Doesn't Know From
September 21, 2004 3:29 AM   Subscribe

Where does the American construction doesn't know from come from? How is it used? [More Inside.]

I've heard this for years and I guess it must mean "doesn't know anything about X" but I'd love to know how the from got there and what the colloquial/conversational usage rules are. One more obvious instance I've heard is Doesn't know from shit", which is general, but more commonly it refers to a specific field, recently including "He doesn't know from corn repeal laws" (whatever those are) on a rerun of an old West Wing episode.
Instinctively - i.e. ignorantly, on a hunch - I guess it means something like "Whatever he says about [the corn repeal laws] doesn't come from any knowledge of the [corn repeal laws]".

I've looked up my dictionaries and googled to no avail but, although I sense there's an explanation out there, I don't, er, know from search terms. (Would that be correct or, as I feel, not?)
posted by MiguelCardoso to Writing & Language (19 answers total)
I'd guess (or maybe I guess) that the reduction has gone from:
He doesn't/don't know the difference between sugar and shit.
He doesn't/don't know sugar from shit.
He doesn't/don't know from shit; or He don't know shit.

I'll also guess that regional variations abound..
posted by i_cola at 3:45 AM on September 21, 2004

Response by poster: If I were forced to come up with a solution, being Portuguese, I'd say Americans were simply being more ambiguously but veritably Latin than the English, since de means simultaneously of, about and from, although the sense is given by the context.

1)Principio de Matemática ("A principle of Mathematics)

2)Da [contraction of de and a] Matemática ("About Mathematics")

3) Este princípio vem da Matemática("This principle comes from Mathematics.")
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:46 AM on September 21, 2004

It's a Jewish thing: "...Other features of Orthodox Jewish English include quasi-chanting intonation contours, loan uses from Yiddish ("I'm eating by her"; "He doesn't know from that")..."
posted by taz at 4:24 AM on September 21, 2004

Yes, it comes from Yiddish and is more prevalent in areas of the US where there were large numbers of Yiddish-speaking immigrants.
posted by Tholian at 4:43 AM on September 21, 2004

What taz and Tholian said. We did it. (After all, what do we know from grammar?) : >
posted by amberglow at 4:44 AM on September 21, 2004

4th'd as a "Jewish thing"; I wouldn't understand.
posted by yerfatma at 5:22 AM on September 21, 2004

Response by poster: Oh, of course - that makes sense, now that I think of those who use the expression. I still wonder if it's extended beyond Yiddish-Jewish usage, though - like saying "already" at the end of sentences to mean "hurry up and show us/get on with it."

As a Sephardic Jew, I'm only familiar with Yiddish from Leo Rosten's books, movies and guessing from Singer's translations. I suppose a German speaker with a good knowledge of Hebrew (or vice-versa) would be able to detect the origins of from but, again, I'm entirely ignorant.

Thanks a lot! I'll start saying it, pronto!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:31 AM on September 21, 2004

You do that Miguel--otherwise you're off the team! ; >

"already" at the end, tho, is a much more generally-used expression, i think.

(this askme q reminds of this intensive English immersion thing i did in Spain in 01, and one of the Spaniards always put a "to" in front of every verb automatically when he spoke English--it was really hard to break him of the habit. The way you learn a language--from books, or literal translation--as opposed to speaking, has a lot to do with the way you use it. Maybe there is a Yiddish or other Eastern European construction that uses "from"?)
posted by amberglow at 5:43 AM on September 21, 2004

Yeah, it's definitely Yiddish, and so has become New Yorkese. (I love hearing recent immigrants from Asia and Africa using my grandmother's Yiddish constructions.) Hey, schmuck! What gives? Move it already! Limo, schlimo. Smart, he isn't.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:03 AM on September 21, 2004 [1 favorite]

My grandfather was fond of the non-Jewish derivation he doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground.
posted by samuelad at 7:26 AM on September 21, 2004

I'm convinced by all your arguments that the true derivation is Yiddish, but like samuelad I think that the similarity to other expressions (hawk from a handsaw, chalk from cheese, ass from a hole in the ground) may well have aided its adoption in the wider culture.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 8:04 AM on September 21, 2004

What everybody said about Yiddish, but I'll give an actual example: "He knows from nothing" (or "He don't know from nothing") is a direct loan-translation from Er veyst nit fun gorni(sh)t. (Fun is the Yiddish equivalent of German von, which also has this meaning: Er weiss von der Sache 'He knows about it.')
posted by languagehat at 8:26 AM on September 21, 2004

Response by poster: Well, thanks a million! Rarely has a question been so fully and entertainingly answered.

Thanks to the replies, I'm now intrigued by the confluence of "doesn't know X from Y" and the more direct Yiddish root.

Now I can say "So-and-so [some annoying guy falsely claiming to be very Orthodox] doesn't know from frum", right? ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:46 AM on September 21, 2004

languagehat knows from Yiddish too? Such a mensch he is--for goyim, of course. : >

Miguel, make it "Soandso don't know from frum" and you got it.
posted by amberglow at 10:38 AM on September 21, 2004

Languagehat, is "gornisht" from "gar nicht", or is that just a coincidence?
posted by kenko at 10:42 AM on September 21, 2004

I'm now intrigued by the confluence of "doesn't know X from Y" and the more direct Yiddish root.

It intuitively seems like Yiddish or no Yiddish, the phrase "don't know from" should have some connection to "I don't know him from Adam." Alas, a Google cache of an old Amazon page says the latter phrase originated in a serial called "London Sessions" in 1784....
posted by jbrjake at 10:48 AM on September 21, 2004

Miguel: Just make sure you pronounce frum with the vowel of good, or you'll sound like a goy!

amberglow: Come on, you know all New Yorkers are Jewish no matter what their ethnic background.

kenko: It sure is!

jbrjake: Nope. It's a calque from Yiddish (and possibly German -- I'll bet Pennsylvania Dutch say it too, but I don't actually know).
posted by languagehat at 12:23 PM on September 21, 2004

Having been stimulated by the earlier OED thread, I find that my university offers WWW access to faculty. The good OED suggests that the American construction "Doesn't know from" is used in the sense of "to know" meaning "to distinguish," and that "nothing" is implied. It's not clearly a Yiddishism in the OED.

b. To recognize or distinguish, or be able to distinguish (one thing) from (another) = OE. tócnáwan.
  c1375 Cursor M. 6402 (Fairf.) Mony atte..knawes not e gode fra e ille. 1406 HOCCLEVE La male regle 23 Now can I knowe feeste fro penaunce. 1598 SHAKES. Merry W. III. iii. 44 We'll teach him to know Turtles from Iayes. 1704 POPE Windsor For. 175 Scarce could the Goddess from her nymph be known. 1843 MACAULAY Mme. D'Arblay Ess. 1865 III. 295 Burney loved his own art passionately; and Johnson just knew the bell of Saint Clement's church from the organ.

    (b) Phrases: not to know one's arse from one's elbow (and similar phrases): a coarse expression suggestive of complete ignorance or innocence; (not) to know from nothing (U.S.): to be totally ignorant (about something).
  1930 R. BLAKER Medal without Bar xiii. 69 ‘But nor 'an 'un’ (this phrase was his masterpiece of thoughtful emphasis), ‘nor 'an 'un of us knows 'is ears from 'is elbow when it comes to learninglearning like you orficers have got up your sleeves.’ 1936 Mademoiselle Mar. 43/1, I find I belong to the wrong gender to take part in such confabulations, and know from nothing. 1942 BERREY & VAN DEN BARK Amer. Thes. Slang §150/3 Be ignorant, know from nothing. 1944 ‘N. SHUTE’ Pastoral iv. 75, I wish I'd had a crowd like that for my first crew. We none of us knew arse from elbow when they pushed me off. 1945 ‘F. FEIKEMA’ Boy Almighty (1950) xvii. 162 Them San dietitians, they don't know from nuthin'. 1945 T. SHOR in Mencken Amer. Lang. (1948) Suppl. II. 695 A square don't know from nothin' and a creep is worse'n a jerk. 1966 ‘L. LANE’ ABZ of Scouse 29 Don't know Thairsday from brekfuss-time. Ibid., Don't know 'is arse from 'is elbow. 1968 Encounter Sept. 22/1 He knows from nothin'.

Hope this helps and was not obnoxious.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:05 PM on September 21, 2004

Response by poster: Wow! Thanks a lot, ikkyu2.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:51 AM on September 22, 2004

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