Tuesday, October 23, 2012

`Their Impetuous Bravura'

While rereading an early A.J. Liebling collection, The Telephone Booth Indians (1942), I happened on a word the general sense of which I’ve understood for decades without knowing where it came from or its precise definition: bubkis or bupkis. I’ve taken it to mean nothing, an empty set or in the vernacular, squat. The word sounds racy, raffish, Runyon-esque, probably Yiddish in origin and almost certainly impolite, as though the speaker were inviting another to kiss his bub or bup (an echo of “bum kiss,” itself an echo of bumf for bumfodder or toilet paper, used metaphorically by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop: I shall get a daily pile of bumf from the Ministry of Mines”). But that’s a false etymology. Liebling, referring to the Jollity Building where down-at-the-heels performers looking for work visit talent agents, writes: 

“Only when rendered desperate by hunger do they stray down to the third floor, where the people Morty call the heels hold forth in furnished offices each about the size of a bathroom. Since the heels constitute the lowest category of tenant in the building, no proprietor of a first-class chop-suey joint or roadhouse would call on them for talent. `The best you can get there,’ performers say, `is a chance to work Saturday night at a ruptured saloon for bubkis.’ Bubkis is a Yiddish word which means `large beans.’”

In other words, this class of performers works for little or no pay. The Oxford English Dictionary confirms the Yiddish derivation from bobkes, meaning “nonsense, rubbish, nothing,” but “of uncertain origin.” The dictionary labels it “N. Amer. slang (orig. in Jewish usage),” defines it as “absolutely nothing, nil,” and cites Liebling’s usage. In The Secret Lives of Words (2000), Paul West, in his entry for bupkis (he spells it “bupkiss”), says it derives “from the Russian for a few beans, it has come to mean not that but literally nothing.” West describes the word, neologistically, as “zerophilic.” West hears the false echo I hear, and approves:

 “How quaint that speakers of English with no training in philology, phonology, or linguistics happily hear in bupkiss a word as remote as bumkiss.  Heedless of language families, and all such fancy taxonomy, they hear what they want to hear, siting much of their heart’s desire on mere percussion, raciness, and verbal physiognomy. The language is the people’s, and so long as they keep it vivid although unruly, who cares? Those of us who write can hardly afford to squander their impetuous bravura.” 

Further poking about suggests bupkis may have been absorbed into Yiddish from the Russian and Polish bobek, “bean,” but from a very specific usage. The Yiddish kozebupkes means goat droppings, combining the Russian koza (“goat”) and bobki (“little beans”). Bupkis is goat shit: “Bupkis mit Kuduchas.”


Jeff Gee said...

On the old Dick Van Dyke Show, "Bupkis" was the name of a song written by Rob Petrie and an old army buddy. Years later it was stolen by another old buddy, who turned it into a hit. ("Bupkis is a lot of nothing / And thats what I get from you!/ Bupkis!") I believe this was my introduction both to Yiddish and to the concept that people actually wrote the music to songs, rather than selected the tunes from a pre-existing collection, which I had envisioned as looking like a thick book of wallpaper samples.

Don said...

Small World Department: I just finished reading Liebling's "Earl of Louisiana," and it was absolutely delightful, especially in the middle of our own political season.