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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Are there no real Jews at the NYT?

Yesterday, the New York Times's David Carr published the following two paragraphs about Oscar pools:

This year there are quite a few categories that bring all of the challenge of the wading pool. Best director, best actress, best actor — Martin ScorseseHelen MirrenForest Whitaker — all seem like done deals. Don’t expect to be treated as a savant, or take home any loot, just for getting these no-brainers right.

Oddly enough, it is the big megillah, best picture, that could put even the most sophisticated Oscar guesser back out in the deep end. Almost any one of the five nominees — “The Departed,” “Babel,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Queen” or “Letters From Iwo Jima” — could end up in the money at the end of the night. If you want to end up the same way, you are going to have to get best picture right.

No one who knows what a megillah is would use the term this way.  Even the colloquial phrase "the whole megillah" has a totally different valence.  Oy!

Posted by Ethan Leib on February 25, 2007 at 12:22 PM in Article Spotlight | Permalink


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I grew up with Yiddish as my first language, but recall farklemmt as meaning down or depressed, as it's defined in the one-volume Uriel Weinrich
Modern English-Yiddish/Yiddish-English Dictionary.

Posted by: Lev Raphael | Jul 1, 2007 4:55:32 PM

Yes, the NYT using the term "megillah" is like Milwaukee bakeries' use of the term "bagel" to describe round doughy things that aren't doughnuts. I admit that Einstein's bagels are the exception; they're OK but a far cry from the 57th Street shop I used to frequent in Manhattan.

Posted by: Scott Moss | Feb 28, 2007 11:40:09 AM

For the record, this polycultural gentile atheist is terrible jealous of the whole Yiddish zeitgeist gedile.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Feb 26, 2007 1:50:53 AM

Adam: It *is* idiomatic inasmuch as one meaning of an idiom is language peculiar to a particular group, i.e., 'the language peculiar to a people,' or the speech proper to, or typical of, a people or place; a dialect or local language.... So Yiddish is indeed idiomatic. An idiom does not simply or only mean a special phrasing or expression unique to a languge. I well understand the development and history of Yiddish as what you term a 'long, high culture tradition,' although my own knowledge of it is rather more confined to its role among Jewish socialists in the late ninetheenth and early twentieth centuries (and I'm not sure by what's gained by the adjective 'high,' but I suppose if you would say the same about Ladino...), or whatever Paul Buhle has written about it.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 26, 2007 12:02:55 AM

A "whole Megillah" means something that's excessively long and complicated. David Carr was looking for a superlative, some way to indicate that the award for Best Picture is the most significant award of the meaning.

Incidentally, Purim begins this Saturday night. Purim is a lot of fun and the reading of the megilla (the Book of Esther written on a parchment scroll) is entertaining, but it takes ... a while ... to read ... through the whole thing ... especially with ... the traditional pauses ... for audience par-tici-tici-tici-tici-pa-pa-tion. In fact, at most synagogues they make a whole megillah of it.

Posted by: Joe in Australia | Feb 25, 2007 11:24:02 PM

The NYT probably confused it with the phrase "big gedile" (di groyse gedile), literally the big deal, or, as Eric suggests, the big enchilada. Gedile and megile sound reasonably similar, so it's not surprising that the amarotsim (boors) at the NYT got confused.

Patrick: Not all Yiddish is idiomatic by definition. Yiddish isn't just a language of jokes and idioms--it is a regular old language just like English. Like English, Yiddish is a literary language with a long high culture tradition going back to the middle ages and extending to the present. One can find virtually any sort of text in Yiddish, from poetry to botany and history to mathematics. Unfortuantely, Yiddish has picked up the reputation of being a funny language. But as the recently deceased Mordkhe Schaecter(z''l) observed, if you're not funny to begin with, Yiddish ain't gonna to help you.

Anthony: verklempt (or as I would transliterate it, farklemt) is NOT an invented word. It is a verbal adjective meaning caught or squeezed (as in a vise). It appears in the standard Yiddish-English dictionary. A similar word, tseklemt, is featured in Morris Rosenfeld's classic sweatshop lullaby, "Mayn Yingele": Ikh kum tsuklemterheyt aheym, In finsternish gehilt/Mayn blaykhe froy dertseylt mir bald, Vi fayn dos kind zikh shpilt. (I come home [from work] depressed, enveloped in darkness/my pale wife quickly tells me how nicely our child [whom I never see] played.

Posted by: Adam Levitin | Feb 25, 2007 10:55:49 PM

Referring to the Oscars extravaganza as "the whole megillah" might be appropriate. But, the Times piece refers specifically to the Best Picture award as "the big megillah," which, as Ethan notes, is a misuse of the term. Maybe they were thinking of "the big enchilada"?

Posted by: Eric Fink | Feb 25, 2007 9:17:44 PM

I looked it up via Google. Referring to the Oscars as the "whole Megillah" would seem quite appropriate.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Feb 25, 2007 8:05:25 PM

Professor D'Amato,

Is not all Yiddish idiomatic by definition?

And this rather unworldly Gentile would appreciate some translations, beginning with 'megillah.'

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 25, 2007 7:21:36 PM

As an furshlugginer connoisseur of idiomatic Yiddish, my favorite expression is also an invented word "verklempt",I am verklempt to say.

Posted by: Anthony D'Amato | Feb 25, 2007 6:32:51 PM

The New York Times will never, EVER, admit that it made a verbal error, or a debilitating typo, or an impossible anachronism, or anything else that would call attention to sloppiness in the editing department. It will never print a Letter to the Editor calling attention to an editing mistake. It will never issue a "Correction" on a grammatical or syntactical point. And the Public Ombudsman, your champion and mine, will never ever admit to a linguistic or grammatical mistake.

Posted by: Anthony D'Amato | Feb 25, 2007 4:32:27 PM

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