Don’t ask!

Today’s morning name, but it comes with crucial context. The Don’t ask! in question is not the neutral use of the negative imperative, advising the addressee not to ask someone about something (Don’t ask them about the ducks in the kitchen; that just makes them crazy), but instead is a formula of Yiddish-influenced English, normally used only by (American) Jews (or gentiles culturally close to this community), when someone has in fact just asked about the matter in question (the tsuris tsores ‘troubles’); the speaker doesn’t go on to avoid this sensitive matter, but instead embraces it, launching into kvetching ‘complaining’ about it.

The formula Don’t ask!  then serves as an announcement — a kind of alarm bell, if you will — that the speaker is about to go off on a (perhaps extended) kvetch.

Two examples, both illustrating attitudes towards male homosexuality (specifically, in a woman’s son), the second exemplifying another feature of Yiddish-influenced English (not previously discussed on this blog), the mildly derogatory lexical item feygele(h) / faygele(h) ‘gay man’.

— from Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods, by Michael Wex:


— from a blog posting  “Some of My Favorite Jewish Jokes” (whose author, to judge from its link, might, or might not, be Lawrence Attard Bezzina):


(Further Yiddish notes: naches ‘pleasure, proud enjoyment’; vos ‘what’; the borrowings oy and nu (discussed in earlier postings on this blog); the loan translations in how’s / what’s by you? and vos / what for a N?)

Background: Jewish humor. From Wikipedia:

Jewish humor is the long tradition of humor in Judaism dating back to the Torah and the Midrash from the ancient Middle East, but generally refers to the more recent stream of verbal and often anecdotal humor of Ashkenazi Jews which took root in the United States over the last hundred years, including in secular Jewish culture. European Jewish humor in its early form developed in the Jewish community of the Holy Roman Empire, with theological satire becoming a traditional way of clandestinely opposing Christianization.

Modern Jewish humor emerged during the nineteenth century among German-speaking Jews of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), matured in the shtetls of the Russian Empire, and then flourished in twentieth-century America, arriving with the millions of Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe between the 1880s and the early 1920s.

Beginning with vaudeville, and continuing through radio, stand-up comedy, film, and television, a disproportionately high percentage of American, German, and Russian comedians have been Jewish. Time estimated in 1978 that 80 percent of professional American comics were Jewish.

Jewish humor, while diverse, favors wordplay, irony, and satire, and its themes are highly anti-authoritarian, mocking religious and secular life alike. Sigmund Freud considered Jewish humor unique in that its humor is primarily derived from mocking of the in-group (Jews) rather than the “other”. However rather than simply being self-deprecating it also contains a dialectical element of self-praise, which works in the opposite direction.

… American Jewish humor: Role of Yiddish: Some Yiddish words may sound comical to an English speaker. Terms like shnook and shmendrik, shlemiel and shlimazel (often considered inherently funny words) were exploited for their humorous sounds, as were “Yinglish” shm-reduplication constructs, such as “fancy-schmancy”. Yiddish constructions — such as ending sentences with questions — became part of the verbal word play of Jewish comedians.

… Jewish humor continues to exploit stereotypes of Jews, both as a sort of “in-joke”, and as a form of self-defence. Jewish mothers, “cheapness”, hypochondria, and other stereotyped habits are all common subjects. [with many examples on these themes]

… on parenting: [examples include #1 above]

The Wex book.

(#3) on “the fundamental idea that kvetching — complaining — is not only a pastime, not only a response to adverse or imperfect circumstance, but a way of life that has nothing to do with the fulfillment or frustration of desire.” [but is a thing in itself]

Elsewhere in the book:

A really good kvetch has a visceral quality, a sense that the kvetcher won’t be completely comfortable, completely satisfied, until it’s all come out. Go ahead and ask someone how they’re feeling; if they tell you, “Don’t ask,” just remember that you already have. The twenty-minute litany of tsuris is nobody’s fault but your own.

The Yiddish slur feygele ‘gay man, queer’. (Choosing one from the various renderings in English spelling.) Literally ‘little bird’ — the diminutive of foygl ‘bird’ (cf. Mod.Gm. Vogel). Derogatory in modern American Yiddish, but less insulting / taboo than English fag(got).

The stereotypical offense of the feygele son. Stereotypically, it is the duty (to their mother) of children to provide her with grandchildren. A feygele son is then a grief or woe, since it is presumed he will be childless.

He might be a source of further worry because of homophobic attitudes in the larger society, which could impede another stereotypical duty (to their mother) of sons to achieve financial and professional success (and of daughters to marry such successful men). (The stereotypical paradigm of professional success is a doctor or lawyer.)

Meanwhile, it’s everyone’s duty to marry within the religion — to find “a nice Jewish boy / girl”. So the least a feygele son can do is to partner with a nice Jewish boy: success in #2, failure in #1 (Miguel in Miami is very unlikely to be Jewish). Even better in #2, the feygele son has found a partner who’s going to be a doctor!

4 Responses to “Don’t ask!”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    I strongly suspect that Sadie in the second joke doesn’t like her daughter-in-law. I also note that the line, “Oh, Mary, don’t ask!” is used several times by Emory, who is certainly not Jewish, in _The Boys the the Band_.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      On Emory’s use: I don’t recall the context, but “Don’t ask!” can be used to tell people not to ask (about some topic that’s in the air — and also when the other person has in fact just asked but the speaker doesn’t want to pursue the topic).

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    Toward the end of the first episode of the currently-running “Masterpiece” series All Creatures Great and Small, the senior vet reveals to his assistant that his given name is Siegfried, immediately appending “Don’t ask”. I have no idea whether that idiom would have been likely to be in use in 1930s Yorkshire, but in any case the assistant doesn’t ask, and nothing more is said on the subject, although in a subsequent episode we learn that the vet’s (much younger) brother’s name is Tristan, suggesting a parent with a Wagner fixation.

    None of these people appear to be Jewish or gay.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      It’s not just the words Don’t ask!, but those words in a particular context. In many contexts, the negative imperative Don’t ask! can of course have its straightforward use as an injunction not to ask. (I see that I should have been much clearer about this in my background discussion above, which should have included examples of short-form occurrences of Don’t ask! as well as the full-form example Don’t ask them about the ducks in the kitchen. (The larger point is that, out of context, Don’t ask! is ambiguous.)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: