The Yiddish Handbook: 30 Words That Can Complement Any Language

You can learn a lot about a culture through its language. Take Yiddish, for example. It’s a wonderful language – rich in wit, kindness, and of course – complaining and insults!

There are already lots of Yiddish words woven into modernpop-culture. And many people unknowingly already speak a little Yiddish.

Unfortunately, most of those words have a radically changed meaning by now. So, whatever the outsiders think these words mean in real Yiddish, they are probably wrong.

Modern Yiddish doesn’t have a universally accepted transliteration or spelling. The standard YIVO version is actually based on the Eastern dialect, also known as Klal. Many of the Yiddish words you can find in modern English, however, come from the South European dialects.

Previously spoken by more than 10 million people, now Yiddish is spread amongst less than 25% of those. Yet, some specific Yiddish words deserve to be known by more people. Here’s a list of 30 such words, as case suggestions:

1. Baleboste – a good homemaker. This is the kind of woman who knows she’s in charge of her home and she will make sure you know it too.

2. Bobe (or ‘bobeshi’- the more affectionate form) – grandmother. You can find that word also as ‘bubbe’ or ‘bubele’.

3. Bupkes (or ‘bobkes’) – literally ‘goat (or horse) droppings’. Many American Jews use that word as something worthless or ridiculously little: “I worked so hard and all I got was bupkes!”

4. Chutzpah – extreme arrogance. It may sound like courage deserving praise to some English speakers, but to a true Yiddish speakerchutzpahis everything but a compliment.

5. Feh! – an expression of disgust, the sound of spitting on something (or someone).

6. Glitch (or ‘glitsh’) – used as a ‘minor error’ in modern American English, this word means ‘to slip’, ‘to skate’, or even better – ‘to nosedive’ in Yiddish.

7. Kibbitz (or ‘kibets’) – originating from the word ‘kibbutz’ (collective). Kibbitz means ‘joking verbally’. And that is obviously a collective activity, isn’t it? You may know it as giving unwanted comments or advice over somebody’s shoulder.

8. Klutz (or ‘klots’) – literally translated as a ‘block of wood’, often used as a clumsy or awkward person. How klutzy are you on the dance floor?

9. Kosher – something for eating or drinkingacceptedby Orthodox Jews. Modern English speakers often use that word to name somethingproper. Or more often, a suspicious, fishydeal is referred to as ‘not kosher’.

10. Kvetsh – to press, to squeeze; also ‘click’ (on web-pages). You may have heard it used as a term for whining, or complaining, however.

11. Maven – an expert, a knowledgeable person. Often used with sarcasm – someone who could talk for hours about a fictional technology, for example.

12. Mazel Tov (or ‘mazltof’) – a good constellation. That’s not a wish, but a congratulation. Not surprisingly, you can also use it to say “Finally, it was about time!”

13. Mentsh – a decent person, someone who helps.

14. Meshuga (or ‘mishegas’) – crazy, foolish. It could also be used as an insult: “Does your crazy hurt?”

15. Nosh (or ‘nash’) – a nibble, a light snack. It could also be used in a sense of (a positive) plagiarism – to nosh a little from here and there.

16. Oy vey – expressing dismay or irritation;an exclamation of an unpleasant surprise.“Oh woe!”

17. Plotz (or ‘plats’) – to burst, to collapse (from exhaustion or irritation). As in “Oy vey! When I heard the news last night, I was about to plotz!”

18. Shalom – a Jewish greeting which means literally ‘deep peace’. It’s a much better one than a simple “Hi!” isn’t it? You may also hear a specific type of person called ‘shalom’. ‘Shaloms’ are usually calm, kind, caring.

19. Shlep – to drag, to carry something you don’t really need. Don’t you just hate it when women make you shlepall the suitcases on vacation?

20. Schlock – a cheap, low-grade thing (literally ‘junk’). Like the pieces of schlock we buy at the last moment souvenir stores.

21. Shlimazel – someone with constant bad luck. Comes from ‘shlemiel’ (someone extremely clumsy).

22. Shmendrik – an idiot, a jerk.Sometimes also used to describe a comedian.

23. Shmooze – to chat, to make a small talk. Nowadays used as trying to impress someone.

24. Schmuck – a fool. Be careful where you say that, though – it also refers to … a male body part.

25. Spiel – a lengthy speech meant to persuade; a long sales pitch (the word for ‘play’ in German). As in “I had to listen to a whole spiel, before he finally asked what he came for.”

26. Shtick – a goofy act, a trick you are known for. Something you do to attract attention to yourself.

27. Tchatchke – a little toy, a knick-knack (or a collectible). Often used as an unflattering name for someone without substance.

28. Tsuris (or ‘tsores’) – serious troubles, suffering.

29. Yente – a gossip girl, a (female) know-it-all. Thanks to the matchmaker in “Fiddler on the Roof”, many people think that word means ‘a matchmaker’. It originated as a pet name high class parents gave to their daughters, however.

30. Yiddisher kop – ‘a Jewish head’. Mostly used as a ‘smart person’. (Surprised much?)

If you are eager to start using Yiddish words proficiently, you should know something about proper pronunciation –justas in Herbrew, the ‘ch’ or ‘kh’ is a “voiceless fricative”. If you are not sure how to make that sound, you can just go with an ‘h’.

All these words sound fun, don’t they? But even more – they could undoubtedly add some clever and rich descriptions to just about any language. As a Yiddish lover and researcher I’m totally in love with this language, and I hope so are you.

About the Author
Jessica Millis is a freelance writer and editor, professor assistant (writing classes at JMU). Her hobby is to study the history of languages.
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