The Yiddish Handbook: 40 Words You Should Know

By Michael - 6 minute read

background image 360

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.

  1. baleboste
    A good homemaker, a woman who’s in charge of her home and will make sure you remember it.
  2. bissel
    Or bisl – a little bit.
  3. bubbe
    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.
  4. bupkes
    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!”
  5. chutzpah
    Or khutspe. Nerve, extreme arrogance, brazen presumption. In English, chutzpah often connotes courage or confidence, but among Yiddish speakers, it is not a compliment.
  6. feh!
    An expression of disgust or disapproval, representative of the sound of spitting.
  7. glitch
    Or glitsh. Literally “slip,” “skate,” or “nosedive,” which was the origin of the common American usage as “a minor problem or error.”
  8. gornisht
    More polite than bupkes, and also implies a strong sense of nothing; used in phrases such as “gornisht helfn” (beyond help).

  9. goy
    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.
  10. kibbitz
    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.
  11. klutz
    Or better yet, klots. Literally means “a block of wood,” so it’s often used for a dense, clumsy or awkward person. See schlemiel.
  12. kosher
    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.”
  13. kvetsh
    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).
  14. maven
    Pronounced meyven. An expert, often used sarcastically.
  15. 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.”
  16. mentsh
    An honorable, decent person, an authentic person, a person who helps you when you need help. Can be a man, woman or child.
  17. mishegas
    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?”
  18. mishpocheh
    Or mishpokhe or mishpucha. It means “family,” as in “Relax, you’re mishpocheh. I’ll sell it to you at wholesale.”
  19. nosh
    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.
  20. nu
    A general word that calls for a reply. It can mean, “So?” “Huh?” “Well?” “What’s up?” or “Hello?”
  21. 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.
  22. plotz
    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.
  23. shalom
    It means “deep peace,” and isn’t that a more meaningful greeting than “Hi, how are ya?”
  24. 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.
  25. shlemiel
    A clumsy, inept person, similar to a klutz (also a Yiddish word). The kind of person who always spills his soup.
  26. schlock
    Cheap, shoddy, or inferior, as in, “I don’t know why I bought this schlocky souvenir.”
  27. 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.
  28. shmendrik
    A jerk, a stupid person, popularized in The Last Unicorn and Welcome Back Kotter.
  29. 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.
  30. shmooze
    Chat, make small talk, converse about nothing in particular. But at Hollywood parties, guests often schmooze with people they want to impress.
  31. 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.
  32. 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.
  33. shikse
    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.
  34. shmutz
    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.
  35. shtick
    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.
  36. tchatchke
    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.
  37. tsuris
    Or tsores. Serious troubles, not minor annoyances. Plagues of lice, gnats, flies, locusts, hail, death… now, those were tsuris.
  38. tuches
    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.
  39. yente
    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.
  40. 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.

Links
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.

Want to improve your English in 5 minutes a day? Click here to subscribe and start receiving our writing tips and exercises via email every day.

Recommended Articles for You


348 Responses to “The Yiddish Handbook: 40 Words You Should Know”

  • Sheri Jo

    Fantastic post! I grew up in a town with many, many Jewish people and Yiddish sayings are 2nd nature to me. However, the town I have lived in for the past 15 years has a very small Jewish population in comparison. Consequently, whenever I use a Yiddish term, the response is either hysterical laughter or the “DAHHH… shmendrik” look. Thanks for a great post! 🙂

  • Daniel Scocco

    Interesting indeed, many of these words I had used in the past, without knowing their origin.

  • la di dah

    I love the word schmuck. Great post!

  • Daniel Quall King

    In Southern American Jewish Yiddish of the 1950s, to kibbitz just meant “to have a good chat”; but often with overtones of gossiping.

  • Yuri

    What hutzpa, ani roche ledaber lbeail shel atar.
    kan leiot 100 milim ze ata charih ladot.

  • Izzy

    41: Shtup
    Literaly “to stuff.” Used as a euphemism for sex. “He stopped shtupping his shiksa after she gained weight.”

  • Jim Walsh

    Shalom Aleichem! Great List! No other language has the expressive power of Yiddish – maybe because it’s a mash-up of several languages. Some other widely used Yiddish words you should consider for future lists (50 words?) include:

    1) Gonif – thief
    2) Shnorren – to beg or mooch
    3) Versteh – understand, get it? – use in place of “capeesh” (from Italian, capire) for a one word interrogative for “Do you understand? ”
    4) Macher – a “hot shot” or “big wig”
    5) Zaftig – buxom or hefty (but in a good way)

    Sei gesund!
    Jim

  • Daniel Scocco

    Thanks for the additions guys, we might even update the list later to incorporate these.

  • Marc Savoy

    What yiddish words list is complete without the inclusion of “Shabbos Goy”? term for the local neighborly, gentile whom
    the Orthodox Jewish community knew to rely on in turning
    on electricity, light. fire, other activities they were forbidden
    to do themselves

  • JewishIn

    Some of these words also cross over to other languages like russian where they mean similar things and are used similarly to english… could yiddish be the hidden world language?

  • Robert Aitchison

    Yiddish is slang plain and simple, it’s the middle ages version of ebonics.

  • toneii

    Many of the words are German; here are some I recognize:

    bissel > bisschen (a little)
    mentsh > Mensch (man)
    kop > kopf (head)
    nosh > gnash (snack)
    spiel > Spiel (play)
    gornischt > nichts (nothing)
    schmutz > schmutz (dirt)

  • Bryan

    Spiel:

    Also means “story” in Irish. Cad e an spiel ? == What’s the story.

    Remarkably similar meanings.

  • maus

    Schvitzing – Profuse sweating

  • Al

    Good list! You will find some Yiddush/Hebrew in the Star Trek movies and novels too. In one scene, Kirk uses a Klingon communicator and screams to the transporter operator: “Shmaltz! [beam me up]”

  • JH

    Great list.

    You can’t leave out nudnik — when the shlemiel spills his soup on the shlimazel, it’s the nudnik who asks what kind of soup it was!

  • jedrek

    I read #4 and thought ‘huh?’. The polish word for beans is… ‘fasola’.

  • Karen

    “No Chupah no Shtupa”…not advise I follow, but it’s what so many bubbelahs say!

  • Okrim Al Qasal

    Oh wow! Jewish people is so cool! I have to learn this words because gringos use them!

    You are useless… I mean, Yiddish.

  • mike

    May I add k’nocker – which is a big talker, full of hot air, without the ability to back it up; nebbish – an unfortunate nobody who gets picked on; shmatteh – which is a rag or inferior clothing [also the Apparel Business is known as the ‘Shmatteh’ Trade]; farblondget – hopefully lost or confused. Dreck is also an important word, means inferior product or worse..

    My, my, Mr. Poster of Comment #8, who’s the Racist? if you read your history, you will find that the Jews in Eastern Europe were excluded from many professions, forced to live in Ghettos [the Yiddish Word is Shtetl], and faced severe discrimination and Anti-Semitism. Often the ‘Grubbe Yungem’ [low class coarse individuals] would come into the Shtetl and Beat Up or even Murder a few Jews to feel good about things. Hence the Jews were understandably wary of Gentiles. Shabbes Goy was usually an agreeable neighbor.

    Yes, there is definitely overreaching on the part of some Israelis with their neighbors, but it happens in all races and religions, perhaps except yours, whatever it is, since you are so pristine.

  • zmarn

    @toneii

    Yes, many words seem familiar.

    gornischt > nichts (nothing)

    I would say its more like:

    gornischt > gar nichts (nothing)

  • Ed

    Most of these words come from the German language: Schmalz, schleppen, quetschen, Klotz, oweh, mir (accusativ of ich), Mensch etc. So what does that tell you about exclusivity?

  • Ed

    @nr 11, Jim

    No other language? Do you know any others than English and Jiddish

    Shnorren – German: schnorren, same meaning
    Versteh – German: verstehen, to understand (Verstehst du das?)
    Macher – German: machen, to make; Macher: an accomplisher
    Zaftig – German: saftig, from Saft=juice; ein saftiges Bussgeld – a heavy fine

  • Christie

    What about verklempt? It was made popular during SNL’s Coffee Talk sketch and it seemed that they were using it as “I’m emotional and unable to talk”. Some of my Jewish co-workers said that’s not the real meaning and verklempt was not being used properlyl

  • iwo

    Jiddish is a german language.
    Linguistic says.

  • Jim Walsh

    Hey Mr. Ed, commentator # 32,
    Your comment is worthless – several commented here already about the obvious German cognates with Yiddish. Nothing new – both Yiddish and modern High German stem from the older Middle High German. Yiddish also borrows from Slavic languages (e.g., Polish and Russian), as well as Semitic tongues (e.g., using the Hebrew aphabet). My post just suggested some other Yiddish words – that are used in vernacular English – for possible inclusion on a future list here. Just some constructive commentary on my part. Maybe you should try that, instead of making useless, persnickety comments about other posts. No one is impressed that you can conjugate a few German verbs. Und ja, Ich kenne andere Sprache – zum Beispiel, Italienisch: “Va’ fanculo!!”

  • Tom Ritchford

    “Ok and Marc you forgot to add “hypocritical” before “Orthodox Jewish”, truly observant (of halacha) Jews would not use legal loopholes to try to get around their own rules.”

    I think you are misguided here. The essence of the rules is that they are formal entities — you are required to obey the strict letter of the law, no more — and no less.

    If they bred a pig that chewed its cud, it’d be kosher. Well, probably, see here: http://www.radosh.net/archive/001475.html

  • Josh

    Ah, Yiddish, what a language!

    Combines only the best of German and Hebrew/Aramaic!

    But you forgot the word ‘schvitz/shvitz’ meaning a sauna or to hand around and have a nice long chat.

    Remember, little ‘chats’ for Jews take much longer than for Goyim

    Signed Josh

  • Michael

    Great conversation, everybody. Maybe we’ll have to make another list. One challenge is to figure out the true origin of words. For example, in 1836, Charles Dickens wrote in Sketches by Boz, “‘Hooroar,’ ejaculates a pot-boy in parenthesis, ‘put the kye-bosk on her, Mary!'” The word kibosh sounds Yiddish, but it also sounds like the Irish “cie bais,” meaning “the cap of death” worn by a judge. Thanks to Elizabeth Mitchell for mentioning that.

  • Izzy

    The “origin” of kibosh reminds me of the story that in Russia, when the Tzar would come into one of the small Jewish towns, the army would be there before him to insist that the townspeople greet the Tzar appropriately.

    The townspeople didn’t know what to do. They all hated the Tzar, and hated all the things he did.

    So, when the Tzar rode through the town, all the townspeople shouted “Hoo Rah, Hoo Rah”

    (NOTE: in Hebrew “Hoo Rah” translates literally into “He is Evil.”)

  • ..L

    Is Yiddish a sister language of Arabic?

  • ..L

    Thanks for sharing, ..interesting to know

  • Michael

    A sister language to Arabic? That’s an interesting thought. Arabic is a sister language to Hebrew, which is a major source for Yiddish words. German speakers have told us about all the words that German shares with Yiddish. I wonder if Arabic speakers can recognize any of the Yiddish words which came from Hebrew.

    I should point out that Arabic is a colorful language as well, but Jews have been much more involved than Arabs in English-speaking radio, television and film. So fewer Arabic words have entered the English language than Yiddish words. Perhaps as other ethnic groups become more influential in American or British popular culture, their languages will also feed the development of English to a greater extent.

  • Sami

    Nice post. But what is even more interesting is the huge interest for Yiddish language.

    At e Yiddish we have started offering online Yiddish lessons. We were surprised by the demand. Another proof (if needed) that Yiddish is a living language and studied by youngster also.

  • red

    Cool list!
    Regarding the shlemiel and shlimazel, I learned a slightly different definition. Basically the shlemiel spills the soup on himself, and the shlimazel spills the soup on the person sitting next to him. The nebish (or nebich not sure on the spelling) sits next to the shlimazel…

  • Michael

    The mazel in shlimazel is also found in mazltof – it means luck. Or in his case, unlucky.

  • LeonardLennys

    Reply on Christie on January 17th, 2008 12:04:

    “What about verklempt?”

    It’s probably close to the german “verklemmt” which means “uptight”. Someone who’s not comfortable around others or a little unsecure. It can also relate to sexuality. In that case it means prudish.

  • LeonardLennys

    oops…I meant to write insecure (not unsecure) 😉

  • BillinDetroit

    #28 … Acts 10:9-15 comes in handy, sometimes. Otherwise, no calamari!

    The thing I, a Caucasian goy, appreciate about sites such as these and the other ethnic / racially oriented sites is that I come away with a better knowledge of the people around me. I have a sort of universal love for humanity … I wish I had time to truly know each and every decent human being I meet. Like Saul / Paul of the Christian Greek scriptures, I am indebted to every well-lived life I have ever learned from. Those aren’t his words, but I think that they do reflect his thinking at 2 Corinthians 7:13-16.

    As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is a distinct line drawn in the sand between myself and a modern Jew, but I do have a strong historical interest in the Jewish people. They are, after all, the kin of Jesus and that is the religion he was raised in and was thoroughly familiar with. Basically we differ in only one important regard … the anointed messiahship of Jesus. We were with you in the Nazi extermination camps with the important distinction that we were free to leave. All we had to do was repudiate Yahweh and walk out of the camp. With only a handful of exceptions, we stayed, choosing martyrdom over betrayal.

    I am leaving behind a link pointing to my blog regarding my beliefs. If you change the URL, dropping the word “beliefs” and adding the word “life”, you’ll find further insight into the world as I see it.

  • Mark Anthony

    BillinDetroit,

    Assuming a typo, that you aren’t actually a “caucasian goy,” are you a caucasian guy, or a caucasian gay?

    Anyway, I’m not sure what place your religious views have on a glossary of yiddish words. We weren’t really looking for lessons on how each word is to be perceived by various religions. This is more of a culture thing, though a religion is involved, it isn’t really religious so to speak. This isn’t, as you have assumed or mistakenly concluded, an “ethnic / racially oriented site.” It is a writing / language oriented site.

    ~ Mark Anthony

  • Michael

    The top nomination for “favorite Yiddish word that didn’t get included on this list” seems to be:
    nebbish (n) An innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless or hapless unfortunate.”

  • John B. Goy

    A nice post, many words which I use. My beef is not giving phonetic pronunciations. If these are 40 words people should know, shouldn’t they know how to say them correctly? Good luck pronouncing tchatchke correctly without help.

    So I’m a nudge (nooj). Sue me.

  • Michael

    Ah, but since we’re a writing blog, not a reading blog or a speaking blog, may we not be excused for our lack of pronunciation guides? Besides, the Southern Yiddish pronunciation is different from the Eastern European pronunciation. Okay, okay… to hear tchatchke pronounced, give this link a kvetch (audio in ogg format).

  • daniel levy

    Excellent! but what about ladino, the language of the jews who fledd from Spain to places like Istambul and Thesaloniki?
    It’s a funny language, very funny. Try to develope the issue. Daniel Levy

  • David

    What about gevaldig (great), draikup (crooked guy)

  • 31547

    i think it is interesting to know these words. thank you to the poster of them, as well as thank you to all that posted. i have a project at my school on children of the holacaust, and these words have come in handy because we have to pretend we are that child, and write a diary. i hope when people post, they arent doing it just to start stuff. because each person individually helps by adding what they think on this. as with, the caucasian goy, cool, that u thought to use the goy part at the end. 🙂 thanks to all that posted.

  • Steve

    I like your blog! It disturbs me that anti-semites would seek out such a site just to make caustic comments. I suppose all spoken languages started as some derrivative of another as “slang” if you will. At what point they become a legitimate language I don’t know. It’s true that many widely spoken languages have come and gone and the true roots of many words that we still speak have gone with them. I speak some German and naturally recogonise the commonalities. I think it is important to understand our linguistic heritage as something given to us from many cultures. Thanks, I didn’t realize some of these common expressions were Yiddish!
    shalom

  • Helga Panton

    Can you tell me where I might find words which are not listed?

    Thanks for any help or advise.
    hhp

  • Robey

    Great list, all words and expressions I am well familiar with, and being Jewish I love to see Yiddish get the respect and attention it deserves. One minor quibble though. This:

    mishpocheh
    Or mishpokhe or mishpucha. It means “family,” as in “Relax, you’re mishpocheh. I’ll sell it to you at wholesale.”

    Really? Was this necessary? “I’ll sell it to you at wholesale”?! Why bring up the stereotype of the Jewish person haggling over money? It’s such a great word and all it means is “family”. Why bring retail/wholesale into it at all? That just makes me sad. I’m sure it was just an oversight or maybe I’m being overly sensitive but I did notice it. Otherwise, great list.

  • peter isaac

    The word mishpocha for family and the Maori word mokopuna also means family indicating a rabbinical influence in codifying Maori into a written language 150 years ago.

Leave a comment: