A Walk in the Garden of Words - by Jack Thiessen

The occasional novel becomes marrow to the human soul; one such is Rudy Wiebe's, "Sweeter than all the Earth." The final paragraph describes Adam, the elder, and Trintje the young, sharing a sliver of potato, presumably a wafer of the Eucharist, thereby arresting time and space, and setting matters between man and God right. The author reflects on the etymology of the Mennonite Low German term Eadschock; possibly Ead + schock = 60, he ponders. "And it was good," one concludes.

This scene took me beyond all borders and back to the only place I know well and for certain: our farm and a day on it. If you are so inclined, please let me take you for a rustic ride into the common past of most of us. Ride? That is: aul reed (already ready) toom riede (horseback ride).

I grew up a dual citizen, the language of my father and that of my mother and while they spoke the same language the twain rarely met. Into the stable to milk a cow. The cow's teat, tit was a Tett to my father but a daintier Strijch (digit) to my mother. If a cow occasionally suffered from indigestion, known as diarrhea, my father termed such affliction Schnerz, Schata or Schietarie with the first two nouns doubling as verbs as schnerze, schattre and all as closely related to the shits and shitty as the flow of things warranted nomenclature. My mother said Derjchfaul, less stinky. If a child were afraid my father would say, "Dem ess schietrijch" or "Dee haft Schizz(ss)", while my mother pre-dated the current, much in vogue term Angst, by half a century.

If a cow was in heat, in estrus, my father was delighted to describe the state as bollsch. Similar urgency to breed he described by the terms bursch of pigs, ransch of dogs and rabbits and hinjsch of mares and forward women. My mother, described that delicate state, if at all, as "Janka" and "jankre" as the verb. The breeding process itself was a challenge to my father's explicit vocabulary which was rich and illustrious; to this my mother responded by lifting an apron to her ears and shaking her head in despair. This merely stoked my father's imagination and whenever his side-kick, Arbuse Kloße (Watermelon Klassen) came over, with these fellows holding co-ownership of patent pending to Peadshocksproak (coarse barnyard language), there was hilarity afoot, with the dilemma compounded because Kloße came from my mother's village back home and she respected him for a fine mind albeit a tongue of brilliantly inventive but prost turn. This in turn made my father realize that he probably held claim to being a Nippaenja, hardly brilliant but certainly prost (earthy, more commonly known as vulgar). These men and women, namely the Nippaenja, generally did not give a sweet damn about social or ecclesiastic pressure; they could not be contained by the net of Mennonite morés and were widely and secretly admired but never emulated. Of late, Mennonite scholars have investigated practically every crevice of Mennonitism but an essay on the Nippaenja has yet to be written. Until such time as pen is put to paper on the subject, if ever, the explanation in my dictionary will have to suffice.

Nippaenja was the generic term for behavior and language beyond the pale; these, like my father and Arbuse Kloße, did not call a spade a spade but a bloody shovel and their language was easily on par with the Cossack script delivered to the Sultan attached to Repin's famous painting. "Kobbelmoazh" (mare's arse) was the least offensive of many dozens of illustrious descriptions for someone who had fallen out of favor in their sight. Such linguistic roughhouse vocabulary, known as ribaldry, applied even retroactively all the way to the Old Colony settlements on the Dnieper (Nippa) River "Tus" back home. When these men described the details of animals breeding behind the barn it was enough, said my mother, "daut de Voda emm Himmel sijch wajchdreid enn em Jesejcht root word, wiels Hee sijch schämd" (our heavenly Father turned his back to hide his blush of shame).

When my mother referred to a dilemma by various terms my father asked her if she meant "tweschne Groow enn dem Mesthupe"? (between a rock and a hard place but, rather, "between the gutter and a manure pile" in his language of preference). If things on our farm went very wrong, which they did an average of three times a day, my mother stood aside, contemplating and having a word with God. My father chose a different approach. He revved up his temper which served as a hydraulic hose to fuel his strength which in my imagination easily matched that of Samson or Goliath. Then he cursed the circumstances which had brought him to southern Manitoba. His text read, "Hiea sett wie aum Oaschloch vonne Welt, woa jieden Dach aules mett dem Hinjarenj veropp moazhenn jeiht." (Here we sit in the asshole of creation where things daily go ass-end first into the arse.")

On the way from the stable to the house our dog displayed his playful ways by pretending to choke the tomcat. My father encouraged the dog; "warj ahm auf" (choke him) he said. The term in practice stayed with me like a latency hoping for release. Then one day while studying Beowulf, the term revealed itself in its full portent. The monster Grendel and his mother -- not to mention the wolves circling close around the beleaguered mead hall -- were described several times by the word wearg or its variant, wearh. The German form was warg -- wolf, but also denotes outlaw -- someone who has committed a crime that is unforgivable or unredeemable. "Those cast out from their communities and doomed to wander and die alone. Warg = corpse-worrier (from Indo-Germanic wergh, to strangle = ''one who deserves strangulation''). The outcast human warg could be killed on sight with impunity."

My mother frequently asked me to bring her a Komstheeft, a head of cabbage for bortsch from the garden. The word Heeft would not depart from my own head; I sensed that there was more to it than the Komst, Kapusta etc. that it bore. One day, many years later I was introduced to a scholar and poet of the Mennonite dialect in Edmonton. He complained of "mie ritt daut Heeft," a headache. Heeft invited research and it provided more than I imagined. We have it in O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, a German hymn known to every Christian. But there is more: Haupt, n., ''head, chief, leader'' from MidHG. houbet, houpt (also höubet), n., OHG. houbit, n., the Oteut. word for ''head,'' supplanted in the 16th cent. by Kopf in all the G. dialects. (Kohlkopf, Krauthaupt, almost the only existing forms, are dialectal), while E. and Scand. have retained the earlier form -- AS heáfod, E. head (for heafd). Since all the Teut. dialects point to an old diphthong au in the stem, of which ûû in OHG. hûba, ''hood'' is the graded form (comp. Haube).

It is in Mexico where one can find thousands of Altkolonier women wearing laced bonnets called Huw or Hüüw; Huwe in the plural and all related to Haupt, Heeft, hood and meaning Haube; since the OHG. huba becomes Huw in MLG, these Old Colony women wear a Sunday headdress that is almost as old as time itself.

When Mennonites decide to clean up a messy house or a messy moral record they do so with unabated vigor and they all call this process of dirt and sin to be cleansed in its many forms as Rosmack hoole. It is not known when this process first was so called but it was already known in their West Prussian home. What is known is that a Rozsomak is a wolverine in both Hungarian and in Russian; what we also know is that the wolverine is the most ferocious animal alive and wherever he has rampaged, there is much to be cleaned up or nothing at all. The last thing that is known is that when Mennonites attack dirt in its various forms, be it in church or kitchen, it is done once and for all and when the dust settles, propriety prevails for many days and a few nights on end.

My mother sensed that the MLG term "äwaroasch gohne", meaning to walk backwards, contained an indelicate reference, and so she opted for the more refined term "ritjwoats gohne." Not so my father; he knew that äwaroasch gohne meant to walk backwards or "over the arse" and he found occasion to use the term, on average three times before breakfast and with mounting frequency throughout the day. If my mother objected, he would mount the pace of walking over the arse and so she held her peace.

Before indoor plumbing became widely fashionable a chamber pot was handy for the weak, afflicted, and those reticent to test the prairie elements in winter. This container, generally of sturdy enamel and with a staunch handle to grip the cash and carry contents, was widely known as a Nachttopp. Where my father grew up, it was called a Zielkroos, and other terms too obvious to mention.

It is difficult to imagine that MLG would practice much paraphrasing, leave alone employ euphemisms. Dialects are not politically correct constructs; they are not meant to explicitly offend or insult but rather to express intent with as few shortcuts as possible. And so it is surprising that when a youngster is called before church authorities to be reined in for being too overt in matters of fleshly lust, he is said to be "Brunstliede" meaning he is suffering from horniness. Brunft and Brunst are High German terms describing male animals in rutting season.

Another surprisingly sensitive term is the euphemism for the menstrual flow; it is known as De Roos bleajcht (the rose is blooming). Mennonite Low German purists believe they have coined the term but the term Rose in the Prussian Dictionary serves up numerous examples of implications and euphemisms relating to virgins using the rose in various forms of semi-taboo language. Frequently, these terms are used in conjunction with the Lord and to be pleasing in His sight in whatever afflictions may come to call or visit.

It may be assumed that Buckweehdoag (days of belly ache) was the original euphemism for menstrual pains known to women. However, with the passing of time, the term was misunderstood and today even men, when suffering a momentary stab of pain, complain of stomach ache days, "Etj hab Buckweehdoag."

While referring to ailments in the original, these probably came into being shortly after Eve was created and complaining of a headache minutes after donning her fig-leaf garland. I remember the following terms which always struck me as being as old as time remembered. Tjliea, Tjliere, are the only terms I remember from my childhood for glands, terms used during hog butchering but known to one Regehr in West Prussia.

Even before it was fashionable to be politically correct, I recall distinctly that, if at all, discreet medical terms describing ailments were part of the feminine mystique. The following are only part of the wider realm of doktere and Krankheite.

Kropptjliea - f. Schilddrüse. Thyroid gland. Kropptjlieakrankheit - f. Schilddrüsenleiden. Thyroid gland ailment.

And still related to sicknesses, even my old man, a bawdy, heavyweight of a reprobate and a man given to swearing in Russian until his very spittle steamed, used the trick of death and dying on us, his kids, twice a year. "What will be your final thoughts?" he would ask while clacking his dentures thoughtfully, and ingesting a fake tremolo into his otherwise godless demeanor "when viewing your concerned sire for the very last time as the coffin, with your dear and caring pappa in it, is carried to that little knoll to the silent Kerkhoff, meaning, Church Garden, meaning Kierkegard?" he would ask. This question posed in his most reverential Low German cadence caused the very leaves of the poplar to hold still in their gentle whisper, which meant, we knew, that even God was paying attention. "Nijch, Tjinjatjess?" he would ask with a voice that solicited sentimental inquiry of pall-bearer status in the plural diminutive suffix. This tactic guaranteed good behavior for weeks on end.

My regret to this day is that I did not muster the courage to give him an honest answer. This would have expedited his plans and put an abrupt conclusion to his George-Bush-like tactic. I have since been informed that Mennonites too numerous and preposterous to mention employed similar means to improve the behavior on the part of their offspring far afield.

Taboo vocabulary is as old as language but is generally closely related to human superstition. Hardly any Mennonite knows that the original term for a bear was ursus and even fewer know when the term Boa or dee Jriesa became commonplace. (In English he is called a bruin, and many other terms of endearment) This has to do with "call the devil by his name and he will appear" and so, to discourage the bear from appearing - after all the animal was a dreaded visitor to both cattle and people alike in pre-weapon days - he was called by a supplicating name which he was not meant to understand. Every language practices appeasement towards those posing a threat to farmyard stock, like the devil or wild animals but no one does it better than the Russians who have an array of vocabulary to keep the bear at bay; Medved (honey eater) and kasalopieja Mischka are some terms to induce him to stay away. It is not different with the wolf originally "lupus", who has been called every appeasing term imaginable but not by his original name. Warja, as mentioned, was just one of the terms of appeasement.

It is not different with milk which long ago was called lactus. Even in my farming days it was noticed that milk and cream soured very rapidly whenever a thunderstorm threatened. In a pre-scientific age it was assumed that malevolent spirits were at work here and so milk and cream and other dairy products were called by new or unfamiliar names meant to divert sinister forces. Certainly Maltjch, milk and Milch are a far cry from the mother term a thousand years ago. (Similar euphemisms are in evidence even today: everyone knows that the Canadian prairies are notorious for extreme cold and much snow in winter and yet media announcements refer to snow as the "white stuff" almost as if it were a temporary situation and certainly unusual and most likely a brief transitional accident).

Before we wander farther afield, it may be well to attempt to resolve Rudy Wiebe's folksy etymology regarding the potato, the Eadschock. The conclusion the author arrives at is whimsical but not altogether aberrant. Ead we know means earth, the ground, terra. But then the compound Schock enters in to confound.

Wiebe ponders "Schock? Sixty potatoes?" Schock is related to Hock - f. (as opposed to Hock - n. a pen in the stable to accommodate a Hocklinj = heifer) a stook of sheaves. While a traditional stook in North America consists of five or seven sheaves, similar arrangement of setting up sheaves to dry in Ukraine frequently consisted of sixty sheaves in one stook thereby facilitating loading onto a hayrack for transport to the threshing machine. A Schock is a unit of sixty and in the Hanseatic League was an institutionalized designation used in commercial transactions. In MLG the ditty: Doa oppem Boaj sett eene Fru enn backt een Schock Dwoaj (there on the hill sits a woman and bakes sixty cheeses) is a well practiced to this day. (Dwoaj is related to Zwerg, dwarf, twarog, and while this may be interesting, it is a theme for another day).

A Schock Wiebe recollects is a stook. J. F. Davis in his translation of Kluge''s Etymological Dictionary, states schock is a number of sixty, as does Grimm in his definitive dictionary of the German language. And while a Schock, strictly speaking is a sum of sixty, it is also frequently used to denote a large but uncounted number of items.

Poets, prophets and writers are not to be trifled with; these creators are closer to the Original than any evidence yet produced and so Wiebe (Adam = man of the earth, Ead, soil, terra) may well be right when contemplating that occasionally there may be sixty potatoes to a stem, een gaunzet Pungel aun eenem Stenjel (a whole cluster on one stem).

© 2008 Jack Thiessen