The English “garnish” and Yiddish “garnisht” are entirely unrelated. Both words, though, were brought to mind by the recent spectacle in Singapore.
The English word, meaning “an ornament of decoration” (or, as a verb, the act of providing one, as in “Rebecca lovingly garnished the plate of jalapeno herring with slices of onions and bits of kale”), comes from Old French garner, “to furnish or fortify.”
The Yiddish one means nothing. Well, it means something, of course, but the something is “nothing.”
The consensus of the cognoscenti about the much ballyhooed meeting between the erstwhile dotard and the rocket man was that the happening was much ado about, well garnisht, basically a glorified photo-op for two heads of state (with two preternatural heads of hair). Essentially, all garnish, no herring.
But here we speak not of geopolitics (well, not so much) but of Yiddish, and so, on to garnisht, which is actually a contraction of two German-borrowed words, gar and nicht.
Gar originally meant (and still means) “well done,” in the culinary sense. From the kitchen, though, it migrated to the living room of figuratives, where it came to mean “completely,” “entirely” or “really.”
So that the Yiddish garnisht (or garnit), conjoining the two words, literally translates as “not cooked at all” and, as above, means “nothing.” “Es is garnisht vert” thus means “It is worth nothing.”
And garnisht figures in a number of Yiddish phrases, like the basic one for “you’re welcome.” Just as the Spanish for that response to “thank you” is de nada, or “for nothing,” so is the Yiddish phrase garnisht far, meaning precisely the same thing.
In recent years, another Yiddish signifier of worthlessness has become popular among English speakers: bupkehs.
Now, there’s an interesting word, and its origin is unclear. Some say it originally meant “sheep droppings” and thus connotes anything similarly devoid of value. Others contend that it is the diminutive form of the Russian bub, meaning “bean” (compare the Yiddish bebl for the same legume). Which would make the word a pretty neat parallel to the English expression “a hill of beans.”
One thing is certain: Nothing could be farther from bupkehs than babka, the delicious, and etymologically unrelated, cinnamon or chocolate yeast cake. If anything is worth something, it is. And it derives from baba, the Belarusian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Russian word for “grandmother”—the sources of the Yiddish bubbe or babeh or bobby.
Returning to garnisht, if one wishes to truly stress the worthlessness of something, one might dismiss it as garnisht mit garnisht, sort of “nothing” squared. The phrase is, in contemporary instant messaging circles, sometimes abbreviated as “GMG.”
And if one wants to dismiss some pointless venture, one might say “Es vet gornisht helfn,” or “It will help not a whit.”
As in the famous tale of the woman awoken by a bat that flew into her bedroom and, before her eyes, metamorphosed into a vampire. As the black-caped visitor approached her, she quickly held up the cross hanging from her necklace, putting it directly into the intruder’s face.
Alas, she was doomed. “Es vet gornisht helfn,” were the last words she heard before falling into a swoon.