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What Is the Meaning of 'Bupkis'?

"Bupkis" means "nothing" or "something of no worth," but its origin will make you laugh.

By
Brenda Thomas, writing for
3-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

"Bupkis" comes to English through Yiddish, and etymologists ultimately trace its origins back to the word for "beans" in Slavic languages (with a path through goat dung!).

Sometimes you may not understand the meaning of a word when you encounter it all by itself, without context. However, when you hear or read that word in a whole sentence or paragraph, you then understand the intended meaning without having to look it up in a dictionary. “Bupkis” might be one of those words.  

'Bupkis' in the 'Dick Van Dyke Show'

“Bupkis” was the one-word title for an episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” that aired in the 1960s. Seeing just that one word as the title doesn’t give any clue about the intended meaning. However, within the first three minutes of the episode, “bupkis” gets used in a larger context that makes its meaning clear. The episode begins with Rob Petrie (played by Dick Van Dyke) eating breakfast while listening to the radio. After the weather report, a song comes on that is titled “Bupkis” and the first four lines are as follows:   

You took my arm, with golden charm,
a diamond mine, a love so fine.
But what did I get from you? Bupkis!
What did I get from you? Bupkis!

From those first four lines of the song, it’s clear that “bupkis” meant “nothing” as in “zero” or “the absence of something.” That meaning was made even more explicit in the next four lines of the song.

Bupkis is a lot of nothing and
that’s what I got from you.
Bupkis is a lot of nothing and
that’s what I got from you.

'Bupkis' and goat droppings

“The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book” by Vince Waldron tells an interesting story about the word “bupkis” and that particular episode. Sam Denoff, one of the co-writers for that episode and the song, had heard his mother use the word “bupkis” when he was growing up, and he had always been told it meant “nothing.” Denoff’s parents often attended live tapings of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and they were in the audience the night the “Bupkis” episode was filmed. Denoff’s mother thought the episode was funny, but afterward she told him that he couldn’t put it on the air. He asked her why not and she said, “Don’t you know what ‘bupkis’ means?” He said he knew that it meant “nothing.” His mother then told him that “nothing” was the loose translation for the Yiddish word “bupkis,” but the literal meaning was “goat droppings” and goat dung was worth nothing.  

Denoff used “bupkis” to mean “nothing,” as in “the absence of something,” but the word originally referred to worthless goat droppings. So, does “bupkis” mean the absence of something or the presence of something that is of little or no value? 

Not all dictionaries even contain the word “bupkis,” but among those that do, common definitions are that it can mean “nothing” or “something of little or no value.” Also, dictionaries and other language resources show that there is a wide variety of possible spellings. Sometimes it might appear as “bupkes,” “bopkes,” “bupkus,” “bubkes,” “bobkes,” or other variant spellings with slightly different pronunciations.  

'Bupkis' and beans

However “bupkis” is spelled or pronounced and whether it means “nothing” or “no value,” its etymology is ultimately thought to trace back to the word for “beans” in Slavic languages.  In some Slavic languages, “bob” is the word for “beans,” and in Yiddish “bobke” was the word used for the bean-shaped droppings of goats or sheep. Somewhere along the way, the variant spelling and pronunciation “bupkis” came into use and the word took on the meaning of “nothing” as well as “worthless.”    

Yiddish words sometimes make their way into English language usage and take on new or additional meanings in the process. So, although “bupkis” originally meant “worthless,” it now is also used to mean “nothing,” as in “zero.” There actually is another Yiddish word that means “nothing,” as in “zero.” That word is “gornisht,” but it hasn’t found its way into common English usage the way “bupkis” has. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Brenda Thomas, writing for Grammar Girl

Brenda Thomas is a freelance writer and online educator.

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