “kále” (bride), despite all of the prompting of the melámed (teacher). When the teacher tried to prompt him with “It’s something your grandfather had, your father has, and someday you too will have” the child blurted out: “a kíle!”—a hernia. In addition to “kíle” one can refer to a rupture as a “grízhe,” a “brokh,” a “vínklbrokh,” or the Hebraic “shéyver.” And while it would be better for a piece about Rosh ha-Shanah, there is the saying: “a yid, az me hot a shéyver iz póter fun tkíes un shvórim”—“when a man has a hernia he’s released from the obligation to blow the shofar.” Their humor aside, these two examples display Yiddish’s love for puns, in the first playing on the transformation of “kále” to “kíle” and in the second with the name of the shofar blast having the same Hebraic root as the word for hernia.
I’ll leave you with some final diseases, but on an upbeat note. “Mózlen” is both the noun for measles and the verb to have the measles; “póken” is the noun for pox (both small and chicken) as well as the verb for having such a disease. (Incidentally, “póken-shtelung” is an inoculation.) “Gepókt un gemózlt” literally means to have had chickenpox and measles, both of them the requisite diseases of childhood. The expression therefore has the connotation of having endured the necessary tribulations and come through the other side. I wish for you all a speedy póken-shtelung and that we all may come successfully through the other side. After all, “abí gezúnt!”—as long as you’ve got your health! Not to lay it on too thick, but 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.