What the Matzo Ball Spelling Bee Mish-Mosh Says About Yiddish and English

By Mike Feinsilber

DISCLAIMER: 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, guttural 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.

DIVERSION #1: News of Arvind’s spelling of knaidel, which broke just as I was beginning to think about doing a posting on Yiddish in English, is an example of what I call Reporter’s Luck. A reporter is writing something and he needs an example to make his point. And suddenly, there it is, in the morning paper. That’s Reporter’s Luck. I’ve had Reporter’s Luck throughout a 50-plus year career in journalism, and it has come through for me over and over. More on Reporter’s Luck some other time.

DIVERSION #2: 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. 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 daily 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.

DIVERSION #3: Arvind is only 13, but he set sages five times his age tugging at their beards. His is an only-in-America story, too. The son of immigrants from India, he is 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 gone, 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.

Spellings vary (ask Arvind Mahankali) but I’ve stuck with the spellings used by Leo Rosten, the late author of The Joys of Yiddish, a book which, though 45 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 you to use these words (and all others, too) 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 miss-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, especially for a non-player to give unsolicited advice to someone in a card game. To fool around.

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 campaign 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.

Please post a comment if you have a favorite Yiddish word that you think has won a place in everyday English. Also define it and give an example of the word in use. There are dozens of others that could be included (oy, tochis, tsuris, mazel tov, yente, meshugge, megillah, shmendrik, for example) but I tried to limit this first list to useful words that are in common use.

Comments

  1. Jack Limpert says

    Note from a Washington writer:

    A few years ago the Sunday NYT crossword theme was book titles that fell a little short.The clue: “Kvetching in the kitchen.” The answer. “The Oy of Cooking.” It’s my all-time favorite.

  2. The only correct way to spell Yiddish is with the Hebrew alphabet. Anything else is a regional emulation.

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