The Yiddish Handbook: 40 Words You Should Know
The Yiddish language is a wonderful source of rich expressions, especially terms of endearment (and of course, complaints and insults). This article is a follow up on Ten Yiddish Expressions You Should Know. Jewish scriptwriters introduced many Yiddish words into popular culture, which often changed the original meanings drastically. You might be surprised to learn how much Yiddish you already speak, but also, how many familiar words actually mean something different in real Yiddish.
There is no universally accepted transliteration or spelling; the standard YIVO version is based on the Eastern European Klal Yiddish dialect, while many Yiddish words found in English came from Southern Yiddish dialects. In the 1930s, Yiddish was spoken by more than 10 million people, but by 1945, 75% of them were gone. Today, Yiddish is the language of over 100 newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts, and websites.
A good homemaker, a woman who’s in charge of her home and will make sure you remember it.
Or bisl – a little bit.
Or bobe. It means Grandmother, and bobeshi is the more affectionate form. Bubele is a similarly affectionate word, though it isn’t in Yiddish dictionaries.
Not a word for polite company. Bubkes or bobkes may be related to the Polish word for “beans”, but it really means “goat droppings” or “horse droppings.” It’s often used by American Jews for “trivial, worthless, useless, a ridiculously small amount” – less than nothing, so to speak. “After all the work I did, I got bupkes!”
Or khutspe. Nerve, extreme arrogance, brazen presumption. In English, chutzpah often connotes courage or confidence, but among Yiddish speakers, it is not a compliment.
An expression of disgust or disapproval, representative of the sound of spitting.
Or glitsh. Literally “slip,” “skate,” or “nosedive,” which was the origin of the common American usage as “a minor problem or error.”
More polite than bupkes, and also implies a strong sense of nothing; used in phrases such as “gornisht helfn” (beyond help).
A non-Jew, a Gentile. As in Hebrew, one Gentile is a goy, many Gentiles are goyim, the non-Jewish world in general is “the goyim.” Goyish is the adjective form. Putting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich is goyish. Putting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich on white bread is even more goyish.
In Yiddish, it’s spelled kibets, and it’s related to the Hebrew “kibbutz” or “collective.” But it can also mean verbal joking, which after all is a collective activity. It didn’t originally mean giving unwanted advice about someone else’s game – that’s an American innovation.
Or better yet, klots. Literally means “a block of wood,” so it’s often used for a dense, clumsy or awkward person. See schlemiel.
Something that’s acceptable to Orthodox Jews, especially food. Other Jews may also “eat kosher” on some level but are not required to. Food that Orthodox Jews don’t eat – pork, shellfish, etc. – is called traif. An observant Jew might add, “Both pork and shellfish are doubtlessly very tasty. I simply am restricted from eating it.” In English, when you hear something that seems suspicious or shady, you might say, “That doesn’t sound kosher.”
In popular English, kvetch means “complain, whine or fret,” but in Yiddish, kvetsh literally means “to press or squeeze,” like a wrong-sized shoe. Reminds you of certain chronic complainers, doesn’t it? But it’s also used on Yiddish web pages for “click” (Click Here).
Pronounced meyven. An expert, often used sarcastically.
- Mazel Tov
Or mazltof. Literally “good luck,” (well, literally, “good constellation”) but it’s a congratulation for what just happened, not a hopeful wish for what might happen in the future. When someone gets married or has a child or graduates from college, this is what you say to them. It can also be used sarcastically to mean “it’s about time,” as in “It’s about time you finished school and stopped sponging off your parents.”
An honorable, decent person, an authentic person, a person who helps you when you need help. Can be a man, woman or child.
Insanity or craziness. A meshugener is a crazy man. If you want to insult someone, you can ask them, ”Does it hurt to be crazy?”
Or mishpokhe or mishpucha. It means “family,” as in “Relax, you’re mishpocheh. I’ll sell it to you at wholesale.”
Or nash. To nibble; a light snack, but you won’t be light if you don’t stop noshing. Can also describe plagarism, though not always in a bad sense; you know, picking up little pieces for yourself.
A general word that calls for a reply. It can mean, “So?” “Huh?” “Well?” “What’s up?” or “Hello?”
- oy vey
Exclamation of dismay, grief, or exasperation. The phrase “oy vey iz mir” means “Oh, woe is me.” “Oy gevalt!” is like oy vey, but expresses fear, shock or amazement. When you realize you’re about to be hit by a car, this expression would be appropriate.
Or plats. Literally, to explode, as in aggravation. “Well, don’t plotz!” is similar to “Don’t have a stroke!” or “Don’t have a cow!” Also used in expressions such as, “Oy, am I tired; I just ran the four-minute mile. I could just plotz.” That is, collapse.
It means “deep peace,” and isn’t that a more meaningful greeting than “Hi, how are ya?”
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.
Cheap, shoddy, or inferior, as in, “I don’t know why I bought this schlocky souvenir.”
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.
A jerk, a stupid person, popularized in The Last Unicorn and Welcome Back Kotter.
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.
Chat, make small talk, converse about nothing in particular. But at Hollywood parties, guests often schmooze with people they want to impress.
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.
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.
A non-Jewish woman, all too often used derogatorily. It has the connotation of “young and beautiful,” so referring to a man’s Gentile wife or girlfriend as a shiksa implies that his primary attraction was her good looks. She is possibly blonde. A shagetz or sheygets means a non-Jewish boy, and has the connotation of a someone who is unruly, even violent.
Or shmuts. Dirt – a little dirt, not serious grime. If a little boy has shmutz on his face, and he likely will, his mother will quickly wipe it off. It can also mean dirty language. It’s not nice to talk shmutz about shmutz. A current derivation, “schmitzig,” means a “thigamabob” or a “doodad,” but has nothing to do with filth.
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.
Or tshatshke. Knick-knack, little toy, collectible or giftware. It also appears in sentences such as, “My brother divorced his wife for some little tchatchke.” You can figure that one out.
Or tsores. Serious troubles, not minor annoyances. Plagues of lice, gnats, flies, locusts, hail, death… now, those were tsuris.
Rear end, bottom, backside, buttocks. In proper Yiddish, it’s spelled tuchis or tuches or tokhis, and was the origin of the American slang word tush.
Female busybody or gossip. At one time, high-class parents gave this name to their girls (after all, it has the same root as “gentle”), but it gained the Yiddish meaning of “she-devil”. The matchmaker in “Fiddler on the Roof” was named Yente (and she certainly was a yente though maybe not very high-class), so many people mistakenly think that yente means matchmaker.
- yiddisher kop
Smart person. Literally means “Jewish head.” I don’t want to know what goyisher kop means.
As in Hebrew, the ch or kh in Yiddish is a “voiceless fricative,” with a pronunciation between h and k. If you don’t know how to make that sound, pronounce it like an h. Pronouncing it like a k is goyish.
Yiddish Language and Culture – history of Yiddish, alphabet, literature, theater, music, etc.
Grow A Brain Yiddish Archive – the Beatles in Yiddish, the Yiddish Hillbillies, the Pirates of Penzance in Yiddish, etc.
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327 Responses to “The Yiddish Handbook: 40 Words You Should Know”
I grew up in a jewish neighborhood so I was privy to such “lingo” all the time. Actually it became second nature to me, but when I moved around so much in finding myself I kind of lost it to a great extent and now living in NW Indiana, when I use any part of it I’m asked or not, “where are you from”? As if they’ve never heard such terms. I tell them prudly Detroit, Mi., where I at 7 mile and Livernois that’s all I heard and befriended even though Catholic and attending their schools it was part of me. So I’m so glad that I have found this book 60 years later that has brought back
again this part of me and a better time of life. Thanks for being there!
Interesting how many Yiddish words are part of the American lexicon. Goes to show what a positive influence the Jewish people have had on American culture. (from a goy guy’s point of view)
Kosher, what a silly comment you have there. It is required for everybody, all Jews, every single one of us. The fact that some of us choose not to adhere to the rule is a different story.
Mike, the Jews were kicked out of many countries. In the 1500s the Pope kicked them out of the papal states for being perverts and many other things!
fakakta: a word used to describe something that is not working well or is really crap
Shikse – When I heard it used I understood it to mean a female who didn’t look Jewish. She usually would be a blond with blue eyes.
I use klutz to describe myself all the time but spelled it clutz. Tuches too, only I spell it/pronounce it tush. Don’t we all refer to our babies and grand babies as having pinchable little tushes? I know plenty of people who are expert at schmoozing it up with the boss. That’s a less harsh way of saying they are suck-ups! Lol! Oy vey is like OMG written out! Kosher is one that came and went years ago when I was teen we would say isn’t that just narly or some would spell gnarly it means cool. or good or ok. When you think about the slang we use in the english language and how it’s constantly changing, it’s pretty remarkable how many words have multiple meanings depending on how they are used. Remember when the phrase “That’s sick!” used to mean gross or bad or perverted? Who’da thunk that “selfie” would ever actually be added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary? Any body know how to speak pig latin? ow-hay all-tay re-ay ou-yay? (How tall are you?) I can speak it but don’t have a clue how to write it! Don’t you just love words, no matter what language you speak or what the origin is, I like to learn a new word every day.
Can you tell me the word or phrase that describes a housewife’s money earning contribution, what farmers call “butter and egg money”? Judge Judy referred to this on the Suze Orman show. She was either referring to the financial contribution or to the work that provides it, such as taking in mending, something, Judge Judy said, “so that a woman doesn’t feel like a stranger in her own home.”
Daniel Kian Mc Kiernan
The English “s[c]hlub” (person of little merit, oaf) comes from the Yiddish “zhlub”/“zhlob” (yokel, oaf), possibly from the Polish “żłób” (oaf). (The very similar word “slob” does not come by way of Yiddish; I don’t know whether there is some common ancestry further back.)
I don’t really need to know these words, do I?
It would be handy to know if there were many Yiddish speakers where I live, but there are not.
40 Yiddish words you should know, in case you come across some Yiddish speakers on your travels. That is a more adept title for me.
Because thats what live is all about. Me. Me. Me.
Michael David Collins-Frias de Jehle-Romanov
German Yiddish Hebrew, I never knew my lineage but these words were readily used by my grandmother Viola Ellen Yehle Collins but her name altered from Viola Ellen Jehle-Romanov Collins.
Our linguistic structures identify our journey across traveling countries, while until last year my identity and title remained unknown it is refreshing to read about these words which are my lineage of my family line through Philippe Jehle-Romanov who’s mother was Christine Jehle-Romanov (death 1850) but his father was Andrew Kümmel.
Thank you for providing these pages of history to provide clarity.
My DNA surprise was 2% Italy/Greece; 4% West Russian/Finland; 10% Norway/Sweden; 22% Irish; 30% Great Brittain; 32% West Europe. My father only informed me of our Irish ancestry, yet he was more than half Yiddish Hebrew, by his mother. Secrets hide but DNA can show us our ancestry. Thank you for providing your knowledge.
Love this! My German Grandma spoke Ziddish and I loved her so much! To Bliss Greenberg above- it’s there but spelled Mishegas. Other fabulous words are plotz, schlemiel- I remember a song about a klutz, schlock- I worked in the garment center and heard that one, shtick- a Classic! Also my Grandma use to say when people called on the phone with problems ” I hobn mayn Eygn stores”.
Does anyone know the yiddish for having eaten too much?
I think Jackie Mason uses Zebluzon or verkrept but I cant seem to find this on any dictionary.
What about ‘Nebbish’?
A Biss Greenberg
Wonderful list. Speaking from my goyische kopf, I wonder why mischegoss and tsimmes were not included, although I agree I would not really want to know what a GK might be more fully expressed as. My question, an answer being sought for some time, is how to spell “hance”(phonetically hon-se), meaning to budge, to annoy, to hurry –since my husband does it all the time. Please advise.
“Kibbitz: It didn’t originally mean giving unwanted advice about someone else’s game – that’s an American innovation.”
Excuse me, but no way. It is in Hungarian common use in this meaning since at least 200 years, and the German word Kiebitz (which originally means some bird) is used in the same manner. The word in this meaning comes to both languages from the Yiddish, but from the Old World one.
Had heard of several of the 40 listed Yiddish words. The rest were new to me. I wrote all 40 down to help me be familiar with them. An Italian friend from Chicago, living in CA for years now, uses many of the Yiddish words mentioned. Enjoying reading the responses to the post. Great list.
To:Rich: A nebbish is a nerd , a loser, someone who is shy. Probably someone who will not be successful in life
Anyone know what a “Nebbish” is? I grew up on L.I. and I heard this word from time to time. Thanks
I was on this site via Googling to find out, definitively, what “nu” means, as in “Nu?” Turned out to be a great thread of comments, with even a little bit of flamethrowing in the middle there — all in good form, i guess the hothead got tired and toddled off to bed. And “Nu?” turned out to be the best word for exactly what I had wanted to say to a person I needed to write to, but I had to check to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently insulting to anyone. PS All four of my grandparents spoke Yiddish as their first language, including my maternal grandmother who was even born here in the USA. Hmmm — actually I never met Harry Katz, my paternal grandfather; he died young. RIP Grandpop. I”ve seen a picture of him and I thought at first glance it was me.
Smart person. Literally means “Jewish head.”
I don’t want to know what goyisher kop means <——no, you're not an ethonocentric bigot.
Trena, my shiksa partner speaks fluent “Yiddish” with my dad — because the Swiss-German dialect spoken near Zurich (there is no written form) is exceptionally close to Yiddish. She loves the Yiddish-Swiss dialect as a self-consciously humorous and deliciously subversive dissent from formal German.
And to AI: Indeed, my uncle, one of the original Star Trek writers, did sneak in Yiddish–as did “Spock” who borrowed from his father, a rabbi, the split-fingers of the blessing, “Live long and prosper.”
Such a delightful post! I probably never met a Jewish person until I was well into my adult years, but many of these words were familiar, probably because of all 4 of my grandparents’ first language was German. I have often suspected there were Jewish roots in Switzerland (long story). I’m such a word nerd. This was so fun!! Thanks for all the comments!!
Thanks for posting Yiddish words. I get kind of emotional because the words remind me of my parents and grandparents. My dad used to sing a funny song about a “shikker” (drunk). It expressed a rather uncomplimentary stereotype about the drunken Goy and the studious Yid (Jew). I guess it came from the “old country”. All we ever hear about the Old country is that it was a horrible place where drunks would constantly beat up Jews and start Pogroms.
Well now I am writing a novel which takes place in 1910 and has a Russian/Jewish character. She occasionally uses a Yiddish word, but I have to restrain myself from overdoing it. Unfortunately Jews and their culture have become almost self-parodying with the sitcoms on TV, etc. Using more than 2 Yiddish words per chapter would turn “Clara Epstein” into a comedic character, which she is not.
Whenever I used to tell my grandmother I was bored she would say, “Shlog zich kop in vant!”.
Translation: Go bang your head against the wall!
Keep in mind that many words from yiddish entered into the American vernacular from family members. We Americans seem to intermarry maybe more easily than than some other places (YMMV), and many famlies have Jewish ancestry without knowing it.
My ex-husband and my daughter only know because his mother is into geneology. Through her hobby, his family found the “other” side of the family. Some of the family were Jewish and in hiding. The traditions got passed down to the daughters but not the sons. The family members from that branch who descended from the daughters are still Jewish (openly, now). The family members descended from the sons are gentile. But, of course, little linguistic bits migrated.
I wonder how many other American families are out there with similar histories? Most of the words above are in common usage in the groups of people I grew up with, with their slang meanings, and used all the time. Many of them, we used growing up just as a natural part of American English without ever knowing their etymology.
It didn’t all come from Hollywood or mass media or being goyim neighbors to Jewish communities. Some of the migration of Yiddish into American English came from family.
A lot of Americans feel a kind of kinship with Israelis, and outsiders frequently chalk it up to American right-wing versions of Christianity. I think we shouldn’t forget that some of the feelings of kinship have roots in actual kinship that our various ancestors, for whatever reasons, chose to “forget.”
Perhaps blood remembers.
I clicked into this discussion after my iPhone wouldn’t autocorrect “Mazel Tov” when congratulating a friend on a new position. I was bugged my Apfel couldn’t shpeddle. And I have no idea if shpeddle is a word in any language, let alone Yiddish. But it’s the spirit if it that I love; the Yiddish
sound+sense+gripe+joy+endearment+boiled vowels with cabbaged consonants. So delicious and somehow seaming to steam a promise of an expression for every impression possible; as if Yiddish can indent any dent in a dented heart. A body shop for whatever daily or more rare damaged might insult a human heart. In Yiddish, I thought maybe, there it is: the language that forgives every situation by digesting it with a nifty linguistic twist, tuck, lift. Thank You for the Language, whether we really “get it” yet, or don’t!! I know I have ancestry in the language but adoptions and wars and shifts and all the brack (made-up word), a thread can keep going that does not break. With that, I find myself noticing a line between respect for a culture and then a kind of joy that rises up all around it, like spelt (rustic wheat) through a bed-spring. How crucial is the respect for Yiddish (as artifact) as opposed to the joy that leaps up through its cadence, inflections, phonetic content and imagination? I lean toward joy because I do not have cachez in the culturally correct grasp of the language. Nonetheless, their is a grief in my chest that celebrates that fact and critically-celebrates my ignorance with some chagrin. And with it, 400-times more joy that this Yiddish permission to bust-up English into spelt somehow exists. What about the heart of a language resurrected for whatever good-hearted reason: does it receive any kind if blessing? Can it? Is there a Yiddish for our time; echoes of a spirit that never dies? Maybe the problems aren’t the same…and the Spirit has no problem with losing some problems to enjoy new ones, the fresh taste of language doing what languages have always done…chew through silence, less with the teeth and possibly more with the tonsils and the tongue. Cheers!!