Ten Yiddish Expressions You Should Know

By Michael

For a language originally spoken only by Eastern European Jews, Yiddish has certainly found its way into common English. My wife was raised in a farming region in the American Midwest and never knew any Jewish people as a child, so she was surprised when I informed her that she uses Yiddish words all the time. Most Yiddish words comes from German, as well as Hebrew and the Slavic languages, but they’ve entered the popular English language through the entertainment industry and East Coast American society. I like the sound of Yiddish words that begin with the letter S, especially sh, and here are some of my favorites.

1. shlep
To drag, traditionally something you don’t really need; to carry unwillingly. When people “shlep around,” they are dragging themselves, perhaps slouchingly. On vacation, when I’m the one who ends up carrying the heavy suitcase I begged my wife to leave at home, I shlep it.

2. shlemiel
A clumsy, inept person, similar to a klutz (also a Yiddish word). The kind of person who always spills his soup.

3. shlimazel
Someone with constant bad luck. When the shlemiel spills his soup, he probably spills it on the shlimazel. Fans of the TV sitcom “Laverne and Shirley” remember these two words from the Yiddish-American hopscotch chant that opened each show.

4. shmooze
Chat, make small talk, converse about nothing in particular. But at Hollywood parties, guests often schmooze with people they want to impress.

5. shmaltzy
Excessively sentimental, gushing, flattering, over-the-top, corny. This word describes some of Hollywood’s most famous films. From shmaltz, which means chicken fat or grease.

6. schlock
Cheap, shoddy, or inferior, as in, “I don’t know why I bought this schlocky souvenir.”

7. spiel
A long, involved sales pitch, as in, “I had to listen to his whole spiel before I found out what he really wanted.” From the German word for play.

8. schmuck
Often used as an insulting word for a self-made fool, but you shouldn’t use it in polite company at all, since it refers to male anatomy.

9. shalom
It means “deep peace,” and isn’t that a more meaningful greeting than “Hi, how are ya?”

10. shtik
Something you’re known for doing, an entertainer’s routine, an actor’s bit, stage business; a gimmick often done to draw attention to yourself.

Update: We published a new post with 40 Yiddish words that you should check out!

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


58 Responses to “Ten Yiddish Expressions You Should Know”

  • Joy-Mari Cloete

    Does “oy vey” not feature in here?

  • Joy-Mari Cloete

    Oh no, I didn’t read the post in its entirety… now I feel like a shlemiel.

  • Michael

    Wikipedia has another good list (which includes oy vey) at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_of_Yiddish_origin

  • Daniel Scocco

    Interesting list, I had seen many before without connecting the origin.

  • Open English

    Great list. I had no idea that “glitch” and “spiel” were Yiddish words… I guess you learn something new every day.
    Thank you!

  • Katy

    Isn’t “shalom” Hebrew rather than Yiddish?

    Also, regarding the spelling of the words — is it equally acceptable to begin them with sh- and sch-?

    I usually see them with the sch- beginning, but it strikes me as kind of like Chanukah/Hannukah, where there’s not really a standard English equivalent. But I always wonder which is correct when I write them down!

  • Katy

    Um, that was supposed to be Hanukkah. Oy!

  • Michael

    Unfortunately, there isn’t an Academie Yiddische, like the Academie Francaise, that determines the correct English spelling of Yiddish words. I usually saw them written with sch- but my latest sources seemed more… authoritative.

  • Ellen Mahoney

    I never knew where shlimazel came from in Laverne and Shirley! And the origins of spiel and glitch were an interesting surprise.

    I am very partial to mensch (which Yiddishkeit says is spelled mentsh) and Mazel Tov is fun to say.

    Thanks for a fun and informative post.

  • Mari

    Was sad not to see plotz on the list until I got to the bottom. LOL

  • Scott

    Great list, but you forgot schmendrik!

  • Michael

    Yes, schmendrick would be an 11th Yiddish word that would be good to know, if you really needed yet another way of calling someone a fool, a jerk, a ne’er-do-well, almost an idiot, a clueless person, someone who’s dumb, stupid or not worthy of respect.

  • Mari

    Of course when I read Scott’s post, I immediately thought of the character from “The Last Unicorn”. 😉

  • Scott

    That’s where I got it…I thought it sounded Yiddish so I googled it and found out what it meant.

  • Mari

    Too cool!

  • William Wilgus

    Sorry, but `schmuck’ refers to the FEMALE genitalia.

  • Michael

    William, you can read about the origins and definitions at http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/schmuck

  • Dickard

    Is there some reason why they all begin in “sh” or “sch” – the shh sound? Since most are derogatory or pejorative in some way is there something about that sound signifies in Yiddish?

    Just found it interesting.

  • Dickard

    Sorry, I meant is there something that sound signifies in Yiddish?

  • Michael

    A lot of popular Yiddish words are derogatory. I think the sh sound is onomatopoetic – it just sounds derogatory.

  • William Wilgus

    Michael: are you telling me my Jewish friend and his Jewish wife were wrong when they told me it referred to female genitalia? I find that difficult to believe . . . but hey, who knows?

  • Melvin S. Merzon

    Jews spell it “Chanukah,” these letters–cha-nu-kah being the closest English spelling equivalent to the Hebrew letters. Non-Jews, goyim, if you prefer, spell it Hanukkah, without any reason.

  • Melvin S. Merzon

    William Wilgus on December 7th, 2007 commented “but `schmuck’ refers to the FEMALE genitalia.”

    A Jew myself, for nearly 75 years, I never heard the term, nor used it, to apply to any body part but the–excuse my expression–the penis.

  • Melvin S. Merzon

    Katy on December 6th, 2007 asks Isn’t “shalom” Hebrew rather than Yiddish?

    Yes, it is Hebrew, meaning “hello,” “goodbye,” or “peace,” depending on context. The word “shalom”, as well, has been adopted into Yiddish, as have many other Hebrew words.

    You do know, I assume, that Hebrew and Yiddish use the identical alphabet, though the pronunciation of the letters (apart from regional dialects, mispronunciations, and accents) varies between the two languages.

  • Nick

    I always thought ‘spiel’ was from the German word ‘spiel’ or ‘spielen’ which means to play.

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=spiel

  • Sami

    Great post!

    For those who want to start learning Yiddish seriously, we are starting Yiddish language courses over the internet. For further information have a look at http://www.eYiddish.org

    Sami

  • Jon

    A fantastic and funny reference book for Yiddish words is the Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten. I haven’t seen the new book that his daughter put out, but I’ve heard mixed reviews (to put it nicely).

  • Annette

    Some of these and I think a lot more Yiddish words are still part of everyday german language.

    shlep –> schleppen

    shlimazel –> Schlamassel, but it’s not used to describe a person, but a mess someone has gotten into.

    shmaltzy –> schmalzig

    spiel is, as you said, the german word for “game” or “to play” (can be either noun of verb), I’ve never heard it used in the way you describe it though.

    I’m not sure about whether these were german words, adapted into yiddish or vice versa.

  • Michael

    One of the members of Yahoo’s Yiddish Forum says:

    About "shmooze": The word for "to converse" in Yiddish is "shmuesn" (pronounced SHMU-esn), not "shmoozen". it is from "shmues", a conversation, ultimately of Hebrew origin.

  • Buttoned-Up.com

    So, what does “hasenfeffer incorporated” mean?

  • Michael

    In context, hasenpfeffer does sound a little nonsensical. But then, it’s a children’s chant. Hasenpfeffer is a German stew made with marinated rabbit, or sometimes squirrel, and maybe with chicken. Rabbits and squirrels aren’t kosher.

  • Michael

    Annette, you’re right. Yiddish is based on very old German. Some words such as shpiel have changed their connotations over the centuries. But it still means “play” too – I laughed when, on their Yiddish version of the Beatle’s Hard Day’s Night, California Klezmer introduced the guitar solo with “Shpiel!” How do you say, “Rock on” in Yiddish?

  • marcia pannell

    what is the meaning of shh in hebrew? thanks.

  • Steve

    Michael wrote:
    “Unfortunately, there isn’t an Academie Yiddische, like the Academie Francaise, that determines the correct English spelling of Yiddish words…”

    Yivo Institute:
    http://www.yivoinstitute.org/
    See especially:
    http://www.yivoinstitute.org/yiddish/alefbeys_fr.htm

  • Michael

    Of course, YIVO is the supreme authority on the Litvish dialect. But as we pointed out in our companion post The Yiddish Handbook, many of the most common Yiddish expressions that entered the English language came from Southern Yiddish. Today, most Yiddish speakers use the Poylish or Ukrainish dialects. So nu.

  • raymond

    growing up in brooklyn i used to hear my grandfather say “mashug af tate” . Was this a common expression? What is the literal translation and did I spell it correctly?

  • Steve

    @raymond:

    That would I think be “meshuge af teyt”, crazy to death. (Teyt is Lithuanian Yiddish – “toyt” in other dialects).

  • Steve

    @Michael

    The Romanization system promulgated by Yivo is equally as applicable to Litvish, Poylish and Ukrainish as it is to Standard Yiddish, e.g., in my message #38, above. Or, to give another example, one could write “vos” or “vus” according to dialect.

    As with any other spelling system, consistency and simplicity are nice. It makes no sense to use sh- plus the Germanish s- and sch- for the same sound, or to emulate the peculiarities of English or German in “schmuck/schlock” rather than the no-frills “shmok/shlak”, which have no extra letters that do not correspond to anything in Yiddish speech or writing.

  • Joani

    Was looking for the spelling of “Vi Veys?” which I believe means
    “who knows?” Was just writing to a former Sister-in-Law whose
    (my son’s grandparents) were from Chekoslovakia/Austria-Hungary.
    I learned a lot of Yiddish expressions as we were family for 20+
    years in New York City.

  • Steve

    @Joani:

    Ver veyst?

  • Katelyn

    you know, “schmuck” actually comes from German origin, just like “spiel” does. “Schmuck” is the German word for “Jewelry”, which would explain as to why it refers to the male anatomy. Family Jewels, anyone?

  • CEBailey

    I love it. Thanks!

  • sheila epstein hunter

    This is great! thank you. i grew up on LI (long beach and i’m jewish and long beach is 98 percent jewish it’s great!) i live in UT now and use my yiddish and people are like.. “huh?” then i tell them what it means, they think it’s cool!

  • zoe

    well, spiel goes from german….;-)

  • elzeide

    Great post. I enjoyed it, and also the comments or responses.

    Although it’s quite an old post (from 2007), as the las comment is “very recent” (just 6 months) I decided to add my joy too.

  • Marty

    And isn’t it wonderful that two great languages and religions come together in December? I’m sure you’ve all heard the lovely Christmas tune “Oy vey, Maria”.
    No offence intended to either.

  • Paul Bogart

    Dear whoever-you-are: I thoroughly enjoy the give and take on your site. I hope you can help me find the meaning of an expression of my late mother’s. It may be unfit for publication, but I’m a grown-up. My sister,
    in her best phonetic rendition, says it’s “meshugenah chom trina.” The last rhymes with “china.” My warmest thanks, Paul Bogart

  • Erwin Karlin

    Both of my parents spoke Yiddish. My father came from Kiev, Russia and my mother from an Orthodox family. They spoke it when visiting their parents or in our drugstore when they did not want to be understood. The most used expression was Halt an eg af em. “Watch them”

  • Kate

    We use a term while working backstage: “shmata” , describing a loose fitting cover-up and I am assuming it’s Yiddish. Am I spelling it correctly and is this actually a Yiddish term for a loose fitting cover-up?

  • Gary c Tesser

    A shmata is a rag, literally. By extension — as with most Yiddish words or expressions used in English — it can mean any informal garment. For decades, the garment industry itself was informally called the rag trade.

  • Gary c Tesser

    Ugh, I made a mess. I didn’t mean to say that most Yiddish words or expressions can mean any informal garment such as any kind of head sash. I meant that most Yiddish that is adopted into English will wind up with extended meanings. But I take that back too. It goes for some, sure; but mostly, extended meanings are limited. For example, “Schmuck” literally means “penis” (sorry, Mr Wilgus — yes, your friends are egregiously wrong), and by extension, it means contemptible person.

  • linda

    Has anyone heard the expression “by you there’ll be a light?” I grew up hearing it in my home, but recently when I mentioned it in a group discussion amongst Jewish people no one heard of it.. It means will you make something of yourself? I’d appreciate any feedback.

  • Suzan

    Linda. If that is asked in the form of a question with the voice going up at the end, it is equivalent to calling you a know it all. “By you there’ll be a light!” as a positive statement means you will go far. In that context it’s a “atta boy”. Most Jews in the US are now so far removed from the Yiddish culture that they have no idea. My grandmother was born in 1885 and spoke Yiddish. Being only 2 generations out has it’s advantages. It’s not what is said, it is how it is said. 🙂

    Also spiel is pronounced with a shhh sound for the s. schpiel is a better spelling.

  • Stephanie

    I hear Fran and her family using these phrases in my head all the time 🙂

    Sylvia: Morty! Lay off the horn, ya yatz!
    Fran: You could have a zillion goyisha guys!
    Fran: Well, that was a shlep I could’ve lived without.
    Sylvia: Oy, we slepped all the way to Jersey for this negligee and in 2 seconds he’s gonna rip it off, cover you in chocolate coolwhip, and ravage you!
    Fran: Aren’t you just platzing?!
    Fran: Mr. Sheffield, your problem is that you are emotionally… fachoched.

    Watch “The Nanny” for a daily dose of Yiddish at it’s best and most clever uses. 🙂

  • Barbara

    I find the differing definitions of schmuck interesting as I used to watch “Gene Simmons, Family Jewels”. He is an Israeli born Jew who is also Hungarian. He is always referring to his penis, which is suppose to get a lot of attention, as his schmeckle. So how is it that schmuck, who I always thought was a jerk, is actually the correct name. In “Sex and the City”, the guy who married Charlotte is a Jew and he always referred to himself as a schmuck marrying a schitksa goddess.

  • Lenny Squigman

    So seeing as how this has not come up, I really hate to inform all of the people on here posting, But I am fairly certain that Spiel is originally from the German vocabulary. And seeing as how I am the first to post this correction I would like to let everyone else know that It has been posted, so there is no need for anyone to try to re-post what I have just posted, because it would be asinine. Also I am also 100% certain that Spiel comes from the German Vocabulary, atleast I have been told that.

  • Tovel Feldman

    Sorry, Lenny. Yiddish has its origins in the German that was spoken in the 9th century, mixed with Biblical Hebrew, Talmudic Aramaic, and some other borrowed words. The word in Yiddish does not mean the same thing as the modern German word “Spiel.” Both the Yiddish and the Modern German words derive from the same 9th century word, but the meanings have diverged over time.

    Here’s an article you might read about the origin of Yiddish: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yiddish_language

    Part of the problem with the spelling is because of the fact that Yiddish is written using the Hebrew alphabet. “Hannukah” is a Hebrew word, whose first letter is “khet”, which is officially transliterated as an “H” with a dot under it, indicating the soft gutteral aspiration. It’s incorrect but common to spell it “Channukah” since typographically most character sets lack the dot for the “”H”. “Ch” is normally used to transliterate “Chof” (of “Kof”), which is a different letter entirely.

  • Susan

    You left off a very important Yiddish word-“shicker”, meaning “drunk.

Leave a comment: