Sunday, January 21, 2007

Kvetch as kvetch can

News flash: "kvetch … has been absorbed into the English language." Why, William Safire explained to me over coffee only two hours ago, the New York Times used the word recently …
not as part of a quotation — nor, for that matter, within quotation marks to indicate a slang or dialect expression.
More evidence, I suppose, that Old Bill needs to get out more, talk to folks occasionally, although I'm heartened to see that he does read a newspaper. Just to save you asking, OED Online gives a quote from Atlantic Monthly from 1968 without quotes or italics.

Of course he blunders around on this one as usual … Yiddish kvetshn is "from the German quetschen, literally 'to squeeze, pinch'". Actually, while it certainly looks like a part of the old Germanic vocabulary of Yiddish (I think the verb is still used in the meaning 'to press'), it's surely not from Modern German. It'd be more precise – and if Safire claims to value anything, it's surely precision with language – to say that it is related to (not from) Middle High (not Modern) German quetzen, etc.

Interesting stuff on this etymology, though: The word isn't widespread within Germanic, found, aside from Yiddish and German, only in Dutch and Low German that I know of. The history beyond that seems obscure, with (plausible, I suppose) speculation about a possible Latin source. In German, it is attested since the 13th century, well after Yiddish was presumably born. (For an overview of the history of Yiddish and virtually every other aspect of the language, see the excellent and accessible Yiddish: A linguistic introduction by Neil Jacobs, Cambridge University Press, 2005.)

But when I mention Safire, you know there's a howler coming, and this one's a maven's nightmare, namely a sentence that's at best hard to parse and probably ungrammatical:
Usage of the word in all its forms — verb, participle, now strongly noun — has been assisted by Born to Kvetch … by Michael Wex.
Just ignore that participles may be considered verbal forms or nominal forms but either way are not of a set with 'verbs' and 'nouns'. How in the world do we interpret strongly noun here? It has a 'strongly noun form', as in 'usage of the word in its strongly noun form'? Huh? Linguists will recall the old notion of nouniness from the days of Generative Semantics, where some nouns are more noun-like than others. But that can't be intended here, can it? Does he mean that it's now more widely used as a noun than as a verb (or participle!)? What does this mean? Is there a reading of this as English? And — always looking for the broader context — has the NYT abandoned any effort to even copy edit Safire's ramblings?


The Ridger, FCD said...

I expect the answer to your last question is "yes". After all, he's the Language Maven - I expect he resists copy-editing.

I'm delighted, by the way, to learn that you'll read him so I don't have to.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, he's the only authority he trusts, I suppose. Thanks.

And stay tuned ... I *do* read Safire.