Yiddish Words and Expressions Widely Used in American Culture
by Bennett Muraskin
Illustrations by Johanna Kovitz, from the Autumn 2013 issue of Jewish Currents
JEWS 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.
Yiddish 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.
The 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.
So 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.
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)
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
big shot/person in authority—makher
buddy (male)—boytshik (half English/half Yiddish)
expert—meyvn (can be used sarcastically)
kind person/good soul—gute neshome
master of ceremonies at traditional Jewish wedding—badkhn
righteous person—tsadik/lamed vovnik (one of 36 tsadikim whose righteousness upholds the world)
refined person—eydl mentsh
smart person—Yidisher kop (ethnocentric)
wise person/scholar—khokhem (could also be used sarcastically)
ass kisser—tokhes leker
bastard/rascal—mamzer/bandit (sometimes used admiringly)
bump on a log—shtik holts
someone who butts in—kibitser (used in American culture also to mean “jokester”)
crude youth—grober yung
luckless person/born loser—shlimazl
misfit/can’t do anything right—shlemiel/shnuk
novice/ still wet behind the ears—pisher
oaf/ all brawn, no brains—bulvan
old fart—alter kaker
stupid person—goyisher kop (ethnocentric)/shmendrik
time waster—drey kop
goyish—adjective, 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”)
someone who does things ass backwards—moyshe kapoyre
someone who tries to live by his wits without any visible means of support—luftmentsh
big shot (sarcastic)—knaker
countryman (from the same home town)—landsman (plural—landslayt)
greenhorn (new immigrant)—griner
homosexual man—feygele (lit., little bird, may now be considered insulting)
someone who likes to snack—nasher
teacher (in traditional Jewish elementary school)—melamed
pretty girl—sheyne meydl
your son-in-law or daughter-in-law’s parents—makhetonim
if you are a woman, your son-in-law or daughter-in-law’s mother—makheteniste
THINGS PEOPLE DO
beam with pride—kvel
butt in/give unwanted advice—kibits
dressed up (a woman)—(get all) farputst
go to sleep—gey shlofn
gorge/stuff your face—fres
sniff—gib a shmek
scream—gib a geshray
talk through one’s nose—fonfer
take pride in a relative’s accomplishments—shep nakhes
waste time—drey (around)/futs (around)
give a whack—gib a zets/klop
carefree—nisht gedayget (once the name of a Jewish adult summer camp)
pleasure/delight—(what a) mekhaye
restless—(to have) shpilkes
worse suffering—gehakte tsoris
ancestry/good family roots—yikhes
fated (to be married)—bashert
free associating (comedy)—shpritsing
idle chit chat—shmantses
patience to sit still—zitsfleysh
seal of approval—heksher
sentimental in the extreme—shmaltsy
anniversary of a death—yortsayt
little bit—a bisl
long, drawn out story—megile
money wasted—aroysgevorfene gelt
old wives tale—bobe mayse
routine/special talent esp. in show biz—shtik
side curls worn by Hasidic men—payes
TERMS RELATED TO FOOD
chicken/turkey drum stik—polke
kneydl—matzo ball (winning word in 2014 National Spelling Bee with different spelling) plural—kneydlakh
measuring ingredients by throwing in what feels right, like grandma or bobe—shit arayn
spread applied to a bagel—a shmir
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!
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!
right in the middle of everything—in mitn der innen
smack in the rear—patsh in tokhes
stop badgering me!—Hak mir nisht kayn tshaynik!
a taste/a sampling—a lek un a shmek
thank God!—Got tsu danken!
that’s how it goes—azoy geyt dos
tough luck—okh un vey
very good—zeyer gut
what else would you expect?—vu den?
who knows?—Ver vayst?
the whole thing—(the whole) shmir
CURSES (just a small sampling)
a plague on you!—a khalerye!
drop dead!—ver derharget!
go to hell!—k’hob dir in dr’erd
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
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
the golden land, ie. the USA—goldene medine
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
Yiddish (the mother tongue)—mameloshn
Jewish spark or essence—dos pintele yid
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.