Creeping Yiddish: One Man’s Gewgaw Is Another’s Tchotchke

By Mike Feinsilber


Rosten said a tchotchke also could be a sexy but brainless broad.

Yiddish words, it seems to me, are stepping up their pace as they creep into English. Perhaps the most popular Yiddish word that’s been Englishized is “tchotchke.” You probably have some of these around the house. Most commonly it means trinkets. But, according to Leo Rosten in his book, The Joys of Yiddish, it has eight other meanings, most of which were news to me:

1. A toy, a plaything.

2. An inexpensive, unimportant thing, a gewgaw.

3. A bruise.

4. A nobody, no bargain. (As in, ”Don’t listen to him. He’s some tsatke.”)

5. A misfit, an unadjusted child.

6. A loose or kept woman.

7. An ineffective person a fifth wheel, a disappointment.

But the usages Rosten says he most relishes are:

8. A cute female, a chick.

And: 9. A sexy but brainless broad.

In his book, to illustrate how a word is used, Rosten usually tells a joke. Here’s his, using meaning number 8:

“Old Mr. Gluck had finally moved to the suburbs. On a trip to New York, he met a friend who bombarded him with questions. ‘How do you like it, living in the country so far from everyone!’

“‘At first I had problems,’ said Gluck. ‘I thought I’d never be able to stand it. Then I listened to my neighbors and I got a paramour. From then on, everything has been fine.’

“‘A paramour! You? Gluck, how can you do such a terrible thing? What does your wife think?’

“‘My wife,’ frowned Gluck. ‘Why should she care how I cut the grass?’”

All this comes to mind because the New York Times used tchotchke in an article on the retiring Garrison Keillor: “‘He was a pioneering force and taught public radio valuable lessons,’ Mr. Nuzum said. The live performances and touring built audiences and kept them connected and deeply loyal. That proved lucrative, as did sales of ‘Prairie Home Companion’ recordings, books, clothes and tchotchkes.”

Note that the Times and Rosten spell it differently, the Times’ “tchotchke” vs. Rosten’s “tsatke.” Rosten says the two spellings can be used interchangeably. Whatever; it’s a gimcrack to me. (“Gimcrack,” according to Merriam-Webster: “a showy object of little use or value.” Sounds like a tchotchke to me.)
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.


  1. yidish is written in hebrew letters. The debate, if there is one, is over transliterations, right? This annoyed me about your essay in this blog a year or more ago about a purported yidish spelling bee in English letters. Now, I wrote “yidish” instead of “Yiddish” and “hebrew” instead of “Hebrew” because there are no capital letters or double consonants in either language. But my transliterations look silly and/or disrespectful to the English reader. I’d enjoy reading how you dealt with transliterations as a journalist. For example, I once studied Arabic (actually, arabic) and I wince at some transliterations I see. Best regards.

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