Ten Yiddish Expressions You Should Know

By Michael

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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!

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61 Responses to “Ten Yiddish Expressions You Should Know”

  • 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:

    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.

  • Grammy McG

    When my 1st grandchild was born I met a woman who was celebrating the birth of her 1st great grandchild. She told me of a Yiddish name specifically for two grandmothers to the same child that were close “sister-like” friends. Due to a life altering illness I have forgotten the term. I would be deeply grateful to learn it again.
    Thank you in advance for your help.

  • Levin

    Granny McG, the word you might be thinking of is machatonim, or specifically machatonister for two women. It basically means co-in-laws. The parents of the child your child marries are your machatonim. The other grandmother of your grandchild is your machatonister. My Jewish grandma used to use this word all the time to refer to her goyishe machatonister, and I thought it was adorable.

  • Levin

    Granny McG, the word you are looking for is probably machatonister. It means co-mother-in-laws. Your machatonister is the mother of the person your child marries, and thus co-grandma if your kids have kids.

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