Use Yiddish Words With Care: They Are Strong, Like Horseradish, and It’s a Shame to See Them Watered Down

By Mike Feinsilber

Yiddish is a language, a mish-mosh of German, English, Hebrew and other languages. It is called “the Robin Hood of language”—it borrows from everywhere. It uses the Hebrew alphabet, and, like Hebrew, it is read from right to left—from tfel ot thgir—but people fluent only in Hebrew wouldn’t be able to read, write, or understand Yiddish. Yiddish is to Hebrew what Swedish is to English.

Five years ago on this blog I took notice of the way words from Yiddish are creeping into everyday English because they’re so damn expressive. In reading newspapers, I found 14 examples, sometimes printed without translation because the writer figured everyone knew what the words meant, words like mishmash, which means a hodgepodge.

Since 2013, I’ve run across additional Yiddish words in the newspapers, but I was negligent about jotting them down until I ran across a word in a quote from Benjamin Kirtman, director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies at the University of Miami.  He was talking about the 97 percent of climate scientists who accept the reality of climate change “and then you find a podiatrist from Yahupitz who’s going to tell you not to worry.”

Yahupitz? Neither the New York Times nor the scientist explained Yahupitz. For nearly 50 years, I had assumed Yahupitz was a made-up word, made up by my wife’s parents, who lived in South Carolina and were hardly fluent in Yiddish.

“Yahupitz,” as they used it, meant some far-off, forgotten town, where nobody would want to live anyway. “Yahupitz” was nowheresville.

So I checked with the bible of Yiddish—that would be The Joys of Yiddish by the late Leo Rosten, who was the ultimate authority on Yiddish, and “Yinglish” a crossbreed.  And nowhere in his 50-year-old lexicon does the word “Yahupitz” appear. But it must be commonplace enough for Professor Kirtman to use it and Times writer Jim Rutenberg to quote it without explanation and for the Times’ copy editor to accept it.

So now that you’ve been whetted, here’s a slightly edited version of my 2013 blog on the subject:

I’m no mavin about Yiddish. I don’t speak Yiddish. I don’t understand Yiddish beyond the handful of words that everyone knows. When I was young, my parents used Yiddish to say things they didn’t want the kids to understand. But I wasn’t interested enough to demand that they teach me Yiddish. What did I need this ancient language for?

In the years since, Yiddish has infiltrated English. In the Detroit News of June 1, 2013, one reads of a Mediterranean restaurant in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, called Nosh. In the New York Times crossword puzzle on June 5, 2013, the clue for 48 across was “exclamations of tsuris” (“tsuris” means troubles) and the answer was “oys.” On May 28, 2013, the clue for 51 down was “like a schlimazel” and the answer was  “inept.”  And on May 30, 2013, young Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, New York, won the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee (and $30,000) by spelling “knaidel.” It’s a Yiddish word for Jewish dumplings, also known as matzo balls, which give character and excitement to chicken soup.

The spelling bee’s tossing “knaidel” at young Arvind set off a brouhaha (not a Yiddish word) in the Yiddish-speaking world. Yiddish speakers said the spelling bee conductors got it wrong. “We spell it k-n-e-i-d-e-l,” Jack Lebewohl, proprietor of New York’s 2nd Avenue Deli, told the Yiddish newspaper the Forward. Originally published only in Yiddish, the Forward was founded as a daily in 1897 and had a national circulation of 275,000 in 1912. It now publishes a weekly edition in English, a biweekly edition in Yiddish, and on the internet in both languages.

After Arvind spelled and the Yiddish world buzzed, the New York Times consulted the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which, the Times said, is “recognized by many Yiddish speakers as the authority on all things Yiddish.” YIVO said the historic spelling is “kneydl.” But the spelling bee told the Times it was sticking with knaidel, which is the way Webster’s Third New International Dictionary spells it. Webster’s Third is the dictionary that contestants are told to cram with.

Arvind is only 13, but he set sages five times his age tugging at their beards. His is an only-in-America story. The son of immigrants from India, he was an eighth grader at Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School in Bayside, Queens, New York. (What could be more American than a school named for a writer whose ancestor was a judge at the Salem witch trials?)

Arvind knew the spelling of knaidel because he had boned up on German-origin words in the Third International. He did that because, tripped up by German-origin words, he had finished only third in his two previous participations in the bee; Yiddish is German-based. He told the Times he had never tasted a matzo ball.

Anyway, to illustrate how far Yiddish-creep has crept, here are some Yiddish words you probably know even if you don’t know from whence they came.

  1. chutzpa
    2. mish-mosh.
    3. klutz.
    4. kosher.
    5. mavin.
    6. nosh.
    7. kvetch.
    8. nu.
    9. shlep.
    10. mensh.
    11. dreck.
    12. kvell.
    13. shmo.
    14. kibbitz.
    15. tchotchke

Spellings vary (ask Arvind Mahankali) but I’ve stuck with the spellings used by Rosten, in his book that, though 50 years old, is surely the most joyous guide to Yiddish and how it has enriched English. It is a lexicon and most entries are accompanied by a Yiddish joke illustrating how the word under question is used.

NOW THE POINT. It is to plead with writers to use these words with care. Yiddish words are strong, like horseradish. They have quite specific, quite pointed, quite pungent meanings and it is a shame to hear them watered down. A mensh is not just a nice guy. Helping an old lady, even an old lady using a walker, cross the street does not make one a mensh. Being a mensh is a lifelong characteristic. Likewise, chutzpa is more than just nerve (as in “some nerve”). It is stronger than that. Here is Rosten: “Gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts’; presumption-plus-arrogance such as no other word, and no other language, can do justice to.” Please don’t cheapen these words.

The definitions of the 14 words:

  1. chutzpa. In addition to Rosen’s synonyms, here are  more: gross audacity, sheer cheek, brass, arrogant boldness, effrontery. The classic example of chutzpa: The son, having killed his parents, pleaded for mercy on the grounds he was an orphan.
  2. mish-mosh. It’s a mess, a mix-up, total confusion. Rosen: “I consider mish-mosh a triumph of onomatopoeia—and a word unlike any I know to suggest flagrant disorder.”
  3. klutz. A clod, a congenital bungler.
  4. kosher. It originally was applied only to food; it meant fit to eat under Jewish dietary laws. In English, it means legit, authentic, one who can be trusted, fair or ethical.
  5. mavin. An expert, a connoisseur.
  6. nosh. A snack or a tidbit or something eaten between meals.
  7. kvetch. Rosten: “To fuss around, to be ineffectual…to fret, complain, gripe, grunt, sigh.” It is also a noun: a kvetch (or kvetcher)  is a whiner, a sad sack.
  8. nu. Rosten says it is Yiddish’s most frequently used word—because it is the equivalent of a sigh, a frown, a grunt, a sneer. Depending on context, it means “well?” or “so-o?” or “how are things?” or “what’s new?” or 15 other nuanced things. For more, buy the book.
  9. shlep. Rosten: “To drag, or pull or lag behind” as in “Don’t shlep all those packages; let the store deliver” or “They shlepped me all the way out to see their house.”
  10. mensh. The word I most dread to see compromised by misuse. It means an upright, honorable person, someone of noble character. Use it with respect.
  11. dreck. Junk or worthless stuff like a necklace made of plastic diamonds. It originally meant dung.
  12. kvell. To swell—almost to shake—with pride. Grandparents do it with slight provocation.
  13. shmo. Rosten: “A boob; a shlemiel, a hapless, clumsy, unlucky jerk; a fall guy.”
  14. kibbitz. To butt in, as for a non-player to give unsolicited advice to someone in a card game. To fool around.
    15. Tchotchke. It means a toy, a gee-gaw, an inexpensive nothing. Often used disparagingly: “If you’d clear all those tchotchkes off your desk, maybe you could find something there.”

You notice there are no dirty words on this list?  Dirty Yiddish words are so poisonous, so villainous, so likely to lead to fisticuffs if the other guy knows their meaning that nothing should be done to encourage their circulation. In 1998, before some 40 Jewish leaders at a breakfast, Republican Senator Al D’Amato of New York used one of those words to describe his Democratic challenger, Charles Schumer. His audience was shocked and D’Amato still hasn’t lived it down. It’ll probably be recalled in his obituary.

After posting this, I tumbled across an old file holding newspaper clips with two more Yiddish words that have insinuated themselves into everyday English:

From a June 8, 2014 Washington Post piece on Amazon’s threat to the book industry: “If Amazon is allowed to squeeze publishers even further, the industry warns that publishers will be starved for the money they use to support mid-list writers and new authors, reducing the book industry to mass appeal best sellers and an endless supply of uncurated self-published dreck.”
“Dreck” means trash or a cheap, worthless thing. Or a play or movie of grossly inferior quality. It’s pretty vulgar, notes Rosten,  equivalent to the English “crap.”
From a July 14, 2014 New York Times piece on the diminishing number of Jewish Republicans in Congress: WASHINGTON — Jewish Republicans know they are not many in number. But at a recent gathering at the St. Regis Hotel in downtown Washington, they pondered the meaning of an especially alarming figure: zilch. As in zip, bupkis, zero.
As the context suggests, ”bupkis” means something worthless or nothingness. (In Russian, Rosten notes, it means “beans.” And he spells it “bubkes.”) As Rosten says, it is often accompanied by scorn. A far more forceful word than “peanuts!”

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI  and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach.

 

Comments

  1. Barnard Collier says:

    Dear Jack,

    I was fascinated by Mike Feinsilber’s rundown of how Yiddish words and phrases are used in modern media and I was happily reminded of my mother’s mother, Ada Proshan, a Canadian dairy farmer near Winnipeg, Manitoba, whose command of Yiddish was raunchily encyclopedic, especially her command of Yiddish curses.

    She taught me many of her favorites which I occasionally slipped into English copy, sometimes translated, sometimes not. Mike mentions several and I might add a few words Grandma used and curses she taught me:

    Bupkes appears in direct quotes such as, “He made a millions dollars on that deal and all I got was bupkes.” It means disgustingly worthless nothing, like pickings from someone’s nose.

    Kvetsh, which actually translates as “squeeze” is to complain uselessly and ceaselessly, as a spoiled child may complain about a minor stomach ache or a difficult bowel movement.

    Shlemiel describes a clumsy waiter who spills the soup on a diner.

    Shlimazel is the diner upon whom the soup is spilled. (Sometimes the two terms are mixed up, depending upon location and culture.)

    Schmaltz is chicken fat. It implies obvious ideas of excessive sentimentality and unctuousness.

    In the realm of Grandma’s classic curses:

    Gay kocken aften yahm. This is a very uncomplimentary dismissal often abbreviated simply to Gay kocken . .Translation:

    • “Go take a crap in the ocean.”

    • “Don’t hammer me a teakettle.” (Stop the noisy, meaningless jabbering.)

    • “You should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground.”

    • “May a streetcar grow in your stomach.”

    My favorite:

    • “May all of your teeth be torn out, except one, which is saved for a terrible toothache.”

    There may be several alternative spellings for the Yiddish words but these are phonetically close.

    Best,

    Barney

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