This post is in response to “Yenta’s Dirty Roots,” which ran on The Sisterhood on February 10, 2013.
One of the many interesting things about Yiddish is that no one is entirely sure how it started. Though it originated in Medieval Europe, its exact roots are the subject of competing hypotheses among scholars.
What isn’t in doubt, however, is the origin of the term “yente,” which connotes a gossipy woman. In a February 10 blog post on The Sisterhood, Rachel Rosmarin speculated that it might have something to with the American Yiddish slang term “yentsn,” which means “to f–k.”
In fact, the word “yente” goes back to the very beginning of Yiddish, when there was a strong influence from Romance languages like Old Italian and Old French. It is derived from the name Yentl, which comes from the Old Italian word “gentile” meaning noble, or refined. In English we have words like “gentle,” “genteel” and even “gentile,” that come from the same source. In his book “Dictionary Of Jewish Usage: A Guide To The Use Of Jewish Terms,” the linguist Sol Steinmetz points out a number of Yiddish words that come from these languages, including “bentshn,” to bless, and tsholnt (or cholent), everyone’s favorite Shabbos lunch.
Pssst! Wanna know a juicy secret? Get this: The most well-known Yiddish word describing women doesn’t mean what we think it does. I’m no linguist, but after spending a little time on several authoritative Yiddish dictionaries, I’m convinced that this ubiquitous, pejorative term — Yente — has very little to do with gossip. Instead, it appears to have everything to do with vulgarity, and may even have roots that are downright dirty.
Of course, words change and evolve over time, especially in Yinglish considering almost nobody speaks the original tongue anymore. Take, for example, the Yiddish verb “shmuesn,” which means, literally, to converse — no implied brown-nosing or hidden agendas. In Yinglish, “to schmooze” means something altogether different. So it goes with “Yente.” The word probably entered the truly mainstream vernacular with the meddling Molly Picon matchmaker character in the 1971 film adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof.” But before that, humorist Jacob Adler wrote a decades-long column in the Forward featuring a character named “Yente.”
These uses refer to women named Yente, but somewhere along the line, the name took hold as a female adjective. Sure, some men co-opt the term: Larry David called Ted Danson a “yente” in the sixth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” If you’re anything like me, you grew up with your parents admonishing you (but not your little brother) not to “be such a yente” when your endless curiosity about their adult conversations got annoying. At the same time, the public park where my retired Holocaust-survivor grandparents hung out and played card games with their gabby friends was known as “the yente center (centeh?).”
I’m enjoying this thread on gossip that Sisterhood contributor Sarah Seltzer has taken up has taken up, because I love talk and I love information. And when you combine the two it’s likely you’ll cross the border into the realm of gossip. Does this mean that by extension I also love gossip? Sometimes I do. Other times I most definitely do not.
The High Holy Day liturgy takes on the issue of gossip — it includes “For the sin that we have committed before You in judging our neighbor/ And for the sin we have committed against You in slander and idle gossip” — so it’s a fitting time to reflect on the power of talk and its effects on others.
Alma Heckman’s JWA post about snark, yentes and gossip sent me on a further etymological treasure hunt for the roots of the word “gossip” — which as Heckman notes, went from positive, genderless connotations to a positive female one before arriving at its current incarnation. Gossips in England were once a group of women, a sisterhood of aunties, if you will, who enforced morality and the social order in local areas. That was before the concept was twisted and turned into something negative.
There’s no question that gossip remains gendered, and maybe with reason. We have long lived in a society where it’s easier for men to initiate direct confrontation or indicate disapproval.
Women who do so are labeled shrewish — or worse. So the notion of having to vent or share information through backchannels is one that women may have historically had to embrace. Of course, with Mama Grizzlies running around being blunt and proud and men like TMZ founder Harvey Levin and gossip blogger Perez Hilton taking charge of snark, these lines are getting blurred. The gendered connotations haven’t faded, but we remain faced with a divide between healthy and unhealthy chatter.