Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"The fish stinks from the head" revisited

I wrote about this proverb once before, but I just found an interesting reference to it in an article by David M. Bunish, "Judeo-Spanish Culture in Medieval and Modern Times," p. 65 of Zion Zohar, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry. In the section of the article dealing with spoken genres of Sephardic culture in the eastern Mediterranean, he writes that "Today Westerners tend to shy away from the use of proverbs (riflanes) and sayings (dichas), seeing them as being trite or passe. Judezmo speakers, on the other hand, used them generously in both speech and writing. Just as 'a picture is worth a thousand words,' a proverb was felt to express succinctly what might otherwise require whole paragraphs of ordinary prose." Judezmo was the spoken language of Sephardim (the word means "Jewish"), while Ladino was the literary language.

About "the fish stinks from the head," he writes, "Other Judezmo proverbs corresponded to sayings used in other cultures of the region, e.g., De la kavesa fyede el pishkado "The fish stinks from the head" (i.e., where there is corruption, it inevitably starts at the top), variants of which are used among the Turks, Arabs, and other Mediterranean peoples."

I would guess that the expression entered Hebrew via Judezmo, or perhaps Arabic, and it has become a very handy saying in denouncing political corruption in Israel.

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