Yiddish Words and Expressions Widely Used in American Culture

by Bennett Muraskin

Illustrations by Johanna Kovitz, from the Autumn 2013 issue of Jewish Currents

 

evil-eyeJEWS WITH ROOTS IN EASTERN EUROPE, where Yiddish once flourished, make up only a tiny percentage of the U.S. population, and very few speak the language today. Yet Yiddish has had a major impact on American English. That’s because of the oversized role of Yiddish-speaking and Yiddish-influenced Jews in media — radio, TV, movies, plays, books, magazines and newspapers — where they have sprinkled their writings, jokes and songs with Yiddish phrases. Words like nu, shlep/em>, nosh, khutspe, kluts, mentsh, kibits, meshuge, maven, gonif, yente, kvetsh, shmooze with the best of them.

Yiddish is so prevalent in English that the winning word in the 2014 National Spelling Bee was knaidel (matzo ball) and the kid that spelled it “correctly” is the child of Indian immigrants (YIVO-style would be kneydl). Gey veys! (Go figure!) In fact, at least 100 of the words in the list that follows can be found in standard English dictionaries.

pullYiddish is written in Hebrew letters, although for this list I am using English transliteration. The language is mainly derived from middle German, but has many Hebrew words, some Slavic words and a few words from old Romance languages. It is essentially, like English, a fusion language.

Yiddish words have been used in American English for at least a century and received a major boost from an unlikely source: H.L. Mencken, the non-Jewish journalist and social critic, included dozens of Yiddish loan words in his influential study The American Language, published in 1919 and reissued three times during the 1920s and 30s. Mencken received assistance in this endeavor from his friend Abraham Cahan, the well-known editor of the Forverts, a mass-circulation Yiddish daily newspaper.

 

TWO GREAT YIDDISH WRITERS have helped disseminate the language in America: Sholem Aleichem, the author of the stories that form the basis of the hit musical and movie Fiddler on the Roof, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose novels have been made into movies including Yentl. Barbra Streisand, who directed and starred in that film, has incorporated many Yiddish words in her other films as well.

devilThe popularity of Yiddish in English owes much to Jewish comedians who performed in the Jewish hotels of the Catskill Mountains, known as the Borscht Belt. Mickey Katz, who achieved nationwide fame, made a career out of writing and performing half-English, half-Yiddish parodies of popular American songs. His many comedy albums introduced Yiddish expressions to thousands of Jewish families. Avi Hoffman continues in this style today.

The single literary source that is credited for being most responsible for popularizing Yiddish for the baby boomer generation is Leo Rosten’s book, The Joys of Yiddish, first published in 1968, revised in 2000, and still in print.

Honorable mention for keeping Yiddish and its tam (flavor) alive also goes to novelists Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, and Bernard Malamud; MAD magazine, comedian Jackie Mason, and comedians/film makers Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.

sleepSo here is my contribution, an assortment of Yiddish words and phrases that are used pretty commonly — or should be! — in homes, offices, entertainment venues, and on the streets of big American cities. For their help, I give thanks to Max Rosenfeld (z’l), Gerald Kane, Barnett Zumoff and my wife, Ellen.

 

 

GREETINGS

Hello/peace be with you—sholem aleykhem (always answered with aleykhem sholem

How are you?—Vos makhstu?

How’s it going?—Vi geyts?

Long life to you (you should live to 120)!—Biz hundert tsvantsik (the age Moses died)

Congratulations!—Mazl tov!

Well done!—yasher koyekh

To life/cheers!—l’khaim! (used in a toast)

Happy (Jewish) holiday—Gut yontif

Thank you very much—a sheynem dank

Goodbye/stay well—Zay gezunt

 

minyanTYPES OF PEOPLE

Positive

big shot/person in authority—makher

buddy (male)—boytshik (half English/half Yiddish)

close friend/comrade—khaver

decent person—mentsh

expert—meyvn (can be used sarcastically)

genius—brilyant

homemaker extraordinaire—baleboste

honey/darling—bubele (slang)

kind person/good soul—gute neshome

master of ceremonies at traditional Jewish wedding—badkhn

merrymaker/social director—tumler

righteous person—tsadik/lamed vovnik (one of 36 tsadikim whose righteousness upholds the world)

refined person—eydl mentsh

smart person—Yidisher kop (ethnocentric)

sweet person—ziskayt

wise person/scholar—khokhem (could also be used sarcastically)

 

Negative

animal/savage—beheyme/vilde khaye

ass kisser—tokhes leker

bastard/rascal—mamzer/bandit (sometimes used admiringly)

babe/playgirl—tsatske/tshatshke

bitchy womankholerye

bump on a log—shtik holts

someone who butts in—kibitser (used in American culture also to mean “jokester”)

cheapskate—karger

clumsy person—klotz

complainerkvetsh

crazy person—meshugene(r)

criminal/cuthroat—gazlin

crude/vulgar—proster

crude youth—grober yung

double-talker/bullshit artistfonfer

drunkard—shiker

dummygoylem

fool—nar/shmegegi

glutton/pig—freser/khazer

gossip—yente

jerk—shmok/moyshe pupik

louse/stinker—shtunk

loudmouth/braggart/phony—trombenik

luckless person/born loser—shlimazl

mischievous youth—mamzer/vantz

misfit/can’t do anything right—shlemiel/shnuk

moocher/beggarshnorer

non-entity/nobodynebish/Chaim Yankl

novice/ still wet behind the earspisher

oaf/ all brawn, no brains—bulvan

old fart—alter kaker

pest—nudnik/nudge

scoundrel/evil-doer—paskudnyak

slob—shlump

snobfaynshmeker

stupid person—goyisher kop (ethnocentric)/shmendrik

sourpuss—farbisener

temperamental person—petshetsh

thief—gonif

thug—shtarker

time wasterdrey kop

ugly person—miskayt

yokel/blockhead—zhlob

 

storeNon-Jews

goy—any non-Jew

goyishadjective, fitting any stereotype associated with non-Jews

sheygets—insulting term for non-Jewish male youth

shikse—insulting term for non-Jewish woman

shvartse(r)–Black person (considered insulting although it literally means “black”)

 

Other Types

someone who does things ass backwards—moyshe kapoyre

someone who tries to live by his wits without any visible means of support—luftmentsh

beaten/bedraggled person—farshlogener

big/great person—groyser

big shot (sarcastic)—knaker

chatty person—shmoozer

boss/landlord—balebos

countryman (from the same home town)—landsman (plural—landslayt)

freethinker/heretic—apikoyris

greenhorn (new immigrant)—griner

homosexual manfeygele (lit., little bird, may now be considered insulting)

musician—klezmer

observant—frum

opinionated person—kibitzer

someone who likes to snack—nasher

strong person—shtarker

teacher (in traditional Jewish elementary school)—melamed

 

telegramFamily—mishpokhe

mother—mame

father—tate

children—kinder

pretty girlsheyne meydl

young manbokher

little baby—pitsele

circumcision ceremony—bris

grandmabobe

grandpazeyde

grandchildeynikl

aunt—tante

matchmakershadkhn

match—shidekh

wedding—khasene

wedding canopy—khupe

bridekale

groom—khosn

your son-in-law or daughter-in-law’s parentsmakhetonim

if you are a woman, your son-in-law or daughter-in-law’s mothermakheteniste

divorce—get

 

THINGS PEOPLE DO

annoy/badger—hak

bargain/haggle—handl

beam with pride—kvel

bless—bentsh

bribe—shmir

burst/explode—plats

butt in/give unwanted advice—kibits

burp—greps

carouse/celebrate—hulye

chat—shmooze

complain/whine—kvetsh

dance—tants

drag/haul—shlep

dressed up (a woman)—(get all) farputst

eat—es

faint—khalesh

go to sleep—gey shlofn

gorge/stuff your face—fres

groan—krekhts

kiss—kush

pester/annoy—tshepe

pinch—knip

putter—patshke

(have) sex—shtup

sniff—gib a shmek

snack/nibble—nash

spray—shprits

spread—shmir

scream—gib a geshray

stroll—shpatsir

sweat—shvits

talk through one’s nose—fonfer

take pride in a relative’s accomplishments—shep nakhes

tease—uts (slang)

waste time—drey (around)/futs (around)

give a whack—gib a zets/klop

 

FEELINGS

carefree—nisht gedayget (once the name of a Jewish adult summer camp)

cheerful—freylakh

choked up—farklemt

compassion/pity—rakhmones

confused—farmisht/tsedreyt

distracted—artshadet

exhausted/played out—oysgeshpilt

healthy/hearty—gezunt

homey/friendly—heymish

lost—farblondzhet

nauseating—khaloshes

nervous—tsiterik

pleasure/delight—(what a) mekhaye

restless—(to have) shpilkes

suffering/trouble—tsoris

worse suffering—gehakte tsoris

 

CONCEPTS

ancestry/good family roots—yikhes

charity—tsedoke

common sense—seykhl

doomed/hopeless/ruined—farfalen

fated (to be married)—bashert

disgrace—shande

flavor/taste/feeling—tam

foolishness—narishkayt

free associating (comedy)—shpritsing

fuss—tsimes

good deed—mitsve

hairsplitting—pilpul

honor—koved

human decency—mentshlkhkayt

idle chit chat—shmantses

legitimate—kosher

lunacy—mishegas

luck—mazl

nerve/gall—khutspe

overdone/over-decorated—ongepatshket

patience to sit still—zitsfleysh

practical matters—takhlis

seal of approval—heksher

sentimental in the extreme—shmaltsy

strength—koyekh

truth–emes

 

EVERYDAY TERMS

anniversary of a death—yortsayt

bargain—metsie

belly button—pupik

charity box—pushke

cheap merchandise—shlok

celebration—simkhe

crap/junk—drek/khazeray

dirt—shmuts

face—ponim

gadget—smitshik

guts—kishkes

harsh remark—shtokh

hodgepodge—mish mosh

Jewish holiday—yontif

kniknak/trinket—tshotshke/tsatske

liquor/booze—shnaps

little bit—a bisl

long, drawn out story—megile

long underwear—gatkes

malfunction/snag—glitsh

money—gelt

money wasted—aroysgevorfene gelt

nothing—gornisht

occupation/livelihood—parnose

old wives tale—bobe mayse

rag—shmate

rear end—tokhis

routine/special talent esp. in show biz—shtik

Sabbath—Shabes

small piece—shtikl

set speech/pitch—shpil

side curls worn by Hasidic men—payes

steam bath—shvits

synagogue—shul

something worthless—bopkes

 

TERMS RELATED TO FOOD

appetizer—forshpayz

bowlful—shisl

chicken/turkey drum stik—polke

chicken/turkey wing—fligl

dairy products—milkhik

dumplings—kreplakh

kneydl—matzo ball (winning word in 2014 National Spelling Bee with different spelling) plural—kneydlakh

meat products—fleyshik

measuring ingredients by throwing in what feels right, like grandma or bobe—shit arayn

nasheray—snack food

potatoes—bulbes

potato pancakes—latkes

pudding—kugl

spread applied to a bagel—a shmir

tasty—batamt, geshmak

unkosher—treyf

 

EXPRESSIONS

as long as you are healthy—abi gezunt

ass backwards—moyshe kapoyer

be quiet!—sha shtil!

beyond help—es vet gornisht helfn

the boondocks—ek velt

Could never happen—In a nekhtiker tog

Don’t tempt the evil eye—keyn eynhore

enough already!—genug shoyn

go do whatever you like (and leave me alone)—gey gezunterheyt

go talk to the wall!—gey redt tsum vant!

go figure!—gey veys!

help!—gevald!

hold on!—halt zikh ayn!

a whole in the head—a lokh in kop

it’s about time—shoyn tsayt

it should only happen—halivay

just for spite—af tselokhis

just so—ot azoy

long, long ago—(in the year) giml

the next world—yene velt

neither here nor there—nisht ahin un nisht aher

not so bad—nisht gerferlekh

oh, no!/woe is me!—oy vey!/vey is mir!

on a regular basis—ale montik un donershtik (every Monday and Thursday, the traditional days to read Torah)

an ordeal—farshlepte krenk

put up or shut up!—tokhes afn tish!

really!—take!

right in the middle of everything—in mitn der innen

smack in the rear—patsh in tokhes

so?/well?—Nu?

something/somewhatepes

stop badgering me!—Hak mir nisht kayn tshaynik!

a taste/a sampling—a lek un a shmek

thank God!—Got tsu danken!

that’s final!—fartik!

that’s how it goes—azoy geyt dos

tough luck—okh un vey

unfortunately—nebekh

very good—zeyer gut

what else would you expect?—vu den?

who knows?—Ver vayst?

the whole thing—(the whole) shmir

yuck!/phooey!—feh!

 

CURSES (just a small sampling)

a plague on you!—a khalerye!

drop dead!—ver derharget!

go to hell!—k’hob dir in dr’erd

rotten (adjective)—farshtunkener

you should have a miserable year!—zolt hobn a shvarts yor!

you should grow like an onion with your head in the ground—zolstu vaksn vi a tsibele mitn kop in dr’erd

your life should be a disaster!—a brokh tsu dayn lebn

 

MISCELLANEOUS

bungalow colony—kokhaleyn

Chanukah/Khanike top—dreydl

evil spirit that possesses humans—dibuk aka dybbuk (the title of the most famous Yiddish play by S. Ansky)

fraternal mutual aid association made up of people from the same town in Europe—landsmanshaft

Frankenstein–type monster—goylum

the golden land, ie. the USA—goldene medine

Holocaust—khurbn

quorum of ten Jews required for a religious service—minyen

religious elementary school—kheyder

riot against Jews—pogrom

town with large Jewish population in Eastern Europe—shtetl

 

LAST BUT NOT LEAST

alphabet—alef-beys

Yiddish (the mother tongue)—mameloshn

Jewish spark or essence—dos pintele yid

Jewishness/Jewish feeling—Yiddishkayt

 

Guide to Pronunciation

ey=a, as in they

ay=i. as in eye

kh=ch, as in Bach

tsh=ch, as in chair

 

a=a, as in father

e=e, as in bed, even if at the end of a word

o=o, as in mother

ts=ts, as in pants

 

DOS IZ ALTS!–THAT’S ALL!

 

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer to our magazine, is the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.

Johanna Kovitz uses published Yiddish sources and copyright-free graphics to create her website of illustrated Yiddish proverbs.