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Q From Linda Garris, California: The word fatootsed seems exactly right when I’m feeling vexed, exasperated, driven to distraction or colossally frustrated. A Google search suggests the origin is Yiddish and the first time I heard it was around 1992, on one of the final episodes of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show when the Jewish singer and comedienne Bette Midler used it. Is the word actually ancient and truly of Yiddish origin?

A This one caused me some difficulty. I’d never come across the word before and it isn’t recorded in any dictionary I’ve been able to consult. That might be because even in the US, where it appears most often, it’s not widely distributed. Curiously, its most recent appearance in the media is from a British publication, though the story is about an unsuccessful attempt by Joan Collins at giving the weather forecast on an American breakfast show:

Rushing back to rescue the floundering actress, [Early Show weather anchor Dave] Price said: “No, no, I think you’re a little fatootsed, as we say in Yiddish.”

Daily Mail, 21 Nov. 2008.

Here’s an older one:

Leroy, before you see it and get all fatootsed, I thought I’d explain about our garage being out in the street ...

In a Lockhorns cartoon published in The Pharos-Tribune, Logansport, Indiana, 11 Jun. 1986.

Working on the presumption that it is indeed Yiddish, I took down from my shelves Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish. The book almost fell open at the entry for the word fartootst, “the state of being bewildered, disoriented, discombobulated”. Aha! Fatootsed must be merely a minor variation on fartootst.

The fartootst spelling is less common in English and doesn’t seem to be very old. Leo Rosten’s book of 1968 is the earliest example I’ve found. The next oldest in my files is one in which a Jewish academic, Gordon Bernstein, is talking to his mother:

An argument followed. It reminded him far too much of the debates over when he had to be home from dates, and what he wore, and all the other small things that finally drove him to an apartment of his own. It ended with the same sad shaking of the head, the “You are fartootst, Gordon, fartootst ...”

Timescape, by Gregory Benford, 1980.

Leo Rosten gives the origin as German verdutzt, nonplussed, confused or baffled. That seems reasonable.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 16 October 2010.