Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“In my family,” listener Josh Bloom writes, from Philadelphia, licking his fingers, “the word ‘bagel’ is used as both the singular and the plural. As in, ‘I’m going to the deli to pick up some bagel for breakfast.’ I’m curious, do any other Jews use the word bagel in this way?”
First off, Josh, a note on terminology. You and the other Blooms are not using “bagel” as a plural, exactly, but rather as a mass noun—“a noun,” according to Merriam-Webster, “that denotes a homogeneous substance or a concept without subdivisions and that in English is preceded in indefinite singular constructions by some rather than a or an; ‘sand’ and ‘water’ are mass nouns.” And you’re creating a rather peculiar mass noun, insofar as bagels, unlike “sand” or “water,” are countable. It’s further worth mentioning that one of the only kin we can think of in English—an unnecessarily mass noun, one that is countable but treated as uncountable—is, yes, salmon: “I’m going to buy some bagel and salmon,” whereas you could accurately say “bagels and salmons.”
(Although, to double back on ourselves here, other foodstuffs, especially proteins, fall in that in-between space: pork, cheese, beef. And yet—final salvo!—“beef” actually has a plural, albeit an antique one: beeves, as in, to quote from Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons, “And rising up in their places were just fat hogs and beeves …” Its usage peaked in 1779 and has slid into disuse ever since.)
But we digress, Josh! You just wanted to know if your family was normal or not. We polled the office, and the consensus was a resounding, “Er, no. The Blooms are not normal, not at all.” None of us had ever heard of this usage, and we know from Jews. “First time I’ve heard it used that way,” said publisher Morton Landowne. “I have never heard that before until now,” said staff writer and house Twitter maven Yair Rosenberg. Editor Alana Newhouse simply proclaimed, “This is lunacy.”
But then again, you may be starting something. “I’ve never used or heard ‘bagel’ as plural,” said graphic designer Esther Werdiger, “but it feels very appealing to me.” A sentiment on which Unorthodox host Stephanie Butnick doubled down, saying that although she has “literally never heard this before,” she is now inspired: “I’d like to start using ‘bagel’ as a verb, the way ‘Uber’ has become one. I think it would mean something similar to vegging out on the couch and watching Netflix all day, as in: ‘I can’t wait to bagel this weekend.’”
Chew on that, Josh, as you bagel away your weekend.