Does ‘Bupkis’ Mean What Pete Davidson Thinks It Means?

We get etymological on Davidson’s (latest) autobiographical work
Does ‘Bupkis’ Mean What Pete Davidson Thinks It Means?

Pete Davidson is a former Saturday Night Live cast member whose most memorable bits on the show involve him talking about himself on Weekend Update. He is also the star of the 2020 feature film King of Staten Island, about a young man from the titular borough who lost his firefighter father at a young age, lives with his mother and has Crohn’s disease — all of which are also true of Davidson himself. 

But these outlets, plus his own stand-up, were evidently not sufficient for Davidson to plumb his own depths, because today, Peacock is debuting a new single-camera dramedy in which Davidson plays himself in the most literal way yet: His character shares his name, his fame level, his famous friends, the details of his bereavement (a firefighter father who died at Ground Zero on 9/11) and his disordered substance use. But, a pre-title card alerts us, we should not mistake it for a documentary.

Hey, Bupkis is also the title of the show! But what does it mean that it’s the title of the show, particularly in light of this disclaimer?

I’m not fluent in Yiddish, so I reached out to Sophie Brookover, who describes herself as “an Overeducated Nice Jewish Girl / ex-librarian with a soft spot for print reference materials.” “As you may already be aware, there is almost nothing in this world that Jews have unanimous opinions about,” she explains. “So I’m very curious to know what others have to say about it!” That said, in her experience, bupkis “is used as a one-word sentence to mean less than nothing, the most minute, insignificant amount of something.” 

Leo Rosten’s classic lexicon The Joys of Yiddish traces the word back to the Russian word for “beans,” and corroborates Brookover’s interpretation. “Something trivial, worthless, insultingly disproportionate to expectations” is Rosten’s first definition, and how I always understood it as a slang term: “nothing.” (Rosten links this back to the word’s origin as “beans,” likening it to the English usage of “peanuts.”) “It’s often used in reference to an insulting small amount of money, but it could also be time or consideration,” Brookover adds.

There are a number of ways, then, to read the show title into its subject matter. For example, if Pete can’t get sober, he will lose it all and have bupkis. Or: All his achievements, fame and creature comforts are bupkis compared to what his mother has (a noble career working in a public high school; a true love in Pete’s father, though he is now lost). 

In the show’s second episode, we learn that Pete is Catholic when he attends a family wedding — though we may have already assumed that after the series premiere, in which we meet both Pete’s mother Amy (Edie Falco) and maternal grandfather Joe LaRocca (Joe Pesci). I asked Brookover if, in this light, she would consider Davidson’s use of the term as his sitcom title appropriative. “I’d be annoyed if a Gentile from anywhere outside the NYC area used ‘bupkis,’” she tells me. “But New Yorkers, especially those from families who’ve been New Yorkers for several generations, get more leeway — from me, anyway.” 

She also agreed that New York tri-state Italians and Jews have a lot of cultural overlap: “Conditionally White ethnic people often feel related. Our moms all love and cook and fret and yell at us the same. It’s very easy for us to hang out together.”

When I told Brookover that my first reaction to the use of “bupkis” in the show’s disclaimer was that it seemed to be standing in for “bullshit,” she said that could also be true, calling it a lesser usage. Rosten, appropriately, has that sense as his second definition in The Joys of Yiddish: “Something absurd, foolish, nonsensical.” But Brookover explained that she wouldn’t use the word that way, and doesn’t think the disclaimer does either. “I read it as a bit of self-effacing humor that also functions as an excuse,” she says. “We shouldn’t take any of it too seriously, because it’s meaningless.”

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