American Yiddish Words 101

Examines key Yiddish words and terms in American English and their origins.

Yiddish! Most of us associate it with Jewish culture and go blank beyond that. Let's take a closer look. While Hebrew is the language of Israel, Yiddish is a dialect of German spoken by Jews in a number of eastern European countries. The connection with Jews is that many American Jews immigrated from eastern Europe and brought remnants of Yiddish with them. Many of these terms have migrated out into the mainstream language and taken residence in standard English dictionaries.

Some of the terms are quite common, but not necessarily recognized as Jewish in origin. "Klutz" is a classic example. We all know what a klutz is; what we may not have been aware of is the origin of the term. Klutz in Yiddish means a block as in a block of wood. Hence, a klutz's clumsiness is likened to the action of a person with a block of wood for a head.

"Meshugeh, " sometimes pronounced "meshugeneh" is another common Yiddish term. A meshugeh is a crazy person. For example, one points and circles his forehead at the man standing by the fish tank swallowing guppies; after all, he's meshugeh. As one might suspect, meshugeh in Yiddish means a crazy person.

As most of us know, goyim or goy is a mildy derisive term used by Jews for non-Jews. The term is from Yiddish, but is a back formation, as is true of many Yiddish words, from Hebrew. A back formation is a word that owes its ultimate origins to an earlier similar word. In the case of "goy," the ultimate Hebrew derivation is from "goi," meaning tribe.

"Schmaltz" is highly sentimental music or literature. For instance, a sugary greeting card might be described as "schmaltzy." Schmaltz is directly from Hebrew, but owes its deeper roots to a German word "schmalz" meaning rendered fat, which in turn derives from a German verb "schmelzen" to melt. In short, the original idea behind schmaltz was something as gooey as melted fat.

One of the most amusing Yiddish words is "chutzpah," (silent c) meaning an inordinate amount of gall, brass, or nerve. The classic example of someone with chutzpah is the guy who murders his mother, then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he's an orphan. An unusual thing about chutzpah is that its origin begins in Yiddish and then traces its way through Hebrew, rather than the opposite.

Yiddish words commonly begin with the letters sch. One such word is "Schlemiel." A schlemiel is an ineffective, inoffensive person who bumbles through life. "Schlemiel" is a Yiddish word ultimately deriving from Hebrew "Shelumiel". In Hebrew "Shelumiel" literally means "my peace is God," but interestingly, the term derives from the protagonist of an 18th Century novel concerning a bumbler Peter Schlemihl. The book was written by German writer Adelbert von Chamisso.

To "schlepp" something is to carry it along with difficulty. A classic example is a Chassidic Jew "schlepping" tuna fish on an airplane from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to somewhere else in the world. "Schlepp" as a slang word can, also, refer to movement with effort or an ineffective person. "Schlepp" derives from the German word "schleppen," meaning to drag.

"Schlock," means damaged merchandise or second-rate art, as in the expression, "The creator of that schlock flick was only interested in the money." In fact, we might even call such a second-rate artist a "schlock-meister," in other words a master of schlock. "Meister" is simply a German word meaning master while "schlock" ultimately derives from the German word "schlocke," meaning the dregs.

Often times we talk about doing the whole "schmear," i.e., the total package. "Schmear" or "schmeer" derives from the German slang word "schmieren," meaning to smear. The exact connection, however, between the current meaning of "schmear" and its root remains vague.

While examining "sch" words, we have to be careful not to confuse a "schnook" with a "schmo." A schnook is simply a jerk of the type that's easily pushed around while a schmo has a bad brain and is the equivalent of a dunce or a dolt.

Moving away from the "sch" family, "kvetch" is another interesting word with Yiddish roots. One who kvetches is one who nags or complains in an insistent fashion. It ultimately derives from the German word "quetshen": to pinch or squeeze. In other words, to harass someone until you get results.

And finally to put the "kibosh" on someone or something. "Kibosh" is not commonly recognized as a Yiddish term, but this word meaning to dispose of something, derives from Yiddish where it means the same thing as in English. Note that kibosh at one time was also pronounced kyebosh and at an earlier point in time meant nonsense, though that meaning is rarely heard today.

To sum up, Yiddish has been a rich source of words that lend color to modern English. Without its contribution, certainly the state of our American language would be poorer.

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