Just Say Nu: Fluent Yiddish in One Little Word (When English Just Won't Do)

Overview

Just say Nu is a practical guide to using Yiddish words and expressions in day-to-day situations. Along with enough grammar to enable readers to put together a comprehensible sentence and avoid embarrassing mistakes, Wex also explains the five most useful Yiddish words-shoyn, nu, epes, takeh, and nebakh-what they mean, how and when to use them, and how they can be used to conduct an entire conversation without anybody ever suspecting that the reader doesn't have the vaguest idea of what anyone is actually saying....

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Overview

Just say Nu is a practical guide to using Yiddish words and expressions in day-to-day situations. Along with enough grammar to enable readers to put together a comprehensible sentence and avoid embarrassing mistakes, Wex also explains the five most useful Yiddish words-shoyn, nu, epes, takeh, and nebakh-what they mean, how and when to use them, and how they can be used to conduct an entire conversation without anybody ever suspecting that the reader doesn't have the vaguest idea of what anyone is actually saying. Readers will learn how to shmooze their way through such activities as meeting and greeting; eating and drinking; praising and finding fault; maintaining personal hygiene; going to the doctor; driving; parenting; getting horoscopes; committing crimes; going to singles bars; having sex; talking politics, and talking trash. People have finally started to realize that there's nothing in the world that can't be improved by translating it into Yiddish. Just say Nu is the book that's going to show them how.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"Hey, I lost my phone number. Can I have yours?" If those tired old pickup lines aren't working, maybe it's time to switch languages. Michael Wex's phonetic Yiddish primer enables you to ask "Kimst oft Aher?" (Come here often?); "Bei deer tsee bei meer?" (Your place or mine?); or "Ikh bin tchikaveh tseh visn far voos dee trugst nish' ka' Talis." (I'd really like to know why you aren't wearing a prayer shawl.) On other topics, the author of Born to Kvetch is equally informative and funny. Just Say Nu contains 300 pages of linguistic glimpses into Jewish culture, history, and folklore.
From the Publisher
"The cleverer, the truer, the better. And, like Wex's previous BORN TO KVETCH, this is plenty clever and awfully true. His [Wex's] deadpan delivery adds to the laughs...I laughed 'til I plotzed!" - AudioFile, Earphones Award Winner

Praise for Born to Kvetch:

“Wise, witty and altogether wonderful…. Mr. Wex has perfect pitch. He always finds the precise word, the most vivid metaphor, for his juicy Yiddishisms, and he enjoys teasing out complexities.” —William Grimes, The New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781427201874
  • Publisher: Macmillan Audio
  • Publication date: 10/16/2007
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Product dimensions: 5.68 (w) x 5.25 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Wex is a novelist, professor, translator (including the only Yiddish translation of The Threepenny Opera), lecturer, and performer. He's been hailed "a Yiddish national treasure" and is one of the leading lights in the current revival of Yiddish, lecturing widely on Yiddish and Jewish culture. He lives and shmoozes in Toronto.

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Read an Excerpt

Just Say Nu

1

Greeting and Meeting

Hello

It 's supposed to be simple. An English greeting helps to move two people across the great divide from quiet to conversation, from separation to communication. You say hello, good morning, or good evening, and you get hello, good morning, or good evening in return. Each formula is a well-paved pathway, a gentle ramp that leads easily from one state of being to another.

A Yiddish greeting does nothing of the kind. Take a look at the most basic way of saying hello,

SHOOLEM ALAYKHEM,

which has a literal meaning of "peace upon you." Now compare it with the sole permissible response,

ALAYKHEM SHOOLEM,

and you'll see what you need to know from the start: Yiddish conversation begins with a willingness to say the reverse of whatever has just been said to you—even when you happen to agree. You're not obliged to disagree, but you have to be ready to do so: Yiddish conversations progress as much by means of rhetorical questions and outright contradiction as by supposedly direct logical paths leading from conversational point A to conversational point B. Alaykhem shoolem implies no disagreement, of course; Hebrew and Arabic both use almost identical greetings, but they don't use them as warm-ups for the gainsaying yet to come.

Don't be put off by this propensity to disagree; it's a good thing, and helps to mark the boundary between real conversation and random acts of speech. Simple speech acts—raid, they're called, "talk"—are as cheap in Yiddish as in any other language and tend not to be valued highly in a linguistic culture that prefers silence to lack of focus. Raid can be PISTEH, empty; HARBEH, strong or harsh; they can even be GESHLIFENEH, polished, and thus all the more slippery. The one thing they don't have to be is listened to:

MEH RAIT IN DER VELT AREIN

One speaks into the world,

means that you're talking to the void; your words are in vain because they are aimless, directed to no one. Raid—which Yiddish uses no less than any other language—are like kids at the recess bell or gays in the closet: they're going to come out, whether you want them to or not.

A SHMOOS,2 on the other hand (the Yiddish rhymes with loose), a real conversation, begins with the idea of partnership. It's no accident that shmoos (pronounced shmees in the dialect used in this book—we don't even agree with ourselves, let alone anyone else) comes from a Hebrew word that means "tiding, rumor"; something that you've heard rather than something that you've said. Shmoozing is based on listening, on the idea of responding to what you hear and being answered in turn by someone who has been listening to you.

Disagreement leads to even closer attention. Heart speaketh to heart is very nice until all that treacle starts to cloy; heart yelleth at heart can be just as human and a lot more fun. Yiddish not only helped to inspire much of Martin Buber's work, it anticipated his idea of Ich und Du, "I and Thou," by hundreds of years. To besure, people who speak to each other in Yiddish spend much of their time in a sort of conversational collision, banging up against each other without ever going anywhere—just like people who are having sex. Contrary impulses and ideas pressing against each other can lead to communion and release—you don't have a shmooze in Yiddish, you FARFEER one. The verb means "to seduce, to lead astray." MEH FARFEERT A SHMEES; the meaningful exchange of words is a matter of enticement and persuasion.

The choice of verb here—the idiom means "to start or strike up an informal conversation"—gives us some insight into basic Yiddish notions of talk. While farfeern is frequently used to explain how girls get into trouble or yeshiva boys fall victim to the blandishments of the outside world, all that is seduced in a Yiddish conversation, all that is farfeert or derailed, is the selfish and ultimately silly desire for one absolute or the other: either total silence or total refusal to shut the hell up. Just as two willing bodies come together only because both have already said yes, so a real shmooze depends on consent, on each party agreeing to listen to what the other has to say. The average Yiddish shmooze involves two people who have renounced their claims to silence on the one hand and to monologue on the other. Each is willing to give the other a chance to do something other than daydream or obey—even though each already knows that the other must be wrong.

As such, not every exchange of dialogue attains the status of shmooze. Plenty of nudniks speak Yiddish, and fear of their all-consuming tedium often causes Yiddish to be spoken at a clip that makes even the most agitated English sound like a pothead's drawl; it's a sign that either party to a dialogue is afraid that now is their last chance to get a word in. The shmooze is there to keep us from treating everybody like a nudnik, and it is ironic that the current English use of shmooze has stood the Yiddish meaning on its head:

To chat in a friendly and persuasive manner especially so as to gain favor, business, or connections ... <she schmoozed her professors>

This sort of careerist nudnik-ery, defined for us here by the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, seems to be a recent development. Leo Rosten makes no mention of it in his entry for schmooze in The Joys of Yiddish, published in 1968, and I can't recall having heard it myself until some time in the 1990s. The overtone of purposeful friendliness, affability with an ulterior motive, couldn't be further from the feel of the original; it might be preferable to its purely English equivalent—network used as a verb, God forbid—but that doesn't bring it any closer to the Yiddish. Where real Yiddish obscenities like shmok and potz ("schmuck" and "putz") have turned cute in English, shmooze has been degraded from secular communion to self-serving sleaze. The transformation is ironic enough; it's even more ironic that English had to reinterpret a word from Yiddish—the language of eternal dissatisfaction—to characterize an essential stage toward getting what you want.

English speakers seek to satisfy their desires; all a Yiddish-speaker wants is a chance to open his mouth. A real shmooze involves an acknowledgment of the presence and importance of the person to whom you're speaking, which is why Yiddish leans so heavily on banter and wordplay; these apparently gratuitous remarks are there as conversational Chanuka gelt, tokens of esteem, little spoken gifts.

The importance of the other person also explains why there are no Yiddish versions of "your call is important to us" in this book. Even a strict textbook version would have to come with a question mark at the end: "Your call is important to us?" Yeah, sure. The shmooze version, the honest, no-bullshit rendition that shouldhave been yours by right, is Ven meh volt gevolt mit deer raidn, volt men mit deer shoyn gerait (If we wanted to talk to you, we would be).

 

 

As with virtually all Yiddish greetings, alaykhem shoolem is often, though not inevitably, followed by a challenge in the form of nu, which has a basic meaning of "so" or "well," as if to say, "Now that we've got the hellos out of the way, what have you got to say for yourself? Nu—give some account of your activities, justify your presence on this planet." It is the prelude to "How are you?" or "What's doing?" (For more on nu, see here .)

While nu can be used as part of virtually any greeting, the response to other salutations is just as fixed as alaykhem shoolem. Greetings are classified by time of day, time of week, and time of the Jewish year, and God help anyone who doesn't use the precise formula called for on a Saturday evening when Sunday is one of the two closing days of Passover—they'll never be taken seriously again.

The basic weekday greetings are

The Sabbath and other Jewish holidays have greetings of their own, which tend to be used even by people who would never think of observing them. These greetings are based on a rigid pecking order of holidays, in which Saturday trumps everything except for Yom Kippur:

 

Friday afternoon through Saturday:

GIT SHABES

Good Sabbath

A holiday that falls on a Saturday:

GIT SHABES, GIT YONTEF

Good Sabbath, happy holiday

Saturday night:

GITEH VOKH

Good week

Saturday during the High Holiday season:

GIT SHABES, GIT YONTEF, GIT YOOR

Good Sabbath, happy holiday, happy new year

New moon:

GITN KHOYDESH

A good month

Holidays (except Purim and Chanukah):

GIT YONTEF

Happy holiday

The intermediate days of Passover and Tabernacles:

GITN MOYED

Happy in-between times

It's as if "Merry Christmas" were a test, not a slogan. Newcomers to Yiddish can conceal their ignorance for a few extra seconds by taking advantage of the fact that every greeting, no matter how specialized, gets exactly the same response:

GIT YOOR

A good year.

Hence the well-known proverb: Az meh git a yeedn a git morgn, git er oop a gants yoor, "If you give a Jew a good morning, he gives you a whole year in return." Since no opening line conveys good wishes for more than a year, you can never go wrong by offering a year in return—a habit that also saves you from having to pay much attention to the person who's started talking.

Someone entering a home, a business, or an unusually hospitable kosher hotel with a Yiddish-speaking desk clerk will often be greeted with

BUREKH-A-BU

Blessed be the one who comes.

The sole proper response—one that separates the yold from the adept in the secrets of Yiddish—is

BUREKH-A-NIMTSEH

Blessed be the one who is already here.

As a noun, BURKH-A-BEH (note the shift in stress and loss of an e) means "welcome, reception." A SHAYNEM BURKH-A-BEH, "a lovely reception," means that you've been ignored, insulted, or attacked. If you should use the phrase while being physically ejected from someplace, it means "I had a yarmulke when I came in."

 

 

When the lights go up in the burlesque house and you find Rabbi Goldberg sitting next to you, all there is to say (assuming that you're the one who recovers quickly enough to speak first) is,

NU, RABBI, VOOS ZUGT EER GITS?

What's the good word, Rabbi? [lit., "What good do you say?"].

It means, "Nice to see you, but why am I seeing you here?" and indicates that you've run into someone in a place where they aren't expected to be. In less embarrassing circumstances—you own the burlesque house and know that Rabbi Goldberg knows that you do—it's a friendly way of asking someone what business has brought them to so unusual a location.

Good-bye

Thousands of pop songs to the contrary, it's always easier to say good-bye, which makes one wonder why Jews take so long to do so. There are only three greeting-and-response pairs in standard use, and the response—as you might already have expected—is the same in every case:

The all-purpose answer is

A GIT YOOR

a good year.

If you're trying to end a conversation or walk out of a room, the most common way to say good-bye is ZEI GEZINT (literally, "be well"). If you're trying to get rid of a nudnik or have no plans of ever seeing someone again—so long as you can help it—you say ZEI MEER GEZINT or even ZEI-ZHE MEER GEZINT. The meer (which means "me") gives the expression a sense of "I hope that you're going to be healthy, because I have no intention of asking after you."

"ZEI MEER GEZINT MIT [any noun you choose]" really means either, "Stop bothering me about whatever-it-is [because you're leaving]," or "You and your whatever-it-is-that-you-won't-stop-going-on-about can go to hell together." To someone who's aboutto embark on a trip, whether to the source of the Nile or the store on the corner, you say:

If they indicate that they're planning to go to a place that you've already warned them off of, GAY (or FOOR) GEZINTERHAYT can also mean, "Go ahead and go, but don't say that I didn't warn you"; "Go—whatever happens is your own damned fault."

How Are You?

Despite the fact that a polite evasion is as close as anyone is likely to come to a positive response to the question—if you don't get a kvetch, you'll get a circumlocution—Yiddish speakers continue to ask after one another's welfare as if they were gathering material for a long-term anthropological study of what can go wrong. Such behavior might be based on religious principles: the Mishna enjoins us to "Be the first to greet [that is, inquire after the welfare of] every man" (Ovos 4:16), but says nothing about hanging around to listen to his answer.

VOOS MAKHT EER?

How are you? (To a stranger, elder or social superior)

 

VOOS MAKHSTEE?

How are you? (To a friend, a child, anyone whom you outrank)

 

VOOS MAKHT A YEED?

How are you? [lit., "How is a Jew?" Used only between males; informal and synagogue usage]

 

VOOS MAKHT EER GITS?

How you doing, man/dude/pal o' mine?

The verb makhn, "to make," can also mean "to do, to say; to swing, to wave, to be":

VOOS MAKHT DEIN SHVESTER?

How's your sister?

The textbook response would be

ZEE MAKHT GIT

She's (doing) well.

What you're far more likely to hear, assuming that she's really getting on all right, is

KENEH HOREH

or

KENAINEH HOREH,

variant pronunciations of a phrase that means "[may] no evil eye [befall her]" (see here), or the truly all-purpose

BU-REKH-A-SHEM

Thank God [lit., "blessed be God"],

the politest possible way of saying absolutely nothing.

The textbook response to any question about yourself,

GANTS GIT

very well,

is pretty much confined to textbook use and doesn't really do much to further conversation.

"I'm doing quite well, thanks. My children—they should live and be well—head up the only orthodox Junior Achievement Club inthe state; my husband, the cardiologist/rabbi, has just been named America's first Jewish astronaut and will soon be taking shabes into outer space, kenaineh horeh; I've won the Nobel Prize for Economics and Home Economics, and Color Me Kosher, my it's-fun-to-be- frum cosmetics business, is the first glatt kosher firm to be named to the Fortune 500.

It's people like this for whom the evil eye was invented.

 

 

The more usual responses to general questions about your welfare are

E-e-h and nishkoosheh are two of many Yiddish words with a pronounced physical component. In order to use either of them effectively:

1. Raise the right hand to mid-chest level, palm parallel to the floor.

2. Give the wrist a quarter-turn to the left (toward you), followed immediately by a half-turn right (i.e., a quarter-turn from the starting position), followed immediately by a half-turn left.

3. Repeat if needed with an extended e-e-h or every time that nishkoosheh is said.

A truly fantastic "greeting" that asks "How are you," provides a negative response on behalf of the person asked, and leaves them more room than ever to bend your ear with complaints is

EPES GEFELSTEE MEER NISHT

I somehow don't like you, [i.e., there's something about you that displeases me; i.e., I can see that there's something wrong with you, so why don't you tell me about it].

The word heint, "today," is often appended to the phrase ("Epes gefelstee meer nisht heint") just to make sure that the person to whom it's addressed doesn't get the wrong idea. As mentioned above, this phrase is an invitation to kvetch and should never be used unless you really, really care.

Meeting

MAH SHMAIKHEM?

What's your name? (from the Hebrew. Faux formal; characteristic synagogue usage)

HAYSN HAYS IKH MAURICE, NOR RIFN RIFT MEN MIKH "THE SPACE COWBOY"

My name is really Maurice, but people call me the Space Cowboy.

 

BAKEN ZAKH MIT MEIN MAN/FROY

Meet my husband/wife

 

LOMIKH EIKH FOORSHTELN MEIN BREEDER GEORGE

Let me introduce you to my brother George

 

ZAYER OONGENAIM

Nice to meet you [lit., "very pleasant"]

 

ZAYER EINGENIMEN

Nice to meet you [lit., "very welcome"]

DRIKN DEE HANT, "the shaking of hands" (literally, "pressing the hand") usually follows.

Simple Conversation: The Weather

MENDEL: S'IZ SHAYN IN DROYSN?

Is it nice out?

 

MINDEL: VEN SEH RAIGNT NISHT

If it doesn't rain.

 

MENDEL: S'IZ HAYS, HUH?

Hot, isn't it?

 

MINDEL: NISHT AZOY HAYS VEE FAYKHT

It ain't the heat, it's the humidity.

 

MENDEL: AZOY ZUGT MEER DER REMATEHS

My rheumatism tells me that.

 

MINDEL: MEER OYKH. IN HEYKHER

Mine, too. And louder.

In order to discuss the weather effectively, it helps to be able to identify the following:

DAY AND NIGHT

MEER IZ FINSTER GEVORN IN DEE OYGN.

It went me dark in the eyes [i.e., I was greatly dismayed.]

HEAVENLY BODIES

SHAYN VEE DEE LEVOONEH

Beautiful as the moon [i.e, pretty as a picture]

ZEI MOYKHL, IKH KISH DAIM HIML ITST

Excuse me while I kiss the sky [lit., "I'm kissing the sky now" ].

BASIC PRECIPITATION

AN AVAYREH A HINT AROYSTSETREIBM

Not fit for a dog outside [lit., "It'd be a sin to put a dog out"]

A distinction that shouldn't be overlooked:

but

There's nothing more embarrassing than sitting in a stuffy room and saying, "Am I the only one here who's horny?" without even knowing that you've done so.

Common Courtesy

Those who think of Yiddish-speakers as rude will be shocked to discover that Yiddish has two ways of saying please that people who speak the language use all the time:

Many of the same people are, however, just as likely to point at something that they want and grunt, generally from somewhere behind the nose (grunting of this sort seems to be a male prerogative), or else shout out the name of whatever it is that's wanted, for instance, "ZALTS!" (Salt!) or "GATKEHS!" (Long johns!) with a strong if unspoken sense of "now."

No one reading this book will be able to get away with such behavior until the generation just described has been gone long enough to be remembered by no one else. Until then, it's best to observe the proprieties and ask nicely:

It's also considered good form to say thank you:

And let's not forget you're welcome:

FOR-FRIGGIN-GIVENESS

ZEIT MOYKHL, which has a very literal meaning of "forgive me," really means "excuse me, I beg your pardon" or "please." If you want to ask a stranger for directions, you approach with ZEIT MOYKHL, "excuse me"; you say the same thing if you're pushing your way through a row of seated theater-goers with a box of popcorn in your hand. If you want someone to pass you the milk and you don't feel like using ZEI(T) AZOY GIT, you could say ZEIT MOYKHL, DEE MILEKH, "milk, please." It gets more interesting, though, when you find yourself in the usual Yiddish situation of not getting what you want: you've tried a couple of zeit azoy gits and the damned milekh is still at the other end of the table. You can then say IKH BIN DEER MOYKHL DEE MILEKH—literally, "I forgive you in regards to the milk." What it really means is "You can take your stinking milk and pour it through a funnel where the sun don't shine." Or you can reach over, invade the personal space of the yutz who's ignoring your request, take the milk yourself and say MOYKHL, "Don't friggin' bother."

 

You can use MOYKHL even more ironically to indicate how little you want something that's been offered you: VILST ESN BAY MEER KREPLAKH, "Want a knuckle sandwich?" (Literally, "Would you like me to give you some dumplings to eat?") Just hold up your hands and say, MOYKHL, "[No] thanks!"MEKHEELEH, the noun derived from moykhl, means "pardon" or "forgiveness," what you ask for on Yom Kippur. It's also used to mean TUKHES or "rear end":

VILST A KOPEH IN MEKHEELEH AREIN?

Want a kick right up your you'll-pardon-the-expression?

 

MOYKHL

No thanks!

Forms of Address

Like most people with no real power, Yiddish-speakers are obsessed with respect and are quick to take umbrage when they feel improperly treated. Many misunderstandings arise simply from calling someone DEE—the familiar (and singular) form of the second person pronoun—rather than EER, its polite (and plural) version.

 

People with whom you use DEE:

Family members Friends Classmates, former classmates Contemporaries whom you meet in social settings Colleagues who don't outrank you Anyone whom you outrank (unless DEE could provoke embarrassing rumors: use EER with your personal assistant) All children Pets Anyone whom you're busy insulting God

Eer is for everyone else, until such time as you both agree to dee. The old man behind the counter whom you've addressed as dee is going to feel much like an African-American man who's just been called boy—don't expect him to do you any favors.

Starting a conversation with eer, though, can be like beginning with "Hey, mister!" in English. You can address men as REB YEED, "sir," (literally, "Mr. Jew") or even DER YEED, "the Jew," i.e., "the gentleman." With women, all you've got to work with is MRS. (which is Yiddish for "Ma'am" in English-speaking countries), while kids can be addressed as YINGL, MAYDL, or BUKHER, depending on whether the kid is a boy, a girl or a boy over thirteen. The kids, of course, are addressed as dee. Older people can be addressed quite properly as FETER OR MEEMEH, uncle or aunt, whether they're related to you or not. Zeit moykhl, feter, "Excuse me, uncle," or A dank eikh, meemeh, "Thank you, auntie," are perfectly polite when dealing with people eligible for pensions, and are highly recommended for daily use: the fastest way to provoke a fight in Yiddish is to fail to defer to someone who is older than you. As we'll see very shortly, we're dealing with a culture that thinks of aging as an act of virtue.

A Few Common Yiddish Words That Don't Fit in Anywhere Else

Five Little Words That Will Get You Through Any Yiddish Conversation

1. NU

The following conversation could take place in what anybody who wants to speak Yiddish without actually learning it might consider the best of all possible Yiddish-speaking worlds, the one where no sentence is longer than a single word. Imagine two speakers, A and B, discussing the health of a gravely ill acquaintance:

A: NU?

Well—?

 

B: SHOYN.

It's all over.

 

A: EPES—?

Something [in the way of a turn for the worse befell him that he wasn't healthy enough to be able to withstand]?

 

B: TAKEH.

Precisely.

 

A: NEBAKH.

That's too bad.

Add the proper tones to these five little words, and the dialogue is no longer quite as scanty as it looks on the page. How can a language with so many speakers who never stop talking leave so much space for taciturnity? Because those speakers know that you know; and they know that you know that they know.

Many years ago I strayed into a strange synagogue, looking for a minyen to say kaddish. I'd no sooner passed through the door than the SHAMES, the synagogue-version of a top sergeant, cornered me and asked point-blank, "Vee, fin, voos?" (How, from, why?) That is, Vee haystee, fin vanet kimstee, voos tistee doo: "What's your name, where are you from, and what are you doing here?"

The shames wasn't being rude; he was working. So brutally circumcised a conversation could only take place in a synagogue, where rigid if generally unrecognized conventions govern the initial course of conversation with strangers. Since context had already determined what had to follow each of the words that the shames uttered, it was easy to know what he meant and to respond accordingly.

The five little words that we'll be looking at over the course of this book are the opposite of the shames's vee, fin, and voos. Each has so wide a range of possible meanings that it can do duty for entire sentences. You will sound totally au courant, thoroughly Yiddish-savvy, even though you might not have any idea of what you're talking about, what's going on around you, or why people are responding to you in the way that they are. These words are a safe and effective substitute for alcohol and drugs, and you can use them as often as you like.

 

 

Among the best-known words in the language, nu is sometimes heard in English these days, but rarely among non-Jews and never with the vast range of meaning that it can have in Yiddish. Things have changed considerably since 1958 or '59 when I went tearing out of the room where I'd been watching December Bride in order to inform my mother that Pete Porter, one of the regular characters, had to be Jewish. Pete was played by Harry Morgan (who was also Bill Gannon on Dragnet and Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H), and anyone who's seen the show will remember that its characters were among the most irredeemably goyish in an era of irredeemably goyisheh sitcoms. My mother, ever the diplomat, asked me how I knew. "Er hot nor voos gezugt nu," I told her. "He just said nu." My mother didn't miss a beat. "Iz nu?" she asked, as if to say, "And what? He shouldn't say nu?"

Nu is that kind of word. According to Uriel Weinreich, nu means "Go on! well? come on!" And it does. But it can mean so very much more, depending on context and tone of voice.

At its most colorless, nu can be used to link two disparate elements in a conversation, as when you want to change from one subject to another and can't think of a smooth transition, or want to resume speaking after a long silence, comfortable or not. In a sentence like,

... IN IZ PLITSIM GESHTORBM.

NU, LOMEER RAIDN FIN FRAYLEKHEREH ZAKHN

... and died suddenly. Nu, let's speak of happier matters,

the happy matter could be a Mets victory or a warmer day than you'd expect for November; the point is that the nu gets you out of any topic that's become unpleasant, uncomfortable, or uninteresting and serves as a magic bridge to whatever you'd like to discuss next. You could just as easily say,

... IN IZ PLITSIM GESHTORBM.

NU, IKH HOB NEKHTN OOPGEFRAIGT EINSTEIN'S TAIORYEH

... and died suddenly. Nu, I disproved Einstein's theory yesterday,

as go on to a eulogy of the deceased. A nu of this type must follow seamlessly from the preceding word, as if it's merely the final syllable: GE-SHTORBM-NU. (The bold type above is intended as an aid to nu-location; it has nothing to do with accent or stress.)

This sort of nu is closely related to the "Let's stick to the matter at hand" nu, as seen in such phrases as

These are used in order to get things back on track (at a meeting, for instance) after some digression in the proceedings. Theymean, "That's all well and good, but what about the main point"; or, "Leaving aside everything that's been raised hitherto, let's return to the central question of ..."

Nu, raboysei can also be used as a way of calling a group of people to order or getting a meeting or assembly under way. It's a more refined way of clearing your throat or saying, "Let's cut the crap and get down to business."

Nu can also be used on its own as a way of opening and even sustaining a conversation. You can approach a Yiddish-speaking stranger almost anywhere and simply say,

NU-U-U?

Translated briefly, this would mean, "What are you doing here and what have you got to say for yourself?" Such an introduction could theoretically lead to the following exchange:

THEM: NU!?

What business is it of yours and who are you that you should even be asking?

 

YOU: NU!!

I demand an answer!

 

THEM: IZ NU?

Is that a fact?

At which point the other person turns on her heel and leaves. Although such a conversation is possible (and when dealing with "life of the party" types, all too probable), there's a general feeling that two unaccompanied nus in succession are more than enough for any conversation.

The iz nu with which the above exchange ends is, of course, exactly what my mother said on hearing that Pete Porter was Jewish. Context determines the precise meaning of the phrase. When my mother used it, she meant, "What else should he have said? Tell me something surprising." Immediately above, it means, "I know that you want an answer and I don't care one little bit." In short, "So what?" It can be a friendly "so what," as in "That's exactly what I would have expected," or a hostile "so what," as in, "tough noogies":

YOU: DER NAZI HOT GERAIT VEE AN ANTEE-SEMIT.

The Nazi spoke like an anti-Semite.

 

THEM: IZ NU?

And? ...

 

or

 

YOU: MEER GEFELT NISHT DEIN ARBET.

I don't like your work.

 

THEM: IZ NU?

So what's it to me?

This usage shades almost imperceptibly into the nu of utter indifference, the "is that supposed to be of any interest" nu:

SAM SPADE: IKH HOB GEZAIN JOEL CAIRO HEINT BEI NAKHT.

I saw Joel Cairo tonight.

 

MISS O'SHAUGHNESSY: NU?

So?

Nu can also be used to preface a question with which you'd like to begin a conversation:

NU, VOOS MAKHT A YEED?

Nu, how's a Jew?

is like saying, "So how's it going?" in English. The nu, like the so, helps to soften the question and indicate an openness to further conversation. It's as if you're saying, "Ah, there you are. I've been wondering about you lately."

The nu of impatience is among the most prominent of all the nus, and is probably the most frequently heard. It starts with a simple

NU-U-U?

Come on,

delivered in a tone midway between quizzical and chagrined, as if to say, "If you don't know what the gas pedal is there for, how did you get so far in this traffic to start with?" It's a "poop or get off the pot" sort of thing. Nu here means "either do it or don't do it, but make a decision and let us know":

KIMST TSEE NISHT? NU?

Are you coming or not? Make up your mind, commit yourself to one course of action or the other.

The next step up from the simple nu of impatience involves linking nu with another of the five most useful Yiddish words, shoyn:

NU, SHOYN?

Come on, already.

Imagine an old movie, one of those where the bad guy, secure about the good guy's goodness, hands him his gun and says, "Go ahead, then, shoot me. Right here, in cold blood. Here, go ahead and shoot." If the movie were in Yiddish, the next line, the one right before, "Can't do it, can you? I didn't think you could," would be

NU, SHOYN?

Whatever it is, just do it already.

It should therefore come as no surprise that

NU, GAY SHOYN

Come on, go already,

is a favorite of Yiddish-speaking drivers the world over, or that no Nike commercial will ever be translated into Yiddish. "Just do it" runs the marathons that its translation, nu shoyn, never would.

Nu shoyn differs slightly from the closely related nu-zhe, which is a little less forthcoming, a little more beseeching. In the scenario just described,

NU-ZHE

would have more the sense of "Please shoot and put me out my misery" than "I double-dog dare you." Otherwise, it's more along the lines of "Nu, please," than the overtly imperative nu shoyn.

Nu can also indicate that things have come to an end, even when those things are only your patience.

NU, LOMEER GAYN

Nu, let's go

can mean either, "Oh, have we finished? Then let's be on our way," or "Okay. That's it! I can't take any more. Let's go." You could also use it if you and a friend were suddenly to be given an invitation to a party; in such a case, nu would have a sense very like that of "okay."

Nu can even be used to mean "if." If a friend is afraid that her ex-husband might show up at some social event to which she's been invited, you can say,

NU, AZ ER KIMT IZ VOOS [best pronounced here as VOO-ES

for the sake of contemptuous emphasis]?

And if he comes, so what?

Without the nu, the sentence wouldn't have so strong a sense of "so what, it doesn't matter."

If you ask a kid, or a roomful of kids, "Want candy?" expect to hear a response of

NU, YEH!

We sure do!

This is a highly developed form of the "what else?" motif that we saw earlier and leads to the truly wonderful

POTER NU

absolutely, undoubtedly, no question about it.

It's a response—arguably the best possible response—to a ridiculously obvious question. "Mr. Wex, do you know any members of the Jewish faith?" "Poter nu!" While the basic meaning of poter is "exempt from, free," here it means "of course, absolutely, for sure." Poter nu is really poter; nu? "Of course, why would you even think to ask?"

I've also been told that in many a marriage, a late-night, slightly diffident

NU?

often accompanied by a shrug (and usually uttered by the husband), is still considered foreplay. In other bedrooms, of course, the nu of impatience is used.

JUST SAY NU. Copyright © 2007 by Michael Wex. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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