Sunday, June 27, 2010

New York Times Gives Journalist A Pain In Tuches

A few weeks ago, Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent of The Atlantic magazine, was interviewed by Helene Cooper of the New York Times as part of a story she wrote in the Week in Review section.

Here is the quote:
"I don't necessarily believe you solve all of America's problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen by freezing settlement growth. On the other hand, there's no particular reason for Israel to make itself a pain in the tush either."
But Goldberg didn't say "tush."  He said "tuches." (also spelled tuchis and tukhis).  And therein lies the predicament.  It seems the Times has a problem with printing Yiddish words that, while not exactly dirty, could offend some of its readers.  Witness the angst another Times writer experienced earlier this month when wrestling with how and how many times the "newspaper of record" would permit him to use the title of an upcoming movie, "Dinner for Schmucks."

A few days later, Goldberg explained the censorship to readers of his Atlantic blog this way:
When Helene first interviewed me, I actually used the word "tuchus," rather than "tush," but she phoned back a couple of hours later to tell me that the newspaper's Special Committee for the Proper Deployment of Yiddishisms ruled that "tuchus" is insufficiently elegant, and so could I please offer a substitute. I asked Helene for a suggestion, and she came up with "tushie." I responded by questioning whether the word "tushie" could be considered more elegant than the word "tuchus." I also told her that I could not allow myself to be quoted using the word "tushie" because I am no longer four years old. 

But because I am prone to compromise (witness my position on the issue of the two-state solution, as well as on the theoretical idea of sharing Jerusalem), I agreed to substitute "tush" for "tuchus," which I came to regret when Helene's colleague, and our mutual friend, Mark Leibovich, used a non-Yiddish vulgarity, namely, "pussy," by way of denouncing me for my use of the word "tush" in a sentence.
Commenting on this verbal contretemps, Philologos, the erudite language columnist at the Jewish Daily Forward, offers what would seem to be the definitive explanation of the word in question and its origins:
One may be permitted to doubt whether the Times actually has a Committee for the Proper Deployment of Yiddishisms (although if anyone did have one, it would be the Times), but otherwise, Goldberg’s account rings true. Which leads one to ask: How “inelegant” would “tuchus” have been? Is this Yiddish word really, as the editors of the Times think, the semantic and connotative equivalent of the English word “ass,” which the Times deems too vulgar to print?
Michael Wex, the highly knowledgeable and always entertaining author of three books on Yiddish usage, seems to think that it is. In his “Just Say Nu,” Wex, who doesn’t have a censorial bone in his body, has a boxed section titled “A Bar Mitzvah of Behinds,” in which he presents us with “Thirteen [Yiddish] designations for the human rear (in declining order of politeness.)” These are, with Wex’s English translations and transliterations (which follow the Polish rather than the more standard Lithuanian pronunciation of Yiddish): 1) Hintn, rear; 2) Hinterkhaylek, hindpart; 3) Interkhaylek, underpart; 4) Gezess, seat, buttocks; 5) Zitser, sitter, seat; 6) Zitsflaysh, seat-meat. 7) Di mekheeleh, The I-beg-your-pardon; 8) Der Vee-hayst-men-es, The whatchamacallit. 9) Der vee-dee-yeedn-hobm-gereet; The where-the-Jews-rested. 10) Ookher, rear, behind; 11) Akhoreiyim, hindparts; 12) Morsh, ass; 13) Tukhes, ass.
This is followed by a page of commentary, in which, among other things, Wex points out that Expression 9, Vu-di-yidn-hobn-gerut (to use standard Yiddish transliteration), is a witty allusion to the Bible. There, in Chapter 33 of the Book of Numbers, in an account of the Children of Israel’s wanderings in the desert, we find the verse, “And they departed from Makhelot and encamped at Tahat.” The place-name Tahat, which occurs nowhere else in Scripture, is spelled and pronounced the same as the Hebrew word taḥat, which means both “under” and, in modern Hebrew, the rear end.  It is from taḥat that Yiddish gets tukhis, and from tukhis that American Jewish English gets “tush” and “tushie.”
What more can we add, other than we've observed the use of the word in business situations, as in "tuches af'n tish," (literally "rear end on the table") meaning "put up or shut up" or "let's get down to brass tacks."

Our conclusion?  The New York Times is definitely Yiddishly-challenged.  Since they appoint special editors like the Public Editor (ombudsman) to comment on journalistic issues, we'd like to suggest that they hire Philologos or Michael Wex (or if they're busy, Jewish Humor Central) to clue them in on the true meanings of any Yiddish words their writers slip into their columns.

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