When I confessed to owning five Yiddish dictionaries, I wasn’t being entirely truthful. There is a sixth (and a seventh, but we’ll get to that later). I tell myself that because it’s a specialist dictionary of plant names, it doesn’t really count, but it really does. Plant Names in Yiddish was compiled by one of the great linguistic heroes of Yiddish, Mordkhe Schaechter (1927-2007), and represents an enormous amount of scholarly effort. The bibliography of sources is 80 pages on its own, suggesting a level of obsessional detail that I can only admire. However, the reason why this book appeals so much is that it’s one of the best windows into Yiddish life, language and culture that I’ve encountered. The fact that it also combines two of my greatest loves, Yiddish and botany, is a happy coincidence.
When I first started learning Yiddish, I looked up the names of garden birds and plants, the sorts of things that I notice whenever I leave the house. This was how I knew that blackbird is אַמסטל (amstl) and robin is רױטהעלדזל (roytheldzl). This helped me expand my vocabulary and also forewarned me of just how many consecutive consonants you can find in one Yiddish word. However, botanical terms are conspicuously lacking in most of my other Yiddish dictionaries: even the epic Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary (another Schaechter production based on Mordkhe’s research and compiled by his daughter, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath) is pretty sparse on plants that aren’t culinary. I knew that ash was אַשבױם (ashboym), beech was בוק (buk), and oak was דעמב (demb), but unless it was a plant you can actually eat the rest were largely nameless. I even bought tree and plant guides in German to get an idea, before discovering that this was an approach that other Yiddish scholars had tried before. In fact, Schaechter notes in his introduction that some earlier compilers of Yiddish dictionaries (I’m looking at you, Harkavy and Abelson) had just transliterated the German names of plants, leading to flowers named after Christian holidays (like Osterblum or “Easter Flower” for daffodils), or even flowers with uncomfortably anti-Semitic names (like Yudenkarsh or “Jews’ Cherry” for deadly nightshade). Unfortunate cultural own goals aside, this tactic removes all the living, etymological detail from these plant names, and this was what I wanted to see.
Pissabed or לופֿטל
How a plant is named tells you so much about how it was used, when and where it flowered and what it meant to the speakers of that language. I have enough fun with regional plant names in English (special mention to Pissabed, an alternative name for the dandelion), but with Yiddish there is a new set of associations and ideas to explore. Some of the Yiddish names are simple transliterations of the plant’s name in other languages, like עסטראַגאָן/estragon for tarragon or באַזיליק/bazilik for basil. This makes sense, in that the Yiddish names echo the language in which the plant has the greatest culinary associations (French and Italian respectively). A good number of the Yiddish names for plants are effectively transliterations of their Latin names (like עריקע for heather) or their English names (like נאַסטורציע for nasturtium). This could suggest that these were plants that weren’t part of Yiddish culture but which were either encountered by immigrants in new lands or were just ornamental plants that didn’t have any particular significance as food or medicine. A simple transliteration of the Latin or English name certainly gives the impression that these plants weren’t known closely enough for them to have a Yiddish name that reflected their properties or habits.
|פֿאַרגעסנישטל or געדענקמירל|
Sometimes the Yiddish name for a plant is a full translation of its English equivalent. The sugar palm becomes צוקער פּאַלמע (tsuker palme), and the South African honeybush becomes the האָניקבלום (honikblum) or “honeyflower”. There is an element of linguistic ownership in these names, in that the plant’s essential characteristics are being translated rather than its name simply being repeated. The forgot-me-not is another interesting example. It has two Yiddish names listed, פֿאַרגעסנישטל and געדענקמירל, both of which are rough translations of the English. While the first name suggests “don’t forget”, the other means “think of me”; only a small difference but clearly an important semantic one for different groups of Yiddish speakers. In fact, some of the plants named here have variants that reflect the different branches of Yiddish, so mint can be either מיאַטקע (miatke) or מענטע (mente), depending on whether you take your Yiddish with a Slavic influence or a Germanic one. However, water mint is always װאַסער-מיאַטקע (vaser-miatke) and field mint is always פֿעלדמענטע (feldmente), although I doubt that the plants’ geographical distribution matches those linguistic territories.
|You say מענטע; I say מיאַטקע|
Interestingly, some of the names are variations on the English equivalent rather than direct translations, suggesting that these were plants that Yiddish-speaking communities knew from Europe. For example, the Yiddish name for the Oxeye daisy is קאַלבאױג (kalboyg), which means “calf’s eye”, while the Yiddish name for deadnettle is קאַלט-קראָפּעװע (kalt-kropeve) or “cold nettle”. Then there is the charming case of antirrhinum or snapdragon, whose Yiddish name, לײבנמױל (leybnmoyl) I think means “lion’s mouth.” Slightly more prosaic than snapdragon, but works just as well.
However, the most interesting plant names are those that bear no relation to their English or Latin equivalents. Hounds-tongue, a wildflower I know from right here in the UK, has the Yiddish name שװאַרצװאָרצל (shvartsvortsl), which translates as “black root”, suggesting that this was the component of the plant that was once really significant to Yiddish speakers. Certainly the root of hounds-tongue was used in herbal medicine for coughs and colds, which is a possible explanation. Also, these Yiddish names are sometimes more accurate than the English equivalents. Honesty, or lunaria, is זילבערבלאַט (zilberblat) in Yiddish, meaning “silver leaf”, presumably after the translucent seedheads that I remember from our nature table at my infant school. Not that the Yiddish names are consistently poetic: the delicate little blue flower that I would call a scilla is a rather more down-to-earth ים-ציבעלע (yam-tsibele) or “sea onion” in Yiddish, but a cuckoo flower is a Yiddish לאָנקע-הערצל (lonke-hertsl) or “little meadow heart”.
|Lunaria or זילבערבלאַט|
Perhaps it is the sense of an alternate world that makes these names appeal so much. Snowdrop is a good word for the flower but so is שנײגלעקל (sneyglekl) or “snow bell”. Calling a dianthus a pink is vivid enough, but calling it a נעגעלע (negele) or “clove” means I can smell it as well as see it. Plants that have silent English names now also have ringing Yiddish ones, just as plants with English names that reflect their colour now also have Yiddish names that recall their scent. As someone who spends far too much of her time snuffling at flowers, drawing trees and collecting leaves, it’s rather wonderful to have this much choice when it comes to naming what what I love.