The working week began with me sleepily dabbing at the on-button on the bedside radio and waking to an item on the teaching of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein wants more of it, road-signs and everything, and the DUP doesn’t. Not many people in Northern Ireland actually speak Irish but it’s a heritage question and all that.
As it happens on Saturday night we were out with some old friends who are Jewish enough never to have eaten a bacon sandwich, and the subject of language came up with us too. I was telling how recently I’d come across something my dad had written after the war looking back on things he’d observed when he was a boy in the 1920s and 30s. What had struck me was his recollection of going to the Whitechapel library and seeing Jewish parents “sacrificing their children on the altar of naches”.
My friend Parry added the word “shepping” to “naches” — i.e. the verb meaning “getting” to the noun “pleasure” or “pride”. Those parents, in that impoverished time and place were busy priding themselves in the achievements of their children.
My dad, who seems to have been entirely self-taught, was shepping his own naches, and seems to have resented those who had parents doing it for them. As it happens my mother, when it came to things academic, was a reverse-naches-shepper. She was almost ashamed when I got into Oxford and almost relieved when they threw me out.
I was slightly familiar with the idea that some naches — like pride in educational attainment — were regarded as being more Jewish, more yiddishe, than others. Apparently back in the day, East and Central European Jews used to describe hunting as “goyishe naches”, i.e. an incomprehensible gentile pleasure. Going off and killing things for sport was not a big Jewish thing. It isn’t hard to work out why.
Could a parent reasonably shep naches from a mazik? You remember that one of the things that a mazik can be is a precocious and mischievous child. Which is all just a way of delivering you, dear reader, to one of my favourite Leo Rosten definitions.
Rosten cites the case of Sidney who went with his sister to visit their grandmother. Capricious in the way of Jewish grandmothers she presented the children with two apples, one big and juicy and the other yellow and withered. “Now darlings” the grandmother told them, “I want to see which of you has the better manners”. “She does,” said Sidney, taking the bigger apple. Sidney was a mazik. Well, I’d take naches from a kid like that, while perhaps worrying what they’d grow up to be.
Maybe, if things go really badly, a schtunk. Richard Desmond, for example, is for me a schtunk, as his autobiography makes horribly clear. There’s nothing inept or incompetent about him — he is very good at what he does. It’s just that I think most of it is awful. So Desmond is not a nebbish. Nor yet a schlemiel. A nebbish, of course being (Rosten again) the kind of person who always has to pick up what a schlemiel knocks over. If the schlemiel knocks it over and then runs away and hides, she is probably a shnuk.
My dad called Jesus — when he called him anything — Yoshke Panderik, which I understood to be uncomplimentary, but other than that he left me with almost no Yiddish. So I was forced subsequently to find out what I could from books, not having quite the commitment to employ a tutor or enrol in Yiddish class.
Thus I never learned, until it was too late for practical use, that one could offer to give someone a frosk in the kisser, or in time for the Brexit referendum that the Yiddish equivalent to “tell it to the marines” is to exclaim “a nechtiger tog!” Or a night in the day.
I would be careful still who I called a tucheslecker (though having one’s tuches lecked is, alas, sometimes something from which one can shepyiddishenaches), but my cup runneth over since I discovered the word “nuchschlepper” which is, almost literally, someone who runs behind, i.e. a toady. Listen out for it next time I’m on Newsnight. As long as they aren’t recording all the way out in Hotzeplotz.
Finally, the moral of my story is simple. Forget Irish, Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Urse and Manx. If you want to revive a second language in your neck of the woods, one which doesn’t get all the nationalists fighting each other and which gives everyone genuine naches, choose Yiddish. Or perhaps instead you’d prefer an unterkletzl.
David Aaronovitch is a columnist for The Times