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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331 Responses to “The Yiddish Handbook: 40 Words You Should Know”
Thank you for the list, however short.
I did try to read all comments, but there is only so much time …
My late mother waited until I was 33 years old, to give me Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish,” a book which can teach many Yiddish words and expressions.
Both my parents, though born in the USA, spoke Yiddish before English and like many families, only spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want their kids to know what they were saying.
I remember my father telling me there were two main types of Yiddish. Forgive my spelling, as I am trying to be phonetic … the two were Litvak and Galitzianer. Each one influenced pronunciation, and indicated from which part of Europe you originated. I think one was mainly Poland, the other Russian, but I admit I may indeed be wrong.
Again, thanks for this list of words, and thanks to all who tried to add some good ones, many of which are in use in common English speech these days.
Zi Gesunt! To all who genuinely added to this conversation.
Alex, otherwise known to my friends as Unka Heshie
1. Someone who speaks Yiddish better than I do can translate the sentence, “grandfather said, “Gentlemen, let us pray.” In that sentence every wod has a different linguistic origin. The word in this sentence for pray, “bentchen,” comes from the Latin which also provides the root for benediction.
2. I have often thought that if we could find a lot of second and third generation Americans whose grandparents spoke Yiddish, and study what Yiddish words they know, we might get an insight into Jewish values. For example, the word “shikker” would be widely known, I imagine, although few examples of Jewish alcoholics would be recalled. Is this a clue to the disdain with which Jews regard drunkards?
3. I also have noticed that swear words in Yiddish never have the same nasty connotations that they do in English. Here are some examples:
3.a Shtup in Yiddish literally to push. It is used to refer to the sexual act, but it also to refer to tipping, i.e. giving a gratuity to a service person, or to “comping” someone some free tickets. (pushing them across the desk to the recipient.) Cf: the four-letter Anglo-Saxon word for the sex act, when used metaphorically means to do something mean to another.
3.b. A ‘momser’ is an illegitimate chid. The word comes from the Hebrew. In Yiddish the connotation is of a “love-child,” one who will steal your heart away if you are not careful. Wouldn’t you rather be called a ‘momser’ than a bastard?
3.c. Is someone calls you a prick, them’s fighting words. More so, if he calls you a “horse’s dick.” But if he calls you a schmuck, he only means to say that you are a foolish and perhaps ineffectual person.
3.d. “A grubbe yingle” means, roughly, “a dirty little penis.” In English, those words would be said to denote a mean, dispicable person. In Yiddish, it’s no compliment, but the insult is more like, “a course, unrefined person.”
3.e. Or consider the word, “putz,” with the connotation of a weak, inneffectual person. What would be the literal English translation?
4. The word “shikse” is derived from the word for “blemish.” It originally referred to a Jewish woman who was insufficiently observant, and therefore tarnished her family’s reputation. Later, it was extended to mean a non-Jewish girl, but it never lost its negative connotation.
5. My father often called me, “Menachem Mendel, Kock in fendel.” Menachem Mendel is my given name: the rest of the sentence means, “Go shit in a pan.” The first time the rabbi called me up to open the ark, he asked me my Hebrew name. Hilarity ensued.
6. Finally, on the subject of schvartze: If you are speaking Yiddish it might be a perfectly acceptable word to describe a Black person. However, if it is the only Yiddish word in an English sentence, it is definitely perjorative. Also, in the 1950’s, in NYC, the word was used to refer to a domestic, regardless of her race.
Why so many discussions about where, how and when the yiddish language originated? Enjoy it! It’s self explanatory and has such a flavorful way of entertaining ” the taste ” buds ( Tom ) with colorful words and meanings.
It dignifies a thought process in such a manner, as to be the pepper and salt, that adds ” Tom ” the spice, to the language. Borscht belt co medians used an use it to this day. Many words, expressions are picked up by many people with no regard to ethnicity.
Yes, I am a former New Yawker who learned the language just by listening to older family members all of whom didn’t want the. ” kleiner” ( little one ) to understand adult speech. Little did they realize, I would end up understanding and speaking it.
To get back to my original premise, enjoy it! Use it. it really rocks!
A bie gezundt.
Helen, 91 and still swingin’.
Yiddish is, in short, Middle High German – the Medieval German that the Jews took with them when they fled the persecutions of the Crusades in the Rhineland to settle in Poland, invited by King Casimir of the 13th Century.
It only became Yiddish when these Jews were no longer in Germany –
When they still lived in Germany, it was simply German, as spoken by all of the inhabitants.
In Eastern Europe – Poland, Ukraine, etc, is became the Jewish vernacular, and later (basically in the 19th century) a literary language, used for fiction, drama, poetry, etc. Most of the European classics were translated into Yiddish in the 19th-20h centuries.
Refer to: Yiddish theatre, Max Weinrich Institute, YIVO
Cocoismo pa ti
Oy vey, love to just hear when said, ja ja ja. Spiel, I use that all the time, didn’t know it was Yiddish.
Born in the Bronx, 1950’s, I hear first said. I lived in a Jewish, Puerto Rican street, Fox street. A lot of Eastern Jews lived on my street, survivors.
Love the word mishegas, ja ja ja, o yes, I use that 2.
Spiel, when your running a c=scam on someone.
Bupkes~ you get nothing, ja ja ja bupkes.
Chutzpah, you got balls/cajones,nerve, daring action giver
I love growing up in New York City.Moving back.
Wow, what wonderful memories this brings back! I grew up in Brooklyn in the 70’s – my Nana spoke Yiddish constantly. Since moving in teens to Washington, I don’t hear much of it. However I do find myself saying words in Yiddish, and now I even recall more since reading this!! I am going to make sure my Children and Grandchildren get to hear as much yiddish as possible, so as not to lose this from their lives – it would be such a loss.
@Alt MIchael, you are way off…while not all these words are in common use in English, who doesn’t at least know schlep, or chutzpah, or schlock, shtick, schmaltzy, speil (schpeil?)schmooze, bupkes, glitch, maven, nosh, and klutz Even though I had little exposure to the Jewish community most of my younger years, these words, at least, were common enough vocabulary around me….I just didn’t know they were yiddish till I was an adult! (and didn’t know “glitch” and “klutz” were yiddish till I read this article!)
As an adult, other words I commonly hear are… kvetsh, tuches, kibbitz, and schmutz.
Baruch Atta (above) gets a bit off-topic by suggesting there are only four words in English derived from Arabic. There are dozens. A good place to start is Wikepedia’s “List of Arab Loan Words in English,” a thoroughly annotated and authorotative list.
I enjoyed this site and can as a native German speaker confirm,that many Jiddish words are easily understood -allowing for a different spelling in modern German.Some are used in Southern German dialects, such as Bueble or Maedle, others are high German: Quatsch (nonsense),Schlampe (unkempt,female) ,Tacheles reden (having a serious talk).Other words are used in every day German language, like schleppen (carrying of heavy loads),hocken (South German for sitzen = to sit) ,Massel haben (to be lucky),ein bisserl (South German = a bit) etc.
I hope that Jiddish thrives as a living language.
Barbara Levitt Lichtman
To all my Yiddish friends all over the world:
My beloved step mother spoke Yiddish in what I call kind of a smorgasbord of ways—-it was very colorful and fun.Sometimes it was pure Yiddish -sometimes a mix with English ,sometimes made up words.
One of the words-terms I have never heard is ‘ yoshkee pondray’-
She would say this when she saw a shrine in a back yard— does anyone know what it means?my childhood was filled with a zillion ‘gay shlof ins ‘
—sound familiar anyone.?
Shikse = female abomination
Goyim = cattle
Yiddish and Jewish culture are quirky and fun. But know the truth.
My brother recommended I would possibly like this blog. He used to be entirely right. This publish actually made my day. You can not consider just how much time I had spent for this information! Thank you!
Oy vey! Our family used to make up words no other families knew or used – like, was some group of people sitting around and someone suddenly said, “Oy vey”! And another said, “man, that really sounds like it stands for “woe is me”. But, truthfully, thanks! I’m now a maven of slang!
Mishpokhe (pronounced: mish-pa-kha) is from Hebrew, meaning family, so it is interesting if that word is also used in German.
Goy is also from Hebrew and literally means nation. The people of ha’goyim, the nations, of the world, were gentile, vs. ha’goy Yisrael (the nation of Israel) and thus, goy became a word to describe gentiles.
Bris is the Ashkenaz way of pronouncing the Hebrew word brit or brith, and literally means covenant. The Bris Mila is the covenant of the circumcision, shortened to Bris in everyday language.
I was going to comment about the word ‘treyf’ but someone else already handled that very capably. Glatt is another word that is sometimes used mistakenly. Some think glatt kosher means very kosher, but it actually refers to the the condition of the organs (lungs) of a slaughtered animal. After slaughter, the lungs will be inspected to ensure they are smooth (glatt) and not treyf (torn or ripped)
On another note, it is amazing how antisemitism creeps into discussions like these and even more amazing how such haters try to justify their hate.
I must say, had a great time reading through the site- despite the occasional unworthy post. Years ago when I took a year of Yiddish in college we were told that modern German and Yiddish both developed separately from Middle German, and of course, Yiddish also incorporated many words from and expressions from Hebrew and Aramaic and the various places where Jews were scattered…
Regarding Mazal Tov (actually Hebrew) while its literal meaning is good luck, it is actually used for congratulations. If you wanted to wish someone luck in some endeavor or the other, you would say something along the lines of “zei mit mazel”
If I’m not mistaken, “hock” actually means hit. “hock mir nisht in kop (arein)” loosely translates as leave me alone, stop bothering me but literally is closer to stop banging away at my head. The “chainik” is a tea kettle (from Russian chai, or tea), so that expression would literally mean don’t bang the teakettle, and would loosely translate again as stop bothering me or let it rest.
As someone pointed out, the term “goy” is from the Hebrew and means nation. There are various Biblical passages referring to the Jewish people as “goy” as in the exhortation to be a “goy kadosh” a holy nation. Usually, when used to refer to a single individual or in the plural form of goyim, it refers to a gentile or gentiles. Shegitz (pronounced shay-gitz) is a Yiddish term meaning the same thing. Both terms are neutral in connotation. What makes the term derogatory (or not) is tone of voice. Perhaps an English speaker who only uses Yiddish to express strong feelings might save it for a derogatory use, but among Yiddish speakers, it is neutral. If your next door neighbor is a gentile- you could say “Ich wohn neben a goy/shegitz,” and all it means is that you live next to a gentile. If he was an s.o.b, you’d probably add a nice juicy adjective before the noun.
Unfortunately, the reality of Jewish diaspora experience was often harsh and full of mistreatment by their gentile neighbors, which may be why there are many cases when the term is not used lovingly. However, there are good and bad people among any and every race, nation, people whatever. And therefore just as there are good and bad Jews, there are good and bad goyim and shegitzes (and goytas and shiksas).
Perhaps this is nuanced, but Yiddish generally is. Yiddisher kop goes beyond just a “smart person” to mean a “logical, or clever person.” When someone takes the ordinary and is creative with it — and they are Jewish — they’ve got a Yiddisher kop. Goyisher kop, is not a stupid person as much as one that is not logical — clumsy of thought.
BTW: “The Meaning of Tingo” by Adam Jacot de Boinod is a great book! It lists and explains words used in other languages that English has no equivalent for.
The word mishpokhe for family also exists in modern German today (=Mischpoke). It has a bad connotation and refers to large families – usually of “foreign” origin. Maybe it is because families with many children are not very common in Germany so that people are prejudiced?! I don’t know. It does not refer to Jewish families in particular – it is also used for German “clans”. Personally, I have never heard this word being used in a positive or neutral context. Additionally, I would doubt that most Germans know that it actually means “family” and is Yiddish.
Terrific list! Am familiar with — and use — many of them. However, including pronunciation would be appreciated.
Yiddish actually got its start and its greatest level of creative growth in the Netherlands NOT Germany. Most people do not know this. The Dutch Jews invented the Yiddish that spread to Germany.
Yiddish is a separate language from German linguistically. There is absolutely no evidence that Germans lent words to Yiddish. Its the other way around. When the Jews moved into Germany in the 8th and 9th Century AD to set up a civilized network of stores and towns – the “german people” were illiterate to a man. The Jews set up the first language schools.
The national German tongue we know today borrows about 20% from its Jewish roots. (that’s what got the nazis so upset) they wanted to destroy the true origins of German society and any historians or evidence that contradicted their new “made up story” of German history. (now you know what really happened)
Hi Alice Spacey,
I could help you, but you should know that a German Jew would not be using the Yiddish words on this list. German Jews spoke a Judaeo-German dialect among themselves or spoke only German. The Judaeo-German words are little-known in the US, but many are related to Yiddish; however, they are pronounced very differently. There is a book that goes into all of this, written by Werner Weinberg, a German Jew. It is written in German.
Nice of you to compile this list, but I can tell you just from looking it over quickly, there are mistakes here.
Kibbitz and kibbutz are totally unrelated.
Schmitzig is not a current “derivation” of Schmutz. It’s simply the adjective and has been around forever.
There are lots more mistakes, and I hope you eventually correct them
“Oy, gevalt!” when you are about to be hit by a car. “Oy, gestalt!” when you are about to be hit by a whole new concept of reality.
Joke courtesy of my half-japanese, half-mexican brother Rick. Yiddish gets around. (He later married a nice Jewish girl, so I guess he saw it comming).
The schlemile spills his soup
the Sclamazle spills his soup on himself
the schmegeggie spills the schlamazel;s
soup on the schlemile and himself
You describe “kosher” as:
“Something that’s acceptable to Orthodox Jews, especially food. Other Jews may also “eat kosher” on some level but are not required to.”
You must be a goy to say that. ALL Jews are required to keep the mitzvahs. All Jews are commanded to be Torah observant. There’s no such thing as ‘Orthodox Jews and other Jews’. There’s either Torah observant Jews or non-observant Jews.
Lydia aka Libbeh
Best Yiddish curse I heard – ‘zul em vaksin a burekeh en boych un zel er pishen borscht’ – translation – he should grow a beet in his stomach and he should pee borscht. Doesn’t get any better than that.
Where does the word “ditz” come from? Is this a Yiddish word or is this Yiddish?
Specifically, it is a derogatory word used to refer to certain women, namely, someone who is flaky or an airhead.
As in, she’s such a ditz. I hear this all the time; it’s slang but I never knew if this was a Yiddish word or not. It sure sounds like one.
Please note that the Yiddish “meshpucha” (family) is not the equivalent of the Maori “mokopuna” as the latter means grandchild.
Thanks to Michael for posting this, and to all the other commenters and contributors who added to the original list (excluding of course the racist, uncalled-for snide remarks: this is a website about LANGUAGE, if you hadn’t noticed).
To me, this was like meeting with friends whom I had not seen in a long time. I grew up in a Jewish home and used to speak and read Jewish and Hebrew fluently (and translate from the latter into the former as I read: cannot imagine how I did it, at the age of 11!) all of which is forgotten by now. I married outside my faith but always remained close to, and proud of, my heritage.
Regarding Mazeltov, although “Good luck” is an appropriate translation, I sense it is offered more in the vein of “Congratulations”, as it is, indeed, a celebration of something good, or a festive occasion, that has happened to the individual it is said to.
My two cents: “yeshive bocher” (both words from Hebrew), meaning those youths (male) who spent all their waking hours studying the Old Testament and Jumesh and Tanaj, the compilation of comments of rabbis and learned men.
And, I don’t remember if anybody included it, but “bris” is the name given to the ceremony of circumcission.
What I wanted to comment is that the influx of Yiddish words is so much more significant into English than it is in Spanish, my native tongue. With the exception of very few words, as for instance tuches, yarmulka, bris, Spanish has not incorporated much from Yiddish. Perhaps the size of the Jewish communities in Latin America may have something to do with it, or even the structure of the Spanish language. This leads me to the observation made by someone that Ladino is a “funny language”. I don’t really see how it is “funny”. Ladino is nothing but Middle Ages Spanish (of about the time Jews were expelled from Spain).
@Roberta: “hak nit in kop”: literal translation is “don’t hit me on the head” and we used it as “don’t try my patience” or “don’t insist” “stop bothering me”, “enough already”.
And to close my comment, Merriam-Webster (and many other dictionaries as well) has incorporated as parts of the English language and vocabulary, many words originating or borrowed from Yiddish and acknowledged as such in its etymology.
Has anyone ever heard the term cumma lemma like a schulb not very motivated person. Maybe I am spelling it wrong, would love any input. Heard it a lot growing up from my Jewish relatives.