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“It’s OK by Me” as a Syntactic Calque

Yiddish has provided American English with a number of borrowings, typically loan words, but there is one syntactic borrowing that may not be recognized as such by ordinary speakers, namely the use of the preposition by instead of with in the phrase “it’s OK (alright, fine) by me.” The construction using by stems from Yiddish bei and probably came into the language from the Yiddish song “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (Yiddish: ‫בײַ מיר ביסטו שיין‬, “To Me You’re Beautiful;” German “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”)), which started life in a 1930s Broadway musical and became a worldwide hit with its recording by the Andrews Sisters in 1937.

Another possible syntactic borrowing in American English from a Germanic language––specifically, German––may be the compound verb sleep in ‘sleep late, past the normal time’, which makes no sense on its face in terms of English semantics but can be traced as an adaptation to the German verb einschlafen ‘fall asleep’, where English in is the equivalent of German ein-.

These two syntactic borrowings are but a rivulet in the much bigger stream of latter-day German influence on American English syntax (especially in the language of advertising and the media), typified by the use of adjectival compounds with a past passive participle as the second element and with instrumental meaning, as in doctor-tested, etc.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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