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O tempora, o mores! (Isoglosses)

The constant recurrence in current news accounts to the Souris River and the havoc wreaked by it cannot help but bring to mind in anyone with even a smattering of Yiddish the word tsuris ‘trouble, distress, woe, misery’ (pl., < Hebrew ṣārāh), which has also found its way into dictionaries of contemporary English. Given the phonic closeness of the word to the riverine name, its aptness as a descriptor for the calamity in North Dakota needs no demonstration.

The form of the word actually has a doublet, namely tsores, and the alternation u/o of the root vowel corresponds to what is more or less a north-south isogloss in Yiddish dialectology, an isogloss being a geographic boundary line delimiting the area in which a given linguistic feature occurs. Apropos, before I came to America and heard the Yiddish word from a variety of speakers of American English, I only knew it as tsores, particularly in my father’s frequent citation of his staircase wit Uncle Misha’s Russo-Jewish variation on Cicero’s winged phrase, “O tempora, o mores! O vremena [R ‘times’], o tsores!”

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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