Bird cherry in Yiddish

In one of his December 2020 posts, Lost Yiddish words, LanguageHat quoted Rose Waldman’s recent piece in Tablet:

I had grown up on Hasidic Yiddish. The Yiddish I spoke (and speak) is homey and friendly and gives me a sense of confidence and belonging. […] We use it. Nearly nobody else does. But for all its life and vibrancy, Hasidic Yiddish is missing a whole bunch of words.

As Waldman explains, a lot of words have disappeared from the Yiddish of the New York City Hasidim – terms that were once taken for granted and widely used by Yiddish speakers in the Old World. Waldman only discovered this after she had turned to translating works by pre-WWII Yiddish writers into English.

Food, for example. Tcheremukhe—I discovered during a translation—was a cherry. Really? There was a Yiddish word for cherry? Not even a fruit store owner in Hasidic Brooklyn was likely to know it. But even sour cherries had a Yiddish word: vaynshl. And jam: ayngemakhts. Who knew?

You live and you learn. The first Russian-Yiddish dictionary published by O. M. (aka Shiye Mordkhe) Lifshits in 1869 had Yiddish translations for a very large number of everyday Russian terms. Including cherry, of course: (der) vaynshel (the sour kind) and (di) karsh (both kinds). Uriel Weinreich‘s English-Yiddish dictionary (1977) has vaynshl and karsh for the sour and sweet cherry respectively.

Vaynsh(e)l can be traced back to an old Germanic word. Karsh is akin to German Kirsche and almost certainly goes back to Latin cerasum. That’s not the whole list – rozele, a commenter at LanguageHat’s, has another Yiddish word for the sour cherry: vishnye. This one is clearly a Slavic loan; it also turns out that vishnye is a very distant relative of vaynshl.

But what about tcheremukhe (or tsheremukhe)? Again, it’s obviously a Slavic loan but this time the potential Slavic source words – be they Polish, Ukrainian, or Russian – all mean bird cherry (see the reconstructed Proto-Slavic term). That’s Prunus padus in Linnaean Latin. I’ve brought it up before on this blog, in connection with (Novye) Cheryomushki, an area in Moscow, and Owen Hatherley’s article about Moscow’s urban planning:

Cheryomushki… is possibly derived from cheryomukha, Prunus Padus, technically a species of cherry known as bird cherry (and its fruit, as hackberry), or Mayday tree, or Maybush. …[I]t’s the first tree/bush to bloom in May in Central Russia, followed by the cherry tree and naturally associated with spring and the merry month of May.

Going back to Yiddish, let’s check for a major semantic shift in this case. No evidence, so far. To quote rozele’s erudite comment:

[S]hekhter / [S]chaechter (in Plant Names In Yiddish…) has (among other things) “tsheremkhe” for chokecherry and “tshereshne” for sour cherry…

Chokecherry is a species native to America. Since it’s called cheryomukha virginskaya – “Virginian bird cherry” – in Russian, it wouldn’t be surprising if the same logic was at work in Yiddish: an Old World term applied to a similar although different North American species.

Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter‘s Plant Names in Yiddish is a treasure trove I’d like to revisit in the future. Helpfully, its Latin-English-Yiddish section has the same term tsheremkhe for good Old World Prunus padus, which is exactly the bird cherry (or hagberry) I had in mind. In the English-Latin-Yiddish section, Schaechter adds fayglkarsh, literally “bird cherry,” as a synonym for Prunus padus.

In the notes, however, Schaechter adds Prunus avium to Prunus padus as a possible meaning of tsheremkhe. It’s a little disconcerting because it adds to a pre-existing confusion. In the bizarre world of botanical correspondences, Prunus avium – even though it does mean “bird cherry” literally – stands for “sweet cherry” while Prunus padus stands for “bird cherry.” As for tshereshne, I’ll leave it for later: for all I know, it should correspond to sweet rather than sour cherry.

The 1984 Soviet Russian-Yiddish dictionary (Shapiro et al.) has tsheremukhe for the flowers and foyglkarshn (again, “bird cherries”) for the berries of Prunus padus. It also has foygl(-)boym (“bird tree”) and karshn-boym (“cherry tree”) for the tree itself. The faygl-/foygl- variation is probably a matter of dialect.

The Russian-Yiddish dictonary for schools (1941), ed. Falkovich, has tsheryomukhe, which is pretty close to the Russian word for the Prunus padus tree, its flowers and its berries.

Now let’s go back to Rose Waldman’s story:

…Yiddish the language and Yiddish speakers became so closely intertwined in my brain, it was as if the words had become the people themselves… The tcheremukhe became the skinny shtetl girl, beaming as she runs home holding up her dress filled with juicy cherries she’d just picked in an orchard.

Unfortunately – as anyone who has ever tried bird cherries would confirm – they taste little like the juicy berries of Prunus cerasus or Prunus avium. These little berries are highly astringent – the original Latin verb “to bind fast” is very appropriate here – and their flesh to bone ratio is disappointing.

However, if you replace the berries with bird-cherry flowers, everything will fall into place again: the same supple young girl running home with a blooming branch. As Woodland Trust puts it:

A stunning, scented show-stopper of a tree. In spring, nectar-loving animals flock to this beautiful tree for its almond-scented blossom.

To conclude at last, an extended (yet abridged) quote from Dr. Schaechter’s dictionary:

Twentieth-century Yiddish (especially since the 1920s) could, with a little hyperbole, be called the ‘flower century’ or the ‘flower generation’. For the first time the Yiddish speech community, its writers and poets and at least some of its speakers, discovered flowers and their beauty…

Hirshbeyn, in his travelogues, writes about the flower Makabéyer-blut… as well as about tíger-lílye, shlángen-lílye, fóyglblum. Khil Falikman… mentions in one brief piece of his… a dozen or so names of flowers: shvártsbretlekh, zúnroyzn, pérl-blímelekh, nastúrtsyes, georgínes, matyóles, ástres, shnéygleklekh, etc. …

One single informant… rattled off to me 14 names of flowers as fluently as he would read them from a printed list: bez, yasmín, georgínes, brátkes, shnéygleklekh, rezéde, margerítkes, royzn, málver royzn, konfitúr-royzn, górtnroyzn, téyroyzn, tulipánes, nákhtfaylkhn.


  1. I really liked your article on the Slavic roots of some words in Yiddish.
    I believe that every translator should carefully check the roots of words taken from the languages of the diaspora countries, so as not to tell fables about “spreading cranberries”.

    • Thank you very much for your response! Coming as it does from an accomplished translator of Yiddish literature, it’s particularly rewarding.

      Alex K.

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