Kibitzing chess players and editors

April 18, 2015

After a binge of Ed McBain books a few months ago – they often touch on linguistic topics – this week I picked another of his 87th Precinct series off the unread shelf: Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man (1973). It uses a form of the Yiddish word kibitz twice in short succession:

In the April sunshine four fat men sit at a chess table in the park across the street from the university. All four of the men are wearing dark cardigan sweaters. Two of the men are playing chess, and two of them are kibitzing, but the game has been going on for so many Sundays now that it seems almost as though they are playing four-handed, the players and the kibitzers indistinguishable one from the other.

Kibitz is a handy word that means to watch someone do something (normally a game, often cards) and offer unwelcome advice. It can also simply mean to chat or joke around. The word entered English almost a century ago via multiple languages, thieves’ cant, and ornithological onomatopoeia. This delightful etymology is summarised at Etymonline:

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The interstellar etymology of ‘mazel tov’

May 21, 2012

Mazal tov or mazel tov /’maz(ə)l toːv, tɒf/ is a Hebrew and Yiddish expression analogous to ‘congratulations’ or ‘good wishes’, though its literal meaning is closer to ‘good luck’.

Grammatically it functions mainly as an interjection (‘Mazel tov!’), and sometimes as a noun (‘a chorus of mazel tovs’). I see it in both forms online, and occasionally in films and books, but it’s not part of my idiolect or culture, so corrections or clarifications are welcome.

Popular on celebratory occasions such as weddings and Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, the phrase derives from modern Hebrew mazzāl ṭôb. Mazal (Hebrew) or mazel (Yiddish) refers to a star, constellation, luck or fortune; ṭôb means ‘good’, from ṭyb ‘to be(come) good’.

Mazel tov hats at a Bat Mitzvah

The American Heritage Dictionary says mazel tov comes from Mishnaic Hebrew and ultimately from Akkadian, one of the earliest written languages: manzaltu, mazzaztum meant ‘position of a star’, from izuzzu ‘to stand’. The related words Mazzaroth and mazalot have to do with astronomical constellations or the zodiac in Kabbalistic astrology.

Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher, author of Through the Language Glass, touches briefly on these connections in The Unfolding of Language, his 2005 book on how language evolves. The following passage is from its short introduction to Semitic languages and their cultural history:

Their political star may have waxed and waned, but for a good part of 2,000 years, Mesopotamian emperors, from Sargon in the third millennium BC to Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar in the first, would lay claim to the title ‘King of the Universe’, ruling over ‘the four corners (of the earth)’. More stable than the power of the sword, however, was the cultural hegemony of Mesopotamia over the whole region. The Akkadian language shaped the dominant canon for much of the Near East in religion, the arts, science and law, and was used as a lingua franca, the means of diplomatic correspondence. Petty governors of provincial Canaanite outposts, mighty Anatolian kinds, and even Egyptian Pharaohs wrote to one another in Akkadian. Language across the Near East also borrowed many scientific and cultural terms from Akkadian, a few of which may even be recognized by English speakers today. The Jewish expression mazel tov ‘good luck’, for example, is based on the Hebrew word mazal ‘luck’, which was borrowed from the Akkadian astrological term mazzaltu ‘position (of a star)’.

Although I have little interest in horoscopes, I like how mazel tov preserves a reminder of celestial bodies’ significance in traditional conceptions of human fate and fortune. English retains a similar link in written in the stars, thank your lucky stars, and star-crossed (‘ill-fated’).

The last of which brings us nicely to schlimazel, from Yiddish shlimazl ‘someone prone to bad luck’ – hence Schlimazeltov!, a short documentary about the concept of luck in London’s Jewish community.

Schlimazel may have somehow developed into shemozzle/schemozzle ‘muddle, melee, brawl’, but the etymology is uncertain. WordReference says shemozzle is “suggested by late Hebrew šel-lō’-mazzāl ‘of no luck’.”

[image adapted from Wikimedia Commons]