"to know from"

I’m wondering about the origin of the phrase “to know from X”, meaning to have knowledge about X. The earliest instance I’ve seen of it is in the film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” (1980), where Michael Thys’ character says “he don’t know from doors” about the bushman. Is it borrowed into English from some other language, like the way “already” in “hurry up already” is borrowed from Yiddish?


I don’t know about that particular construction, but the phrase “not know him from Adam” dates to at least the late eighteenth century in both Britain and the U.S. as noted in these similar explanations of “Adam’s off ox”:

The Word Detective
A Google cached page from Quinion.com

It does not seem to me to be a great stretch to go from “not know from Adam” (meaning to not know a particular person) to “not know from X” (meaning to have no knowledge of X).

That, of course, does not preclude another source; I simply am unaware of one.

Don’t have an online cite handy, but I’m pretty sure you hit on it in your last sentence: it’s a translation of a Yiddishism. The German preposition von means both “from” and “of” (hence its use in names of the nobility where it refers to the prinicipality: “Manfred von Richthofen” means “Manfred from Richthofen” or “Manfred of Richthofen”). The German/Yiddish phrase “wissen von” means “to know of”; on-the-fly translation into English often ended up with “from” rather than “of”, particularly since the sound was closer to the original phrase. Du zol nicht vissen frum tsores, means “You should never know of sorrow”, but you can see how the mistranslation would occur.

I remember wondering about that and a couple of other bits of Yiddish diction and syntax in the character’s lines in the movie; don’t know that there is a logical explanation, but it makes the character even more interesting.

Thank you; that’s exactly what I was looking for! It’s a Yiddishism.

Standard German uses the same word, von, in some contexts, to mean either “of” or “from”. One can certainly see how this would carry into Yiddish, which is very close to German, and then into mainstream American English like so many other Yiddishisms.

Not knowing someone from Adam is a completely different construct.

Not to mention “from Shinola”.

“I don’t know Adam from Shinola?”