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Nahum Stutchkoff
1 Introduction
2 Stutchkoff's Dramas
3 A Life Devoted to Language
4 Stutchkoff's Commercials
NPR Documentary
The Radio Dramas of Nahum Stutchkoff, the documentary about the life and work of Yiddish radio's great dramatist. (22:17 min.)

Isaiah Sheffer remembers one of Stuchkoff's word shows  

A selection of curses from Stuchkoff's Yiddish Thesaurus

Synomyms for the noun "hit" from Stuchkoff's Yiddish Thesaurus

A Life Devoted to Language

Born in Brok, Poland, in 1893, Nahum Stutchkoff had an early and unerring ear for language. Speaking Yiddish, Polish, and Russian before he learned Hebrew in Jewish day school, Stutchkoff picked up French and German after breaking with his religious upbringing at 16 to join the Yiddish theater.

In 1923 he boarded a boat to America and disembarked two weeks later speaking English, having read William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the way over. But his greatest love was for the Yiddish language. His Yiddish rhyming dictionary, published in 1931, won him great renown among playwrights, intelligentsia, and the general Yiddish public.

With the ink on the rhyming dictionary barely dry, Stutchkoff began work on a thesaurus of the Yiddish language -- a Herculean endeavor to which Stutchkoff devoted increasing time and energy, while still writing, directing, and acting in eight radio programs a week. In creating this repository of twelve centuries of Yiddish culture and experience, Stutchkoff read virtually everything ever published in Yiddish -- from religious treatises to literary works to daily newspapers, which he cataloged on 3-1/2 x 5-inch index cards his children can recall jutting from every pocket. This philological passion also served as the inspiration for two radio shows: Mameloshn, literally "mother tongue" -- how native speakers refer to Yiddish --  and Vie Di Mame Flegt Zugn (As Mother Used to Say).

Published in 1950, the 933-page Der Oytser Fun Der Yiddisher Sprakh (Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language) inventoried the culture's every expression, from its most ethereal allusions to its juiciest vulgarities. The tome contained 392 synonyms for the word "hit," more than 100 words and expressions for "chutzpah," and seven pages of curses -- inverted blessings, mostly, since cursing is forbidden in Judaism. (Example: "You should have a hundred houses; in every house a hundred rooms; in every room twenty beds, and a delirious fever should drive you from one bed to the next.")

Arguably the greatest one-man lexicographical accomplishment of all time, his thesaurus was a final, emphatic statement on the wealth of Yiddish, made at the moment the language heaved its last great secular sigh. After completing the thesaurus, Stutchkoff immediately embarked on his final lexicographic undertaking: a Hebrew thesaurus. Begun shortly after the establishment of the Jewish state, it marked an important moment in the modernization of the Hebrew language. He worked on it through his last days as a patient at the Brooklyn Jewish Home for Chronic Diseases, his one-time sponsor.

Next Page: Stutchkoff's Commercials »


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