Friday, June 8, 2012

Cholent: a Folk Etymology

When describing a special shabes (Sabbath) meal that his grandfather used to host, Isaak Nibulskiy (interviewed in Zhytomyr, 2008) mentions that his grandmother would serve tsholent (cholent), a meat stew slow-cooked starting on Friday. Because cooking is prohibited on the Sabbath, making cholent is a way to have hot food on Saturday, as the stew would cook overnight, kept warm in the oven. In this clip, Nibulskiy relates his understanding of the origins of the word "cholent". He believes it comes from the consonant Slavic word "chulan", meaning closet or pantry, where the oven could be located in a Jewish home. This folk etymology does not conform to the history of the word, however, which dates back to the 13th century, before the Slavic component of Yiddish was prominent. The commonly accepted etymology of the word is that it can be traced to the "present participle of the Latin verb CALERE (to be warm)," "calentem" (Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language, Volume I, p. 400). An alternative etymology holds that the word comes from the French "chaud" (warm) and "lent" (slow).

Nibulskiy grew up in Poninka, in northwestern Ukraine, where a subdialect of Volhynian Yiddish was spoken. His dialect can be heard in the combination of the vowel shift from "oy" to "ey" ("tseneyfgeyn", "azeyne"), more commonly associated with the Northeastern Yiddish (or Lithuanian Yiddish), with the vowel shift from "o" to "u" ("mul") and from "u" to "i" ("fin", "kimen"), more commonly associated with Southeastern Yiddish (or Ukrainian Yiddish). (See, for example, Shaya Mitelman's post on the Mendele listserv describing some features of the dialect.)

--Asya Vaisman