Phrase of the Year

January 3, 2009

Though friend of YS Grant Barrett has just released his nominees for the American Dialect Society’s “word of the year” award, we’ve decided not to prejudge his nominees, some great (“fail” as a mass noun, “as in ‘A bucket of fail’) and the not-so-hot (“plutoid,” a term used “to refer to Pluto and space objects like it, which are something less than planets.” Too close and too soon to the award winning “plutoed” for our tastes) as they are just nominees and not actual winners. Instead, we’ve decided to name our first ever “phrase of the year,” one that may even solve one of the biggest problems out there: J.J. Putz’s surname and its oh-too-many valences.

For those unaware, the OED defines “putz” as “An ornamental display representing the Nativity scene, traditionally placed under a Christmas tree.” Oh, wait; that’s Putz n1. Putz, n2 is a bit more controversial: “1. Originally in Jewish usage, now more generally: a stupid or worthless person; a fool.”

This is the definition most Americans think of when they think of the word “Putz,” and it’s the one reflected in the verb form, “to potter, fool, or fiddle around.”

But there’s a more sinister meaning lying around: 2. Esp. in Jewish usage: a penis.

Deriving from Yiddish, Michael Wex explains how the word came to be neutered within the American context:

“Ever since comedians like Lenny Bruce realized that words like shmuk, puts, sholng, and shvants meant absolutely nothing to the goyim in Standards and Practices, Yiddish has been the preferred vehicle for smuggling dirty words past showbiz censors, especially words that mean ‘penis.'”

The problem, according to the Times, is that there are too many Yiddish speakers (!) in the New York area, people who the surname may offend:

“But his last name may be no joking manner, particularly in New York. The 2000 United States Census reported that nearly two-thirds of the estimated 178,945 people in this country who speak Yiddish at home live in New York. New Jersey had the third-highest number of Yiddish speakers, after Florida.”

Of course, there’s a great way for headline writers to get around this problem, our first phrase of the year, “honi soit qui mal y pense.”

The phrase means, roughly, “shame be to him who thinks evil of it.” According to wikipedia, the phrase derives from a quip made by King Edward III in an attempt to protect the honour of the Countess of Salisbury. “Her garter slipped down to her ankle, causing those around her to respond with sniggers at her humiliation. In an act of chivalry Edward placed the garter around his own leg, saying “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, and the phrase later became the motto of the Order.”

Nowadays the phrase is used in double entendre situations, either to show that you know the dirty interpretation of what you’re saying and that you really mean the pure meaning, or to deflect, to eat your cake and have it too, to get away with saying the damn thing.

So don’t be surprised if the next time J.J. does something great, or something terrible, the Post prints: “WHAT A PUTZ! Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense”