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”
for #3, bubbe (bobe), you noted that bubbele is not in dictionaries – that’s because the -l (-el in transliteration) is a diminutive form. -le is even more so. for example, if a child’s name is chanah (hannah), a grandmother might call her chanele (KHah-nuh-luh) as an affectionate nickname. see also yentl (like the movie, from yenta), or kindl (little child, from kind, not to be confused with the amazon kindle). it won’t be in a dictionary… because it’s a morphological form of another word. that’s all =)
also, if you’re interested in any books on yiddish, look for anything written by neil jacobs or david neal miller, my yiddish professors from the ohio state university. brilliant gentlemen.
Tribalism that has wreaked havoc wherever it went. Do you think that when they decided to despise someone, they picked a “J” out of the hat?
Another fine example of superstition and tribalism that has plagued the Middle East for centuries.
If anyone would like to further delve into and profoundly understand alittle about Yiddish Civilization and its influence upon the world and the world’s influence upon the rise and fall of a forgotten nation, Paul Kriwaczek wrote a great book entitled:
Yiddish Civilization: The Rise & Fall of A Forgotten Nation, A Vintage Book 2005 ISBN10:1-40000-3377-2
I love Yiddish for the descriptive nature of the words. They are words with meaning and depth. I am not a Jew but I use these words all the time to fill in for the lack of words in the English language to cover these descriptions and emotions.
Great stuff. Great webpage. Thanks!
Words I’ve known so long I had no idea other people didn’t know them. And I’m a gentile, nonetheless.
Great list. Most of these I hadn’t heard off and the a few that I did I didn’t really know where they came from
I grew up in a Toledo ‘burb with a large Jewish population and lived in New York, so Yiddish (and Italian) expressions are part of my vocab. However, when I attempt to acquaint anthropology and cultural geography students with Yiddish words and phrases at the university where I teach, I am greeted with the blank, unknowing stares of the clueless. Here in the Heartland such rich language is practically absent. Perhaps the incessant two-thumb texting that pervades our campuses (what the hell are they saying) serves to narrow the verbal capabilities of the young to a truncated lingo that has turned their expression into a new and sterile teen-speak devoid of the rich meanings of the past. “LOL” etc. – feh!
@AltMichael – I beg to differ. I grew up in a community with a large Jewish population, and while I am goyische, they became a regular part of my vocabulary. One day I was cleaning house with my German born mother-in-law and told my daughter to clean the schmutz off the floor, and my MIL demanded to know how I knew German words!
I use schmutz, schmaltz, schtick, tuchus, tchotchke, spiel, chutzpah, and many more on a daily basis without thinking.
Kishkeh is literally intestine. The kishkeh that some people eat (NOT ME!) is the intestine of a cow stuffed like a sausage but with grains, spices, probably onions fried in schmaltz. The stuffed kishkeh is then cooked in a pot with vegetables and water.
Lo aleynu, but a lot of people love it.
Sottish haggis resembles it.
I really enjoyed this. Now I keep the site in my favorates. Thanks.
Shabbat Shalom from Israel.
Now that it’s almost Purim this word is heard every day in the meaning “play” as in performance. The “Purim Speil” is the re-enactment of the story of Queen Esther and her Uncle Mordechai who saved the Jews in ancient Persia under King Achashverosh and the evil Haman.
“Nu” is really used to mean “Hurry up” or “What’s taking you so long?” Most people would say the official definition is “What are you waiting for, the Messiah?”
You left out the one I use the most, “keinohorah”, meaning “without the evil eye”. It is kind of the Jewish equivalent of “knock wood”.
“Machatunim” should be included because there is no English equivalent. When two people are married, his parents’ machatunim are her parents and vise/versa.
how about tserdrait..meaning mad.
love that word. usually accompanied with a Bissel.
so discriptive of a neurotic person.
I think this is an awesome website, i grew up with Yiddish and Hebrew in my family and i think they are a beautiful language.
It would really add to the functionality of this site if people (like me) could email articles (like this) to our friends…easily. Any plans?
Just a thought…
By the way, kosher is required for all jews, not just observant ones. Though they may be the ones who keep Kosher, that does not mean it is not required for everyone. That is like saying it is only required of upstanding people to drive within the speed limit. It is required for everyone, but only some people actually do it :).
Can you have pronunciations on all of the words?
I think many Yiddish words are like onomatapoeias (sp?) – or – words that sound like their meanings. It is the picturesque quality of the language that is so appealing to me.
great article, i think that one word in yiddish sums up everything, i am an irish catholic, and i love to speak yiddish.
Eric H. Roth
Great list! The curious might find Leo Rosten’s book “The Joy of Yiddish” worth browsing through.
my husband loves to say he’s kibbitzing ….only he doesn’t realize it but he’s pronouncing it wrong. it’s KIB butz ….not ke BITZ. the emphasis is on the first syllable. so it’s KIBBIT zing….not Ke BITTZING.
Actually, “shikse” is derogatory, even more in Yiddish than in English. The meaning of the word is NOT “non-Jewish woman” and it certainly doesn’t mean “beautiful.” It’s an insult.
A shlemiel is someone who can fall on his back and break his nose.
A few more:
Putz = schmuck
nebbish, he’s a nebbish, a nothing, no personality.
Gesundt, as in, a gesundt (or gezundt) on old people. Health, straight from German.
Schmatte, schmahte, rags, where did you get that schmatte? You couldn’t dress up?
A tchochka in its diminutive, tchochkale or tchochkele, a plaything, sometimes a gentile you’re playing with but won’t marry.
drek, literally feces, but garbage you want in any event.
I think I read in Philip Roth that he grew up thinking the word “aggravation” was Yiddish–and literally I did, too. Helped but not remedied with a seltzer.
Cronk, sick, a bisl cronk is what you are right before you die in some dialects. He was a bisl cronk, alov ha-shalom. (rest in peace).
Poylishe, a way some have to talk to certain gentiles.
Crook, worse than a gonif.
Eyin harah, the evil eye, straight from the Hebrew.
Punnim, or poonim, face, usually cute.
Sheyne, or sheynie, beautiful. A sheynie kop. Beautiful head, but more like cute, a real beauty, a sweetie.
Kugl, overly romanticized hard noodle casserole, sometimes onions, sometimes sugar, but not my favorite.
Kishke, a dumpling with meat stuffed in it, and therefore kishkes are testicles. I got to pronounce this at a spelling bee to a sixth grader during a year Scripps-Howard emphasized foreign words in English, and I looked forward to the kid asking me to use it in a sentence. He thought he’d freeze his kishkes off.
Nice list! I studied Yiddish briefly in university and it’s a fascinating language that’s rapidly dying. My bubbe speaks it, but she’s 93. It is mostly cribbed from German, but it also blends in bits of other languages like Russian and Hebrew.
Pronunciation is key with Yiddish. Saying a Yiddish word the wrong way ruins the effect. Getting the “ch” of “chutzpah” makes the difference! Since some letter combinations used in Yiddish don’t exist in English, it can be tricky. The “tz”, for example; although it can be found in the “zz” of pizza.
The other key piece to Yiddish is Yiddish curses. There’s a fantastic book full of them I used to have but which has disappeared somewhere. The most well known (I think) is “gay kaken aufen yam” which translates to “go take a sh** in the ocean,” but there are much more colorful ones. I did a search on Amazon for the book, but can’t seem to find it.
The other one I remember is “May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground!”
You forgot the worst and most used of them all:
schvatza from the german word schvatz or schwartz meaning “black” albeit, it has a derogatory meaning similar to the “N” word. Not to be used at all in my opinion.
by the way, a schmuck in german mean jeweler and is still used today on storefronts and small jewelry repair shops
I saw some of these and immediately thought of the nadsat language Burgess invented in “A Clockwork Orange” – mentsh, for instance. I had no idea it came from Yiddish!
I always thought shtik was spelled schtick, in German style, but the mavens at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research have standardized the spelling. Actually, we’re all wrong. The correct spelling is שטיק. So nu.
Most (but not all) of these words would be inappropriate to use in English, because they are not established borrowings in the English language. The purpose of language is communication, so if you use foreign words, you will not be understood. (By “foreign words” I do not mean words of foreign origin. The origin of a word is not relevant, only whether it is an English word today.)
Also, I found that many of them are appropriate only for Jews to use. Being a non-Jew, I would never use the word “goy”. I think it’s silly to try to sound Jewish, unless you really are Jewish.
To settle the origins questions (Linguistics was my college major), Yiddish is classified as a “High Germanic” language. The only other one being Modern Standard German. It is really a Jewish form of Middle High German. There have been Jewish versions of other languages as well. The reason that Jews had their own versions of a language is because they were segregated for most of European history. Like species, languages tend to diverge when groups of speakers become isolated from each other.
Finally, Yiddish is the only Germanic language that is not written in the Roman alphabet. It is written in the Hebrew alphabet. Writing systems have nothing to do with the origins or relatedness of languages.
(BTW, it’s Hebrew that is related to Arabic, not Yiddish. Both are members of the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic languages.)