bubkes/bupkis, etc.

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Dec 2 15:32:35 UTC 2010

At 8:35 AM -0500 12/2/10, Victor Steinbok wrote:
>As has been discussed on ADS-L--and just about everywhere else--there
>are multiple spellings of "bupkis". However, "bupkis" is the OED head
>spelling (with variants b[o/u][b/p]k[e/i/u]s[s]).
>Barry Popik has a post in the archives from May 17, 1999:
>>The RHHDAS has this Liebling citation under _bupkis_(1942). Is it
>>_bubkis_ or _bupkis_, 1941 or 1942?...ANGLISH/YINGLISH has "BUHPkis n.
>>Literally, beans" on pg. 19. DREK! has "Bobkes (BUB-kis)--literally,
>>goat turds" on pg. 23. Bubkis, bupkis, beans, goat turds--let's call
>>the whole thing off!
>Not sure what the source was for Drek! but here's the entry in 1967 Fred
>Kogos's A Dictionary of Yiddish Slang & Idioms:
>>Beblech   Beans
>>Bobkes   Small things, triflings, peanuts, nothing, worthless (Lit.
>>Excreta of sheep, goats)
>>Bubkes   Beans; a mere bagatelle; (Slang, see Bobkes)
>>Beans   Bubkes, beblech
>[NB: ch==kh==X]

Nice.  I never knew the literal (original) meaning, i.e. what people
were saying something wasn't worth when it wasn't worth (even) bupkes.

>Not that it's utterly useless, but it's an elegant--if
>fictional--solution. The two hypothetical origins are simply separated
>by listing alternate spellings. On the other hand, perhaps this is
>correct, and the two words /used/ to be separate, but then merged in the
>Anglicized form, once removed from the migrant generation.
>There is a third possibility--one is really just a derivative of the
>other. In this case, it would seem that "beans" would be the original
>meaning and "goat/sheep pellets" would be euphemistically referred to as
>"beans". Hence the same word for both... which eventually evolves to
>represent something small, unimportant, useless. One thing it does not
>mean is "nothing", which is the way it is frequently used today.

But this shift is standard in minimizers of the form [isn't
worth/doesn't know/doesn't care/... (even) X], where X is a minimal
element on a given scale, whether drecative or not.  Do "red cent",
"thin dime", "plugged nickel", "squat", "jackshit", "beans" (in
"doesn't know beans about"), "a wink", "a drop" (in "touch/drink a
drop"), "a bite", etc. *really* mean 'nothing', or are they just
frequently used that way?  One variable is whether a negative
environment needs to be present, as it does with e.g. "sleep a wink",
"touch a drop", but not with "knows/doesn't know bupkes (squat,
doodly-squat, diddly, jack(shit), zilch, bugger all,...) about",
which can occur either with or without a negative licenser with the
same meaning (= 'nothing').   Ditto "could care less/give a flying
crap about".  It's nice that we find parallel evolution with these
squatitives cross-linguistically, the (jack)shit and beans
representing the same process as bupkes.  (Dutch is even better at
producing such drecatives than we are.)


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