Ten Yiddish Expressions You Should Know
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.
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.
A clumsy, inept person, similar to a klutz (also a Yiddish word). The kind of person who always spills his soup.
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.
Chat, make small talk, converse about nothing in particular. But at Hollywood parties, guests often schmooze with people they want to impress.
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.
Cheap, shoddy, or inferior, as in, “I don’t know why I bought this schlocky souvenir.”
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.
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.
It means “deep peace,” and isn’t that a more meaningful greeting than “Hi, how are ya?”
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!
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58 Responses to “Ten Yiddish Expressions You Should Know”
You left off a very important Yiddish word-“shicker”, meaning “drunk.
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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”
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
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.
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.
well, spiel goes from german….;-)
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!
I love it. Thanks!
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?
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.
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.
That would I think be “meshuge af teyt”, crazy to death. (Teyt is Lithuanian Yiddish – “toyt” in other dialects).
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?
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.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t an Academie Yiddische, like the Academie Francaise, that determines the correct English spelling of Yiddish words…”
what is the meaning of shh in hebrew? thanks.
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?
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.