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Mama Deb
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Mama Deb [userpic]
Language changing

Once upon a time, there was a name - Juanita. Feminine version of the Spanish name "Juan."

When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some of the women had this name, and they took it eastward with them. Over time, it became the Ashkenazi name "Yenta." It had no other special meaning. It was just a name, equivalent to "Jane." It did have a nickname. Yentl, equivalent to "Janie". It did eventually come to have a meaning - a gossip.

Then came the Yiddish stories "Tevye and his Daughters" by Sholem Aleichem. These became the stage and then movie musical "Fiddler on the Roof." One of the characters, who was both a terrible gossip and a matchmaker, was named "Yenta."

And for many, many years, the word "yenta" meant "a gossip." "She's a real yenta, " someone might say of a woman who never got off the phone.

And then, somehow, in the last ten-fifteen years, the meaning changed to "matchmaker." Which is probably a result of the movie.

Meanwhile, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote a story called, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy." Which could be translated as "Janie the Yeshiva Boy." And it was made into a movie - and I've seen it used a time or two refering to women pretending to be men - the female version, if you will, of "Tootsie."

And today, I saw this. Somehow, "yentl" has come to mean matchmaker in this person's head.

I am amused.

Current Mood: amused

Now I have that bit from In & Out in my head, where Kevin Kline's character gets into a fight with a friend who yells "She was too OLD for Yentl" at him....


But she *so* was.

Huh, I always thought the character in Fiddler on the Roof was named Yentl-- I can hear that one snippet of the matchmaking song in my head, "Oh Yentl / make sure that he's gentle" or something. I suppose it was an inexact rhyme. ;) I always knew that the word for matchmaker was "yenta," though.

But, see, the word for "matchmaker" is "shadchen". "Yenta" for that meaning is a recent Americanism.

Well, that's what I mean-- I knew the borrowed word was "yenta," not yentl. (Actually, probably anyone who ever spent time in TS fandom is familiar with that usage of "yenta." *g*)

I was amused that the very young person (from my perspective) who made that post conflated the two terms.

I had no idea that using the word "yenta" for matchmaker was such a recent thing, or that it came via Fiddler on the Roof. Very interesting!

It's interesting, you know - things we think of as ancient can sometimes be very recent.

A very interesting language history lesson. Thanks :)


I thought it would be amusing.

I thought Spanish Jews were Sephardim, like the Portuguese ones...?

You're right.

But. They had to move East and some of them married/became Ashkenazi.

Oh, okay. I was confused because I don't know any Ashkenazi of Hispanic origin. (Of course living in California is very different from living in Brooklyn, I'd guess.)

1) Sepharad is the Biblical country-name that was applied to Spain. The breadth of the post-1492 (1497 for Portugal) diaspora was such that all non-Ashkenazic Jews became known as Sephardim. However, the real Middle Eastern communities (Syria, Iran, Iraq, etc.) prefer to be known as "Edot Hamizrach" (Eastern communities), since they pre-existed the Spanish expulsion.

2) As Debbie says, people move into the new area, and may well take on the customs of the majority (Ashkenazi) culture. Similarly, the Ari, the great 16th-century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria Ashkenazi was so-called because his family had come from Western Europe, while living in Egypt (an Eastern country). But he personally kept Eastern customs (food, prayer, etc.)

3) There have been smaller expulsions all along. My friend's family, even though they came from the same area of northeastern Poland as my great-great-grandfather, had been pushed out of Syria, and went by way of Turkey to Poland, so they kept Middle Eastern customs to some extent, although by the time they left Europe, were adopting local customs. So his ancestral custom is something of a mishmosh of East & West.

I never knew the Juanita -> Yenta connection. I can hear it once it's been pointed out, but that's a new one on me.

I only learned that a few years ago.

Yenta meant butterfly, hence the connotation of a gossip--someone who flits from topic to topic. And who better to go to for advice on a match or to find prospective suitors than the one person who knew everybody's business! The linguistic evolution makes sense.

We're having a hard time finding that - "yenta" = "butterfly".