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Interjections! With A Jewish Past - Part 2

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In case you didn’t catch my first post on the Jewish origins of common English interjections, check it out here. The main source is the book Zounds! by Mark Dunn.


Lord have mercy
Dunn lists several variants, from “lord-a-mercy” and “lordy mercy,” to just “lordy,” but does not credit it to the Jews. The Catholic Encyclopedia, however, confirms: “A more obvious precedent for Christian use was … the Old Testament,” and cites five Psalms and the prophet Isaiah. This note is under its entry for the Latin version of “Lord have mercy,” which is “Kyrie Eleison”… although in Mass, they likely don’t sing it like Mr. Mister did.

Mazel Tov
I gotta feeling that we all know how this one is used: as “congratulations.” It’s often translated as “good luck!” but it means not “I wish you good luck,” but “You had good luck.” “Tov,” of course means “good”… but a “mazel” is a “constellation.” This verbal pat on the back is, at base, quite superstitious. It implies: “The stars must have been aligned in your favor.”

From the Russian “Well?” but turned into its own vocabulary in Yiddish, says Dunn: “from fondness and warmth to outright hostility.” It’s the second most frequently spoken Yiddish word, says Yiddish linguist Leo Rosten, after “Oy.” Also a common punchline.

Oy (vey)
Dunn: “‘Oy’ without the ‘vey’ in Yiddish means simply ‘oh.’ From pain and grief to anger, annoyance and simple weariness. ‘Vey’ means ‘woe.’” So it’s, “Oy! Am I glad I ran into you!”… but “Oy vey! I can’t believe I ran into him!”

Dunn explains that this was popularized by Jewish gossip columnist Walter Winchell in the 1930s, and that “it probably comes from the Yiddish ‘feh!’ or ‘fooy!’” It conveys “contempt, disbelief, or outright disgust,” and it certainly sounds like spiteful spitting.

The Psalms were meant to be sung, so it is thought that “selah”— found 71 times in Psalms—is a musical instruction, perhaps a crescendo, coda, or rest. It’s now a town in Washington State, the title of a book of poems and the name of a Christian rock band, a Belgian singer-songwriter, and the daughter of a Jewish friend of mine.

Really? You need us to tell you what this word means? Shalom!

This is a Jewish thing on the Internet, so of course we were going to get around to comic books. When young Billy Batson says this magic word, he turns into an adult superhero, Captain Marvel, a.k.a. Shazam. The word itself alludes to the inspiration of his powers: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. As you can see, these are all Greek figures – except the first one, a Jewish king of Israel. (You see, the Greek figure of wisdom was Athena, a goddess. Shazam in a man, so that wouldn’t work … at least back in the day.)

So long
Dunn says this expression, not popular in the U.S. until 1850, comes from late 18th century British sailors stationed in the Middle East, who misheard “salaam.” If so, that makes it a cousin to “shalom.” (Again, not the song you expected? Fine…)

Tui! Tui!
Dunn lists this as “Toy! Toy!” but who says it like that? When you want to shoo away the Evil Eye, you spit at it with a “tui.” You don’t promise it a plaything or a “toy.” Another variant is the triple-spit of “Poo-poo-poo!”  

Maybe we should have stopped with “So long.”  

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