Yiddish for Onheybers and Mavens
An occasional feature about the Yiddish language for beginners and experts. Our word this time is “tsereysn.”
tse· reyts’·en (verb) tse· reyts’· (noun)
1. tear up 2. exasperate
Infinitive: tsereysn (can be used as a noun) Past participle: tsereyst (can be used as an adjective)
Curiously, there seem to be few Yiddish words that directly denote “exasperation.” Instead, seemingly innumerable adages exist that convey the experience of strongly felt annoyance or irritation (e.g., Dos gantse yor iz zi leydik, gezesn un erev yom-kiper hot zi a zok ongehoybn — “She sits idle all year, and on the eve of Yom Kippur she starts to knit a sock”). As one word on its own holds less capacity for drama, nuance, and exaggeration than a saying, adages are the preferred means by which to express exasperation, an emotion so central to Yiddish thought.
Tsereysnheit has a moodier German equivalent — Zerrissenheit. (Note: ‘-heit’ in both German and Yiddish is a suffix that converts an adjective into a noun and usually denotes an abstract quality of the adjectival root, equivalent to the English suffixes -ness, -ty, or -hood.) This malady afflicted American philosopher-psychologist William James, who wrote: “The constitutional disease from which I suffer is what the Germans call Zerrissenheit or ‘torn-to-pieces-hood’ …The days are broken in pure zig-zag and interruption.”
A Yiddish speaker could conceivably use ‘tsereysnheit’ to convey the ‘torn-to-pieces-hood’ described by William James. In most cases, however, for the typical Yiddish speaker, tsereysnheit is more situational than existential, less an abstract manifestation of spiritual angst than a palpable reaction to the outrageous provocations of family members, friends, business associates, and total strangers. When tsereyst, it is altogether appropriate to address the source of one’s exasperation in Yiddish with either of the following entreaties (which presumably were not available to William James):
“Hock mir nisht keyn chaynik”
Lit.: “Don’t bang a tea kettle at me.” Fig.: “Don’t bust my chops.” “Leave me alone.” Per Michael Wex in Born to Kvetch: “You don’t have to shut up completely, but I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop rattling on about the same damned thing all the time.”
“Drey mir nisht keyn kop”
Lit.: “Don’t screw with my head.” Fig.: “You’re twisting my melon, man.” “Quit making my teeth itch.” Bonus factoid: “Dreidel” is derived from the work “drey,” to twist.
“Yiddish for Onheybers and Mavens” is an occasional series of Yiddish instruction sponsored by The Berkshire (MA) Yiddish Preservation Society.
“Yidden in Galus. Yidden in Druchus.”
For more on important Yiddish words, please click here.