Hitsl and hintshleger, which both mean “dogcatcher,” are among the most offensive words in a language not usually well-disposed to dogs. Dogs and Jews enjoyed a symbiotic relationship in the old country; the dogs were the predators and Jews were their prey. Although Yiddish is far from canine-positive, the dogcatcher gets such bad press because he was also the dog killer, and is generally portrayed as someone who loves his work. Where a shoykhet, a ritual slaughterer, is thought of as a pious person who is engaged in the performance of important mitsves, the hitsl likes to kill–and there’s a sense that if he can’t find a dog, you’ll do just as well. There’s an old saying that goes: “Er hot dikh geshlogn? He hit you? Ruf im hitsl/ruf im hintshleger, Call him a dogcatcher.”This is a perfect example of a two-pronged insult whose second prong might not prick the victim until the speaker is out of reach. For Yiddish-speakers it’s enough to threaten violence; the Talmud tells us that he who so much as raises his hand is already considered an evildoer. Only a lunatic–a morally depraved lunatic–would ever go so far as to land an actual blow. There are no exceptions to this rule, unless you’re raising children or teaching them, so the dogcatcher’s willing embrace of an occupation devoted to physical cruelty was generally seen as the outward sign of a deeply-rooted lack of conscience.

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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