For those of us living in northern climes (and maybe for everyone else, but probably not so much), January is fat month.  There was all that holiday eating, now settled in nicely at hips and waist.  (You too, guys.)  And now it’s cold outside!  Which means thick warming soups and stews and chile and mashed potatoes with gravy and lasagnas and pot roasts, plus brownies right out of the oven and hot cocoa and ______.  [You fill in the blank.]  Why shouldn’t we live in the moment? Shorts and tank tops are at least four or five months away.

Of course, there’s still the mirror every morning, before all those heavy clothes go on. (Unless you force yourself not to look, or never take them off till spring.) For such trying times, there’s the soothing word: zaftig.

Unfortunately for the guys, men are never zaftig themselves.  Under the circumstances discussed in the preceding paragraph, they get big, or large, or (God forbid) extra-large.  But the word zaftig coming out of a man’s mouth to describe a woman is a life-saver. It means she’s not fat at all; she’s luscious.  I refer to grown men, of course — men with enough experience to reject the concept of embracing skin-covered sinews — not those young ones still yearning to make it with a ballet dancer.

Mind you, the word can’t be applied to just anyone.  By way of example (and I refer to ladies long gone who can no longer have feelings in the matter), if Marilyn Monroe had gained ten or fifteen pounds, she’d be zaftig. If beautiful but straight-up-and-down Audrey Hepburn had gained umpteen pounds, enough pounds to burst out of the top of her Givenchys, she’d still never get to zaftig.

Also if used by a woman about another woman, the word is not so good.  “Is she fat?”  “Not quite.  But she’s sure zaftig.”

However, never mind those catty types.  Lets put the emphasis back where it belongs: male appreciation.  In the days when Bill and I used to spend part of the summer on a small Greek island and I would haul myself out of bed early for a brisk constitutional before it got too hot to do anything but lie around and perspire — I once met a Greek man older than me mid-walk.  He was on his way to let his goats out to pasture or something.  But he could speak a little English.  After we’d said Kalimera to each other, he asked what I was doing up and about so early.  I explained I was atoning for all those ouzos and spanikopitas; I had to go on fitting into my bathing suits at least until we got back home.  “Don’t overdo it!” he warned, smiling with approval at my visible flesh. “A man likes some meat on the bones.”  If he’d known Yiddish, he could have told me that a man likes his women zaftig.

But that’s only my own experience with the word.  I concede my etymological knowledge is far from comprehensive and may even be partially incorrect. Fortunately, a short article from Moment Magazine (Jan.-Feb. 2015 issue) has been brought to my attention at this opportune time by a caring friend. It purports to clarify everything you ever wanted to know about the word zaftig while managing  to be confusing at the same time:


A Full-Bodied History

by Hilary Weissman, with additional reporting by Sala Levin

For a quick overview of the complexities of the word zaftig, take a look at the Los Angeles Jewish Home’s video, circulating online, in which its residents demystify the meaning of the word.

Charlotte Seeman says that zaftig means “a little bit on the heavy side,” to which the moderator, Marty Finkelstein, asks, “But in a good way?”

“They look a little, if you’ll pardon the expression, appetizing to other people,” adds Yetta Dorfman.

Esther Berlin is less effusive. “It’s a shame because they don’t take care of themselves and do something about it,” she says, prompting the chivalrous gentleman of the group, Irving Rubinstein, to defend the zaftig dame’s honor. “It’s kind of a sexy, plump, attractive woman,” he concludes.

That, in a nutshell, is the debate over zaftig. By most contemporary definitions, zaftig means voluptuous or sexily curvaceous à la Marilyn Monroe or the commanding office manager Joan Harris on Mad Men. Unless it is a polite way of saying fat, in an unsexy way. “It holds both [meanings] depending upon who says it,” says Lori Lefkovitz, professor of Jewish studies at Northeastern University.

But in traditional Yiddish, zaftig has nothing to do with women’s bodies. It comes from the German word saftig, meaning “juicy” or “succulent. ” (Saft in German means “juice” or “sap”, and in European Yiddish, in which it is spelled and pronounced zaftik, was used to describe food and taste.) It could also be used for more abstract depictions of ideas, says Eddy Portnoy, who teaches Yiddish language and literature at Rutgers University. “You can have a zaftik story, you can have a zaftik piece of gossip, virtually anything that fits the bill,” he says. “It’s a very commonly used modifier that can refer to anything that is rich or pleasing,” much the same way an American might tell a friend that she heard some juicy news at the water cooler.

So how did zaftig make the transition to women? It is likely another example of the common transition that occurs with the Americanization of Yiddish. “We do that a lot with women’s bodies—we talk about juicy bodies and succulent bodies,” says Lefkovitz. “We describe women as food because they’re edible, they’re delicious.”

Sexual undertones are often implicit in the word’s use. In his classic 1968 book The Joys Of Yiddish, Leo Rosten affectionately exclaimed that the word “describes in one word what takes two hands, outlining an hourglass figure, to do.”  Says Yiddish expert Michael Wex, who defined the word in Just Say Nu: Yiddish For Every Occasion (When English Just Won’t Do): “The best equivalent I ever found for zaftig was an old cigarette commercial for Lucky Strike; the Lucky Strike model is ‘so round, so firm, so fully packed.’ That immediately took on a secondary meaning, a sexual connotation. Zaftig might—I can’t say for sure—in that sense have been influenced by that.”

Others have been even more explicit in the erotic implications of zaftig; Hanne Blank, editor of the 2001 anthology Zaftig: Well-Rounded Erotica, says that she chose the word for the title in part because “zaftig sounds like something that’s enjoyable, like something you can have a good time with, where plus-size sounds like you lost your way in Kmart and ended up in the plus-size section.”

Our changing perceptions of female beauty have influenced the use of the word. “Once upon a time, plumpness or curviness and all of those luscious sexual descriptors were associated with health and wealth, and as health and wealth got increasingly thin, zaftig became a euphemism for overweight,” says Lefkovitz.  Harvard professor Marjorie Garber touched on the word’s ambiguity in her essay “Moniker,” which was compiled in the 2001 book of essays Our Monica, Ourselves, dissecting what she argues some saw as Monica Lewinsky’s inherently Jewish seductive qualities. To Monica’s critics, “she was ‘pushy;’ she was ‘ambitious;’she was ‘zaftig;’ she was ‘typical Beverly Hills.’ She was physically mature for her age. She was sexy and seductive…She led a weak Christian man astray.”

What accounts for the word’s seemingly unflagging presence in American English? For one thing, as with so many Yiddish words, there’s no exact equivalent in English. The closest may be “pleasantly plump” or “Rubenesque,” after the women depicted in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens—but neither has the zing of zaftig. Lefkovitz suggests that another reason is its nostalgic evocation. “It’s a word where we hold both the past and the present, where there was a kind of valorization even for our zaftig grandmothers.”

The word is popular among non-Jews, too. When it came to choosing a name for his brewery, it didn’t matter to Brent Halsey whether his patrons would appreciate the double entendre of Zaftig Brewing Company. “None of us three co-owners are Jewish, but [the word] left a mark on me,” he said, citing as inspiration his high school English teacher’s penchant for quoting The Joys Of Yiddish. For a brewery specializing in full-bodied ales, it seemed the most fitting choice.


I guess you can take what you like from all that. Personally, I go for the zing of being edible and delicious. Which reminds me, isn’t it time for dinner?



[Now that TGOB has developed a modest following, suggestions for posts occasionally arrive in my e-mail from the hopeful and/or well-intentioned — a few of which I’ve already sent forth into the world, with surprising success.  Another has just providentially shown up in my mailbox; I say “providentially” because I’ve been running around all day and have nothing new to post. 

The sender wishes to remain anonymous, but attributes what she sent  to one “Barry McClellan: In God We Trust.”  As the only “Barry McClellan” I was able to discover online is the head of a major health organization, I doubt very much he is the source of the etymological tidbits that follow.  Moreover, I have no idea if any of them are true. But they certainly sound plausible and, as noted below, I’ve even heard one of them before. So as I have nothing else to offer tonight, let’s all thank the non-health-organization “Barry McClellan,” whoever he is, and be grateful for the reading experience he has put together to cover for me while I was out having my hair done.]



In the Old West, a .45 cartridge for a six-gun cost 12 cents. So did a glass of whiskey. If a cowhand was low on cash he would often give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink. This became known as a “shot” of whiskey.

American fighter planes in World War II had machine guns that were fed by a belt of cartridges. The average plane held belts that were 27 feet (9 yards) long. If the pilot used up all his ammo he was said to have gone “the whole nine yards.”

This is synonymous with dying. During World War I, soldiers were given life insurance policies worth $5,000. This was about the price of an average farm.  So if you died you “bought the farm” for your survivors.

This came about from the iron-clad ships of the Civil War. It meant something so strong it could not be broken.

Most men in the early west carried a jackknife made by the Buck Knife Company. When playing poker, it was common to place one of these Buck Knives in front of the dealer so that everyone knew who he was. When it was time for a new dealer, the deck of cards and the knife were given to the new dealer. If this person didn’t want to deal he would “pass the buck” (the responsibility for dealing) to the next player. If that player accepted, then “the buck stopped there.”

The Mississippi River was the main way of traveling from north to south. Riverboats carried passengers and freight but they were expensive, so many people used rafts, which were a very cheap method of water transportation. However, every other boat had the right of way on the river over a raft. Because the steering oar on a raft was called a “riff,” “riff-raff” therefore came to mean low class.

The Old English word for “spider” was “cob.”

Traveling by steamboat was considered the height of comfort. Passenger cabins on the boats were not numbered. Instead they were named after states. To this day cabins on ships are called “staterooms.”

Early beds were made with a wooden frame. Ropes were tied across the frame in a crisscross pattern. A straw mattress was then put on top of the ropes. Over time the ropes stretched, causing the bed to sag. The owner would then tighten the ropes to get a better night’s sleep. To say “sleep tight,” meant to sleep comfortably on a bed that didn’t sag. [When I first heard this one, from the tour guide at the Alden House in Duxbury, Massachusetts, there was an additional reference to the bugs in the straw. It was: “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.”]

In the days before CPR, a drowning victim would be placed face down over a barrel and the barrel rolled back and forth in a effort to empty the lungs of water. It was rarely effective. If you ever find yourself “over a barrel,” you are in deep trouble.

Heavy freight was moved along the Mississippi in large barges pushed by steamboats. These were hard to control and would sometimes swing into piers or other boats. People would say they “barged in.”

Steamboats carried both people and animals. Since pigs smelled bad they would be washed before being put on board. The mud and other filth washed off the pigs was considered useless “hog wash.”

The word “curfew” comes from the French phrase “couvre-feu,” which means “cover the fire.” It was used to describe the time to blow out all lamps, candles and fires in fireplaces so that fires didn’t get out of control during the night. Its Middle English equivalent was “curfeu,” which eventually became the modern “curfew.”  By extension, agreed-upon or government-mandated times for being indoors and off the street after dark are now also called “curfews.”

When the first oil wells were drilled, the oil was stored in water barrels. That’s why, to this day, we speak of barrels of oil, even though they’re stored in tanks and measured in gallons.

As  paper goes through the rotary printing press, friction causes it to heat up — so that if you grab the paper right off the press, it  is hot. “Hot off the press” therefore means to get immediate information.


[Thanks again, Barry.]



Miss Priss lives with me, in my metaphorical basement.  She’s exactly my age, and sort of looks like me. But instead of greeting the world with a friendly smile that might distract the eyes of others from the physical imperfections of age, she pulls down the corners of her mouth, thereby deepening the parenthetical lines around it and turning her face into a flesh-colored prune.

Fortunately, you almost never get to see Miss Priss. She keeps a very low profile.  But she is all ears.  She hears everything anyone ever says to me.  And although she contains herself in public, she suffers deeply from the increasingly severe linguistic assaults on her sensibilities we two encounter as we advance towards our one hundred years together.

It’s true that during the course of her education, Miss Priss was required to study etymology and the development of Modern English.  At that time, she even acquired some minimal knowledge of Anglo-Saxon. [She still knows, for instance, that “Hee, hee” was spelled “Hig, hig” in the eighth century.]  She could once also haltingly read Chaucer.  She is therefore well aware language evolves, despite the efforts of lexicologists to stop it dead in its tracks. Thus she further knows, and theoretically accepts, that if it didn’t evolve we would still be speaking Beowulf’s mother tongue.

But what kind of evolution?  The English Miss Priss and I learned in the middle of the twentieth century was a perfectly serviceable and universally acceptable instrument of communication as far as we’re both concerned.  [I hesitate to call it the King’s English because we were, and remain, American.  But some differences of spelling and usage aside, it came pretty close.]  What Miss Priss can’t understand is why the language she knows and loves so well can’t meander along until she’s gone before transforming itself into something else? Why does it have to evolve in such appalling ways in her lifetime?

[You see how I am cleverly putting these questions in Miss Priss’s mouth?  Not all the readers of this blog are quite as antiquated as Miss Priss, and I certainly would not wish to offend or alienate a single one of them.  She, on the other hand, does not “blog.”  Indeed, she finds the very word offensive.  “What’s wrong with ‘write an online column’?” she asks.]

Miss Priss does not entirely object to the entry into her beloved language of new words or expressions that fill some hitherto unmet need.  I have actually heard her answer a question about what she thought of a movie with the monosyllabic “Meh.”  This word is clearly an improvement on the prior alternative, “It was so-so.”  After all, the French can say, “Comme ci, comme ca.”  The Greeks can say, “Etsy ketsy.”  High time we had something comparable. Especially when it’s essentially the same unspellable grunt many of us were already emitting when asked our opinion of something bland and unmemorable, with just an “m” appended up front.

Miss Priss has also been known to say about one of her little excitements that it “blows her mind.” What’s more, I have heard her characterize someone for whom she has nothing but scorn as a “shithead.”  Actually, the first time she heard the word “shithead,” she had to ask if it meant the same thing as “asshole,” a word relatively new to her that she had already embraced. But on being assured that it did, she took to it with alacrity as being a more accurate and pictorial description of that part of the other person’s anatomy she held in such contempt.

About alterations of commonly used expressions that destroy their meaning, Miss Priss is less welcoming.  For instance, on those very occasional evenings when we sit down together to watch television commentators chew up the news, she can demand angrily of the screen, “What the hell does ‘I could care less’ mean?’  You mean you couldn’t care less, you shithead!”  Although I deplore her use of a street epithet in the home, Miss Priss is perfectly right, of course.  From the context of his previous remarks, it is clear the commentator in question was now trying to tell us he cares so little about whatever it is, that it is not possible to care less than he does because he is already at the very bottom of any ability to care. In other words, he absolutely could not, even if he tried very hard, care less than he already does.  Whereas what he has told us is that he does care some, and could care less (if he put his mind to it).

When I admonish Miss Priss for not picking her battles, she retorts that I should mind my own business.  That she will fight on till she dies. Then she tells me that as she has no “blog” of her own, if I still want to be her friend I should put in mine a list of the linguistic horrors and abominations that really make her squirm and curl up inside.  Then other people besides me will know what they are. And maybe, just maybe, one or two of them will agree with her.  Perhaps they’ll even add a few horrors and abominations of their own.  Wasn’t that how “Occupy Wall Street” began?

I know it’s wrong to give Miss Priss a platform for her nutsiness when she adamantly refuses to sit down at a computer herself, much less sign up for a WordPress account. But that “if I still want to be her friend” business got to me.  How can I kick her out of my (metaphorical) basement at this point in our joint life?


I.  The use of “so” as an adjective or an adverb, usually meaning “very” or “very much,” in conjunction with an entirely unexpected word or locution.  As in, “That is so now. That is so Gwendolyn.  That is so what we don’t  want. That is so too much!”  [You can say that one again, mutters Miss Priss.]

II. The “adjective-ing” of other parts of speech.  Usually preceded by the aforementioned “so.”  As in, “That is so New York.  That is so now. That is so you.”  [I myself used this youth-speak as a kind of joke to end a post recently; someone who I know for a fact is old enough to collect Social Security took the bait and replied, in correlative language, that the Beatles were not  “yesterday” but “NOW.”  Which only goes to show “yesterday” and “now” are both firmly ensconced in their new usage and Miss Priss is wasting her time if she hopes my blogging can help dislodge them.]

III.  The liberal sprinkling of “like” in the interstices of every sentence.  As in, “He was, like, talking to me, like, very fast, and I was, like, not hearing him because I was, like, nervous about my history exam?”  Persons who speak this way often end every sentence with a question mark even when it’s not a question. Don’t tell Miss Priss they’re just young and will outgrow it.  That’s the baby fat excuse.  The young who spoke this way a while ago have now grown up, taking their speech habits into adulthood and graduate school. Miss Priss and I hear them on the train platform at Princeton every time we go to New York. Miss Priss shudders. I try not to listen. What can you do?  That last is a real question.

IV.  The use of “go” and “goes” as a synonym for any other verb, in either present or past tense, indicating speech.  As in, “I go, ‘Are you asking me out, or what?’ And he goes, ‘Do you want me to?’ Then my friend goes, ‘Are you two ever getting it on, or what?” So then we both go, “Butt out, will you?'”  Yes, Miss Priss knows this is out-of-the-mouth-of-babes “speech,” undoubtedly reflecting faulty education in the school and in the home.  Except you’d be surprised where else it crops up. As noted above, the speech-disadvantaged grow up, taking their disadvantages proudly into the adult world.

V.  The use of “no problem” as a synonym for “You’re welcome.”  As in (a): You give the waiter money to pay for your meal.  He brings back the change.  You say, “Thank you.” He assures you, “No problem.”  Well of course it was no problem.  It was his job.  It would have been a big problem if he hadn’t brought back the change.  Or (b): You ask the guy blocking your driveway with his delivery van to please move it. You even say “Thank you” as he stubs out his cigarette on your lawn to climb into the driver’s seat.  You hear, “No problem.”  It better not be a problem, buddy, because the motor vehicle regulations say no trucks can park across the ends of driveways. And what ever did happen to, “You’re welcome?”

VI.  Routine use of meaningless memorized phrases in commercial contexts.  Miss Priss especially loves it when we check out of the supermarket just before it closes, tired and cross because we’ve had a long busy day and couldn’t get there until late — only to hear the clerk wave us out the door into the black night with “Have A Good Day!”  Miss Priss once broke her vow of silence in such situations to inquire acidly (through me), “When?”  But the clerk didn’t get it.  She had already turned to the next tired and cross shopper with her second piece of programmed speech, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” What would she have done if the customer had said no? Abandoned her register to search the aisles?

VII.  The use of the word “share” as a synonym for “tell.”  When Miss Priss and I were young, the word “share” had two meanings.  The first meaning was when you gave a piece of something you had, like cake or ownership of a house, to someone else.  You shared your cake, or house ownership, with that other person. As a result, you had less of it, but the other person also had some of it.  The second meaning involved a secret, or something very confidential.  If you confided your secret, or confidential information, to another person, you had shared it with him.  But only the two of you knew it, and both understood that it remained secret, or confidential. Now, however, everyone shares all of everything with everyone.  NOBODY HAS LESS. AND NOTHING IS SECRET.  (Unless you take the precaution of marking it “private.”) WordPress urges us to “share” every blog post we like.  What WordPress means is for us to tell everyone how good it is, if that’s what we think, by sending it to them.  Was anything wrong with just “telling?”  Miss P. and I were getting along fine with it before “share” came along with its bullhorn.

Miss Priss wants me to continue with her stations of the cross by listing some cliches worn so thin by overuse that whatever their merit in the first place they have now become a yawn.  “24/7” (meaning “all the time”) and “At the end of the day” (meaning “as a result” or “finally”) come immediately to mind, but believe me, she can think of many more to “share” if I let her.

However, I am sure you must have had quite enough of Miss Priss by now. So I’m sending her back to her basement.  But not before you promise her you will try very hard never again to use an expression carried over from texting, like a flea in your luggage, when writing anything she may see.  No more LOLs, ROFLs, OMGs if you can possibly help it.  Otherwise she might die of a broken heart.  And I would miss her.

Every one who’s getting old needs a Miss Priss of their own, and she is mine. I try to run a blog she would approve of.  So please do promise.  Cross your heart and hope to you-know-what.  If you’re as old as we are, you’ll know what that means.