Four years I’ve been working on this blog. Four years! One thousand two hundred seventy-six posts! And what have I earned from it? Bupkes!
Or… OK, you get the picture. Words, they’re their own reward. Fine. As we say in show business (I used to be a theatre person, you know), “Don’t clap, just throw money.” Ah, money shmoney. I’m doing it for the fame. With a beautiful sweet wife like mine, how much luckier or richer should I expect to be? Still, I wouldn’t object to a few people buying my book.
But enough about me. Back to this word. You can guess what it means from context, even if you’re not familiar with it. And the context you’ll hear it in might lead you to guess soon enough what language English got it from. That object-subject-verb syntax for emphasis, the shm echoes, the bantering style, the rhetorical questions – all are characteristic of Yiddish humour.
And I have to tell you, English would be that much poorer without Yiddish humour. Many of the funniest people in 20th-century America had Yiddish backgrounds (including some you may not have realized, like Rodney Dangerfield, born Jacob Cohen), and the Yiddish music-hall shows in the early 1900s in New York made very important cultural contributions that may not often be acknowledged but show through in many places.
Yiddish vocabulary shows up in more places than you might even notice, and sometimes creeps into everyday usage almost unremarked. (I think of myself in 1990s Edmonton playing a Spanish soldier invading the Americas in Peter Shaffer’s Royal Hunt of the Sun, improvising a little bit about stealing some gold – other actor: “It’s just a trinket.” Me: “Trinket shminket!” Did I mention that my ethnic background is WASP and, growing up in 1980s Alberta, I knew very few Jewish people?) When you read “40 Yiddish words you should know” from Daily Writing Tips, you will surely find that you do know several of them, and may not have thought of all of them as Yiddish.
By the way: Do you know what Yiddish is? Yes, it’s the language commonly spoken for a long time (but not so much anymore) by Ashkenazi Jews in Germany and nearby places (and America). You may not have known that it’s basically a kind of Low German (“Low” because from areas closer to the sea; “High” is from areas higher in elevation) with a fair amount of influence from Hebrew, and typically written using the Hebrew alphabet.
Which is why there are so many spellings of this word. You’d think someone could settle on one! But what do I know? When I first heard this word (and for a while thereafter) I thought it was buttkiss. You know, “What did I get? Buttkiss! (As in I might as well kiss their butts!)” But there are so many different transliterations of Yiddish words, depending on who’s doing the transliteration. The spelling of this word that I’m most used to is bupkes, but that’s more of a phonetic transliteration than a phonemic one. The original is באָבקעס, bobkes, which means “big beans”, but voicing assimilation causes the /b/ to become [p]. But actually that’s not really the original original. The original original is thought to have been a longer word, קאָזעבאָפּקעס, kozebopkes, which means “goat droppings”.
So there it is. It’s a good word for it, with that opening bop, like a hand flipped up abruptly (in colloquial Italian there’s a word boh that’s said like a bop, with maybe a shrug, to mean “dunno” or something of that order), and the backing echo of guess… Actually, what it really is is more the sound of something inflated (your expectations maybe) being punctured (bup!) and all the air hissing out (kiss…). All this and what do I get? Beans! Goat droppings! Bupkes! I’d be better with a bunch of latkes…
Funny, by the way, how “nothing” has such power to it (sort of like words for sex or drunkenness or other socially outré things) that we have come up with a variety of colloquial ways to express it – as though the strong emotion it calls forth demands some sort of trope or linguistic excursion. There’s buggerall, diddly-squat, SFA, zilch…
Say, how many synonyms for “nothing” do you suppose I can collect? A whole lot more than bupkes… I’ll be watching the comments.