Many of you who traveled abroad with me know that Dr. LeRoy King and I conducted over fifty Learning Travel trips abroad through Dickens Destinations from 1982 through 2012. All those trips
certainly impressed me with the amazing linguistic talents of those in the foreign travel industry.
From guides to waiters to maids, most non-native English speakers not only spoke and understood English but usually German, French, and Italian as well. And they were certainly aware of the linguistic limitations of their English-speaking tourists. I heard them recite more than once this riddle: “What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual; two languages? Bilingual; One language? — an American.”
When I was a child, my family was no exception to this rule — which actually was rather exceptional given the fact that my father had come over from Hungary at age twelve and my mother’s parents were both from Russia. Yet not a word of Hungarian nor Russian was ever uttered in our home. Because that generation of immigrants were so relieved to be away from Europe and so proud to be Americans, they made sure that their mother tongue was quickly and quietly replaced by English. My father was very proud of the fact that he spoke English without a trace of Hungarian accent. Zsa Zsa Gabor was always a trial for him; he swore that she must have invented her ridiculous, inauthentic Hungarian accent just to sound as exotic as she looked--"Dahhhhling!"
The only time my parents would forsake English was when they discussed a subject at the dinner table that they deemed inappropriate for my sister and me. As many Eastern European Jews would do, they would use Yiddish words as a substitute. Such a tactic, of course, made me eager to crack the code by learning as many Yiddish words as possible.
I recruited my mother’s sister — Aunt Mollie — for my crash course in Yiddish. The favorite Yiddish word she taught me was the one Aunt Mollie always used in describing my unique personality as a child: Schmikeller (pronounced “Sh-MIKE-lurr”). It’s hard to translate this noun into English. It basically means one who ingratiates himself by telling others exactly what they want to hear. It’s a bit like being obsequious but with more sincerity and pizazz. I can’t deny that I was ever ready to "schmikel" my way into someone’s good graces (note what a nice verb it makes: to schmikel).
I swore Aunt Mollie to secrecy so that my parents would not know I was increasing my Yiddish vocabulary to undermine their efforts to speak over my head. Aunt Mollie was a good sport and agreed to keep the tutoring our secret. I distinctly remember her saying to me: “OK, Elliot, we’ll be in cahoots on this project.”
Cahoots? I assumed I was about to learn the definition of another delightful Yiddish term. I was surprised when Aunt Mollie informed me that "cahoots" was English, as far as she knew. That was good enough for her, but not for me. I was in fifth grade and was just learning the rather adult joy of using a dictionary. I was also enamored of the Hardy Boys mystery series so decided that I would become Inspector Elliot, Word Detective. I asked my teacher, Miss Walls, to help me track down the origin of cahoots.
She introduced me to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was great to discover that the print in it was so tiny that I actually was able to use the ultimate detective tool — a magnifying glass — to decipher the definition. I discovered that cahoots derived from a French term — cahute — which meant “a small hut frequently used by bandits to plot future mayhem.” And so cahoots became a favorite term of frontiersmen used to describe a secret partnership with a buddy or, often, with the devil.
This exciting excursion into the dictionary, with a trusty magnifying glass and an even more trusty teacher serving as Sherlock Holmes to my Watson, started me on a lifetime love of words and their origins. I’d like to say that eagerly asking my teacher to help me look up "cahoots" was a unique act of intellectual curiosity on my part. Let’s just say that my motivation was 90% due to the budding scholar within me; the other 10%, if you must know, was my unabashed schmikeling of Miss Walls.