In a recent discussion Grimm was quoted who describes Jauche as a word whose original meaning has been "verschlechtert". Interestingly, Yiddish preserves the original meaning, "broth". I know a few other examples where the nuance is different in the two languages, and I wonder if anyone can elaborate on these particular cases. I am thinking in particular of "zappelig", which in German is squirming or twitching, like a bug you would step on; in Yiddish, it is "throbbing", as the "zart, zappeldig leib" of a beautiful woman.

The other one is quite baffling: we have "abscheu" (pr. opshay) as respect! I can guess it might have gone the direction of loathing => fear => respect, so if that is the pathway it is not really a case of "verschlechtering" but rather the opposite. Any ideas?

  • According to the Duden the origin of both words is unknown. Besides that I have to disagree with your translation of "zappelig". This one fits better: dict.leo.org/… Nov 18 '11 at 22:33
  • Which translation do you disagree with? I assure you that the Yiddish expression does not translate as the "tender, fidgety body" of a beautiful woman. Could the Yiddish phrase conceivably be used in German to describe a woman? Nov 18 '11 at 22:38
  • I disagree with your English translation (squirming, twitching). It has nothing to do with bugs. More with fidgety/unsettled children. Nov 18 '11 at 22:46
  • 3
    I do understand this question very well, it is clear, interesting, and answerable. I do not understand why we have a not a real question close-vote here.
    – Takkat
    Nov 19 '11 at 8:15
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    @takkat "user unknown" does have a point: What is the actual question here? The only sentence with a question mark is "Any ideas?", which seems to be about the opposite of "Verschlechterung", but the title implies that "Verschlechterung" itself is the subject of the question. But what is the question? Marty, can you clarify what you're asking?
    – fzwo
    Nov 21 '11 at 9:29


After having done some research I did not find any other meaning of "zappeln", "zappelig" than in the sense of something or someone moving fast back and forth or being restless. This meaning dates as far back as to old high german (according to Pfeifer):

zappeln Vb. ‘(mit den Gliedmaßen, mit dem Körper) schnelle, unruhige Bewegungen machen’, ahd. zabulōn ‘sich unruhig bewegen, zucken’ (um 800), mhd. zabel(e)n, auch zapeln ‘mit den Gliedern zucken, ruhelos tätig sein’, frühnhd. zabeln, zappeln (16. Jh.), mundartlich auch zabbeln, zawweln; ein lautmalendes, bewegungsnachahmendes Wort. zapp(e)lig Adj. ‘sich unruhig (hin und her) bewegend, aufgeregt, innerlich unruhig’ (17. Jh.). DWDS

So in my opinion the Yiddish usage of "zappelig" in the meaning of "throbbing" may be figurative. If the orginial meaning is lost then this would rather be a Yiddish change for better than a worsening ("Verschlechterung") of the meaning in German.

Grimm list a single source where "zappeln" was used figuratively in the meaning of throbbing ("pulsierend") in Musäus' "Melechsala":

»Soll mir Gott!« flüsterte der Arzt der Oberkämmerin ins Ohr, »mit Ihr Hoheit steht's schlecht: der Puls zappelt wie ein Mäuseschwanz«, und schüttelte, aus praktischer Politik, wie schlaue Ärzte pflegen, dabei gar bedenklich den Kopf, verordnete reichlich Kalaf und andere Herzstärkungen, und weissagte mit Achselzucken ein abzehrendes Fieber.

Still it was so uncommon that Musäus had to explain it by adding "like a mouse tail".

  • Fascinating reference; however, the use of zappeln here is really not the same as our Yiddish usage. It's still in this example more of a twitching than a throbbing. We definitely do not use "zappeldig" for an annoying child, e.g. (BTW, I ought to clarify that the d in "zappeldig" is not a misprint, in case anyone doesn't recognize the Yiddish suffix.) Nov 19 '11 at 10:18

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