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The word nogoodnik does not derive from English “no good.”
As regular readers of this modest screed will know, nothing gives me a deeper splanchnic delight than to catch the Oxford English Dictionary in blatant error or in sloppy inattention to widely available linguistic knowledge. And today I have found a real doozie, a mistaken etymology so far from word-truth that it would have caused Dr. Johnson himself to kick over his gout stool.
Here is the OED’s take on the word nogoodnik:
“colloq. (orig. U.S.).< NO-GOOD adj. + -NIK suffix.] A good-for-nothing; a villain, a petty criminal.”
No, nogoodnik did not originate in the United States. Nogoodnik is a pure, 100% Russian word, borrowed into Yiddish in some long-ago Russian shtetl and taken to New York City late in the 19th century.
That one OED etymology seems to display ignorance of the Russian language, a knowledge of which, elsewhere within its capacious self, the OED is only too proud to boast. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary repeats the same erroneous origin.
Scroll down to the bottom of this column to read a response from the Oxford English Dictionary.
Here is the take of another know-it-all mavin of Yiddish, the late Leo Rosten. Now Rosten’s popular volume The Joys of Yiddish is indeed a joy and a treasure.
But — Leo too was sloppy.
Rosten’s book contains some error-ridden folk etymologies based on too many bagels with friends and not enough rabbinical perusal of scholarly sources. As I always say, everyone wants to be an expert, to pontificate. But even a pontiff has to doff his brocade gown now and then, slip out of his altar boy, and hit the books. Leo Rosten says, “no-goodnik. . .this mutation borrows the phrase “no-good” and adds the stalwart suffix –nik.”
No, it does not, Leo — alav ha-sholom.
Or, for you, Leo — such a sweet tooth — should I say halavah sholom? I do say: halevai shalom!
The amount of Russian vocabulary borrowed into Yiddish is sometimes forgotten. And I should make plain that to me Yiddish is no vershluggener dialekt. It is a full language and I care not one whit whether a gang of ultra-orthodox orange-pickers wish to repudiate its perhaps 700-year history and order their grandchildren not to learn it. One denies one’s mamaloshen at one’s peril.
mamaloshen = Yiddish mame ‘mother’ + loshn ‘tongue’ or ‘language’ from Hebrew lashon ‘tongue’
So no anti-Yiddishists need bother writing me shrill emails, as they did the last time I discussed Yiddish; for all such hysteric hissyfits shall dissipate pleasingly under the digital cleansing of a delete button.
Truth to tell, I once had a woman actually scream at me, in public, at a public lecture (!), for daring to suggest that nu, that delightful, common Yiddish jack-of-all-trades particle was of pure Russian origin. I had to borrow a computer from an audience member, go online to a Russian-English dictionary and show this shrieking female ignoramus that among the 20 or 30 different uses of nu in Yiddish, fifteen of them were directly borrowed from uses of the common Russian adverb, nu.
True Source of Nogoodnik
Nogoodnik was borrowed into Yiddish sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century directly and totally from the Russian noun
It means a worthless person, a reprobate. The noun is related to the Russian adjective nye-god-nay ‘not suitable,’ ‘worthless,’ a negative relative of the adjective godnay ‘suitable, fit’, all in the same family as the abstract noun
Годность (godnost ‘validity,’ ‘fitness’)
Yes, once in New York City, some Russianless person, hearing the Yiddish word ‘nehgodnik’ could and did think it was ‘no-good-nik.’ Thus was born its modern American spelling, an orthographical accommodation that seems to have disguised its true Russian origin.
The most singable locus classicus of the term nogoodnik is Frank Loesser's lyrics for his delightful 1950 Broadway musical “Guys & Dolls” where Miss Adelaide, the long-suffering girlfriend of the hood Nathan Detroit, sings with him the plaintively comic duet “Sue Me.” Their lyrics include this passage with two tasty New York City Yiddishisms:
“Adelaide: The best years of my life, I was a fool to give you.
Nathan: Alright, already, I'm just a nogoodnik!
Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide and Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit sing the comic duet “Sue Me” from the 1955 MGM film version of “Guys & Dolls.”
So Don’t be Such a Nudnik!
Another Yiddish –nik term of abuse that has entered English is nudnik ‘persistent nag,’ ‘boring jerk.’ Nudnik too is pure Russian 19th century street slang, a putdown borrowed into Yiddish and based on the Russian adjective noodnay ‘tiresome’ or ‘boring’ from the stem noun nuda ‘boredom.’
The Russian Suffix -Nik
Incidentally, this Russian agent-noun suffix –nik, ushered pleasantly into modern English through the juicy medium of American Yiddish and later directly from Russian with the 1957 blast-off of Sputnik, has proven a prodigious sire of new slang terms. Consider beatnik —coined in 1958 by San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen, peacenik, refusenik, neatnik, all-rightnik (‘a smug, nouveau riche person,’ first recorded in 1918), artnik, nuclear-freezenik, (video) arcadenik, and filmnik.
In Israel, its Yiddish use has given modern Hebrew the word kibbutznik. It has made easier the transition into English comprehension of pure Russian words like sputnik and its later relative lunik and words from other Slavic languages like the Serbian guerrilla word chetnik, as well as borrowed technical words necessary in writing English accounts of Russian history, terms like narodnik, kolkhoznik, raskolnik, subbotnik and zolotnik.
Of course, Russian is a bountiful, playful and teeming tongue and the \n\ of the –nik suffix is merely a euphonic infix. This Slavic suffixal agent-noun morpheme is –ik. Russian has other agent noun suffixes like the –chik of apparatchik.
-Chik and -nik are but two of several Russian suffixes used to make agent nouns. However, both -chik and -nik are common, sometimes with subtle differences of meaning.
soviet — СОВЕТ: 1) advise; 2) council, committee
sovietnik — advisor (official title)
sovietchik — one who gives advice (often used negatively or with heavy Russian irony)
antisovietchik — one who opposed the Soviet regime. In Communist propaganda jargon, antisovietchik means “dissident.” There is no Russian form *antisovietnik.
History of the Yiddish Language
The Yiddish alphabet, called the alef-beyz after its first two letters, is composed of Hebrew letters used somewhat differently than in Hebrew. The number of people, Jews and goyim, who call Yiddish ‘speaking Jewish’ is appalling. Likewise Yiddish letters are not “the Jewish alphabet.”
This is the first printed text in Yiddish, the so-called Prague Haggadah of 1526 CE.
If you know Hebrew letters, you can read, right to left, beginning at the top right, the opening words “almekhtiger Got” a phrase that is evidential of the origin of Yiddish in medieval German dialects of the lower Rhine. In High German it would have been Allmächtiger Gott, not too far from the King James biblical English, “Almighty God.”
Haggadah has two meanings in modern Jewish use. Its oldest sense is “tale, something told,” Hebrew haggadhah, referring specifically to short Talmudic interpretative passages about Holy Writ, rabbinical anecdotes and footnotes that seek to explain scriptural lore and complexities. Haggadah has a secondary meaning signifying the ritual and text of the first two nights of Passover.
Here are two paragraphs of a good short summary entitled The History and Development of Yiddish written by David Shyovitz.
“Beginning in the tenth century, Jews from France and Northern Italy began to establish large communities in Germany for the first time. Small communities had existed, and spoken German for some time, but the new residents along the Rhine river arrived speaking a Jewish-French dialect known as Laaz. The new arrivals punctuated their German speech with expressions and words from Laaz; additionally, they probably reached into Scriptural and Rabbinic literature and incorporated idioms into their daily speech. Thus, a modified version of medieval German that included elements of Laaz, biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew and Aramaic came to be the primary language of western European Jews. The collective isolation that came to characterize Jewish communities in the aftermath of the Crusades probably contributed to the shift from regular German to a modified, more Jewish form.
In the thirteenth century, the Jews tended to migrate eastward to escape persecution. Thus, Yiddish arrived in eastern Germany, Poland, and other eastern European territories for the first time. The exposure of Yiddish to the Slavic languages prevalent in the east changed it from a Germanic dialect to a language in its own right. Consequently, a division began to develop between the eastern Yiddish of the Jews living in Slavic lands, and the western Yiddish of the Jews who had remained in France and Germany.”
For more of this excellent brief introduction to the history of the Yiddish language, check out this web address:
And I’ll sign off this time with a Yiddish folk saying:
transliteration: s'iz shver tsu zayn a Yid
translation: It's tough to be a Jew.
Says a goy!
© 2012 copyright William Gordon Casselman
Reviews of my Book
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October 26, 2011
Welcome to the Enchanted Forest
By WB Johnston
This review is about Bill Casselman’s latest e-book about words: Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A Word Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems (Kindle Edition)
“Wade Davis, lately of National Geographic, once described each living language as “an old-growth forest of the human spirit.” Once you decide to enter the kleptomaniacal woods of our mother tongue, what you need is more than a tour guide. This is no Disney-fied ‘keep-your-hands-inside-the-car-at all-times’, point A to point B, clear-cutting mining of language. You, here, are in the hands of Sir William of Cassel, a genuine shaman modestly posing as a simple lover of words.
Leave it on your desk at work and trust that someone will riffle through it when you are out at lunch. Shamans are magicians of the highest order. The work of their hands and hearts is game-changing. Or, hey, put it on your Kindle and just feel comforted that you can wander back out into the forest with Bill even in the middle of a boring lecture.
(Casselman replies: Thank you so much, Dr. J., for the kudos.)
Jenni French of San Francisco, California writes on her blog “My Corner of the Universe” for March 19, 2011:
Casselman, Bill. Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A World Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.
And the author has quite a way with words, so I have found myself rereading many sentences in this book and slowing my progress through it.
My current favorite sentence is found in a discussion of dog hybrid breed names: “What a revolting concatenation of cutesiness and smarmy nomenclatorial treacle parading under the name of canine hybrid breed names” (19).
I’m sure I’ll have another favorite sentence in a day or two.
This book is just that good and just that entertaining.”
(Author Bill Casselman replies: “Thanks, Jenni!” )
Just a reminder that this book contains my ALL-NEW word essays, none of which are available anywhere else in print or online.
Cindy Lapeña on her blog “Creativity Unlimited” of July 19 ,2011, writes:
Posted by mimrlith in 365 Things to Look Forward to.
19. Starting a book
To a certified bibliophile like me, a.k.a. bookworm, one of the most exciting things to look forward to is to start reading a new book. In fact, sometimes the prospect of starting to read a new book is so exciting that I have to hurry to finish the book I am currently reading, just so I can start a new one.
If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a book, especially if it promises to be a good one. Of course there are certain books I just won’t touch or be seen with, but at the risk of being hung by my thumbs by fans of such literature, I will not mention any genres in particular. . .
Seeing a book with a title that totally captivates me, like Where a Dobdob meets a Dikdik (yes, that is a book title!) has me so worked up, I just can’t wait to dive in. I imagine all sorts of deliciously fancifully outrageous words with a title like that. Is it obvious? I just love books on words. You won’t believe how many dictionaries I own. Or books on lexical oddities and other lexical explorations. Yes, I am a logophile of sorts. I love the new words I pick up from new books. I relish finding out the meanings of all manner of words and phrases and expressions. What could be more fun?”
(Replies author Bill Casselman: Please scroll to bottom of page or click here to link to a free seven-page preview of my book, Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Dear Mr. Casselman,
. . . I revisited the paraprosdokian page, and have finally quit laughing again at “Casselman’s Conclusion.” You were not unkind to the “profligate prof-lets.” During my years as an acquisitions editor, in rejection letters I often quoted Prof. Moses Hadas, classicist at Columbia University, who wrote a young scholar in response to having been sent the prof-let’s first book, “Thank you for sending me your book. I will waste no time reading it.”
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