The mid-term election results have left many a Yiddish-speaking liberal echoing the title of an old klezmer tune and saying, “Oy, tateh, s’iz git, Oh, Daddy, it’s good.” In such a phrase, tateh—a familiar or affectionate term for “father”— is a way of avoiding the use of the Lord’s name in vain, while its diminutives tatenyu and tateleh, both of which mean “little father,” are sometimes used to bless a child to whom you’re speaking (often your own infant son or grandson) with length of days and children of his own.
Less affectionately, tatenyu is sometimes used as the equivalent of “Mac” or “buddy.” Her zekh tsi, tatenyu,” means, “Lissename, buddy,” while “Oy, tatenyu, s’iz git,” instead of “Oy, tate,” is the sort of thing that you say when your lover is doing something that you know is wrong but feels so right.
Such affectionate diminutives for father were once common in Indo-European languages and the idea appears already in Gothic, the earliest Germanic language for which we have written records. The honorific title, Aetli, “little father,” has been turned into a proper name under the form of “Attila.” The Hun leader’s real name was forgotten almost sixteen hundred years ago; all we know is that he conquered widely, then died on the night of his wedding. Had he been an early embodiment of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the Scourge of God would have been known as Tateleh the Litvak.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week. Below are some items for sale from eBay for those of you with an interest in Yiddish.
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