Speaking of Yiddish

By Hugh Rawson

Tough and loud, brash and irreverent, full of humor and chutzpah – he was our city’s quintessential mayor. — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking at the funeral of former Mayor Edward I. Koch, Feb. 4, 2013

Chutzpah, pronounced HUTS-pah or KHOOTS-pah to rhyme with FOOTS-pah — is a wonderfully vibrant word and one of the leading contributions of Yiddish to English. Its explosive sound – you can practically hear the fireworks going off — gives added impact to its meaning: brazen impudence, gall, sheer nerve. The classic example of chutzpah (aside from Mayor Koch) is that of the man who murdered his parents, then asked the court for mercy because he was an orphan.

Chutzpah and its cousins are relatively recent additions to the vocabulary of English-speakers. The earliest examples in the historically organized Oxford English Dictionary of chutzpah and a number of others, including nosh (to nibble or eat), schlemiel (a clumsy person, a misfit, a “loser”), and schmuck (a contemptible or detestable person, an idiot), come from the  portrayal of Jewish life by the British writer Israel Zangwill in his 1892 novel, Children of the Ghetto. (Zangwill also popularized the melting pot as a metaphor for the mixing of nationalities and ethnic groups in the United States when he used that phrase as the title of a play in 1914.)

Chutzpah and most other Yiddish expressions were not employed with much frequency by English speakers until well into the twentieth century. This is clearly revealed by Google’s Ngram viewer, which shows usage of words in books since 1800 in graph form.  In chutzpah’s case, the usage line is flat until about 1960, when it begins to climb steeply.       

Following is a lightly annotated list of some common Yiddish terms that are well worth adding to one’s linguistic arsenal if they are not already there:

goy. A non-Jew, a Gentile; in the plural, goyim. A neutral word in Hebrew, meaning “nation” or “people,” in Yiddish goy often implies coarseness or stupidity. To be told that one is behaving like a goy (goyish) or has goy brains (goyisheh kop) is not a compliment.

kosher. Perfectly correct, genuine, on the up-and-up; from the Hebrew kāshēr, right, fit to eat, according to Jewish dietary laws.

mensch. A person of great integrity and noble character. Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish (1968),  a discursive dictionary that should be consulted by anyone who wants to pursue this subject further, also was an economist,  novelist, screenwriter, and columnist. Admirers called him a Renaissance mensch.

nosh. The word can be used either as a noun or verb, meaning a snack or the consumption of it.  A nosher is one who eats between meals.

schlemiel (also schlemiel, schlemiehl, shlemihl). A foolish, clumsy person, especially one who is consistently unlucky. The word may derive from the name of a Biblical general, Shelumiel, who always managed to lose battles while other generals were winning.

schlimazel (schlimazl, schlimazzl, and others). An extremely unlucky person. To make a fine distinction: A schlemiel is the fellow who climbs up a ladder with a bucket of paint, then drops it. The fellow on whose head it falls is the schlimazel.

schmo.  An idiot, a jerk; not a true Yiddish word but a euphemism for the more vulgar schmuck. (The schm- formation also is used as a deprecatory element in rhyming slang; for example: fancy-schmancy or trust-schmust, as in He says we can trust him, but I have to say, “Trust-schmust.”

schmuck (schmock, shmock, shmuck).  An idiot, a jerk, a thoroughly obnoxious fellow; a vulgar word retaining strong overtones of the original Yiddish meaning, penis, in turn from the German schmuck, ornament.  As  Leo Rosten noted in Joys of Yiddish, “it was uneasiness about shmuck that led to the truncated euphemism shmo – and any shmo knows what shmo comes from. . . . I never heard any elders, certainly not my father or mother, use shmuck, which was regarded as so vulgar as to be taboo.” Of course, Rosten was referring to a previous generation and notions of what is taboo have loosed a lot since then.

schnook (schnuck, shnook). A pathetic, timid person, especially one who is easily cheated and therefore to be pitied; a dope, sap, or sucker. The array of meanings is in keeping with the word’s probable origin, deriving from the German schnucke, a little sheep.

shiksa (shicksa, shiksah, shikse, shikseh). A female goy, and not at all complimentary. The term derives from the Hebrew šiqṣâ, detested (feminine) thing. A secret fear of many a Jewish mother is that a blonde, blue-eyed shiksa is lying in wait for her son.

shtik (schtick, schtik, shtick).  A routine piece of stage business or patter, from the German stuck, piece. Popularized in the theater, the term has been extended to particular activities and interests in other spheres of life, often with slightly disparaging implications, as in  “the whole female shtick” (Time, Dec. 19, 1977) or, getting back to where we started with Mayor Koch, “Covering him was, more than anything else, a  balancing act: not letting the shtick overwhelm the substance” (The New York Times, Feb. 2, 2013).

And for those readers who have pursued thus far:

mazeltov (with many variant spellings  from the Hebrew mazel, luck, and tov, good), or as the goyim say:  Congratulations!


24 thoughts on “Speaking of Yiddish

    1. Glad you liked the article — and so good to hear from you. Meshuggah, complete with an example from James Joyce, is covered in a forthcoming installment on Yiddish.

  1. Jim Worth

    There is a negative element in the meaning/use of shiksa, goy, goyim which might be compared with kike and yid. But while the latter have long been banned from general [as well as polite] conversation, the former are commonly used, whether humorously or not, with no self consciousness or restraint.

    1. I think a lot depends on who says the words and in what tone of voice. Also, it is much easier for a Jew to get away with applying these terms to other Jews than it is for a goy. “Kike” seems to have been popularized by assimilated German Jews, who applied it to the newcomers from eastern Europe, whom they looked down upon. Giving the flavor of the term: Dore Shary quoted Louis B. Mayer in his autobiography, “Heyday,” as starting off a meeting by saying, “Sit down and I’ll tell you everything, you little kike.” As for “Yid,” it was traditionally used by Jews when referring to themselves. As explained in J. C. Hotten’s “Slang Dictionary’ (1874): “‘Yid,’ or ‘Yit,’ a Jew. ‘Yidden,’ the Jewish people. The Jews use these term very frequently.” Pronunciation also is critical. Rosten notes that the word should be pronounced YEED, to rhyme with “deed.” YID, to rhyme with :did,” is offensive because that’s how anti-Semites pronounce it. Chaim Weizmann, first president of Israel, sometimes described himself as just “a Yid from Pinsk.”

    2. I would NEVER refer to a gentile or non-Jewish friend, (or foe) a “goy” or a blonde woman as a “shiksa”, any more than I’d address friends from another minority group with old, now verboten, terms. I used to hear those terms tossed around by boys on the playground of my elementary school (along with a few choice words for me, as one of only 2 or 3 Jewish kids in the school). A neighbor girl I was friends with at one point, used the “N-word”, and immediately after that, my mom gave her a little “talk”, and the girl ran home in tears. Needless to say, we never hung out together again.

  2. The complexity of Yiddish is reflected in one of Ed Koch’s favorite phrases, “Sei gezind.” (Pronounced “ZIGH” [rhymes with “sigh”] “guh-ZINT.”) The literal meaning is “Be healthy,” but Koch would use it to break off a conversation or a relationship, meaning “Go have a life of your own and stay out of mine; we have nothing in common.” In short, it’s an insult delivered in the form of good wishes.

    As for the migration of Yiddish into English, I think the 1960s date is not accidental. Especially in New York and Los Angeles, Jewish artists were prominent in theatre, music, film, broadcasting, and popular entertainment from the early decades of the 20th century. But they usually changed their names, to mask their heritage, and used Yiddish only in front of Jewish audiences, if at all. By the ’60s, however, artists felt that “ethnic is in.” Barbra Streisand dropped an “a” from her first name, but kept her family name, her prominent nose, and her New Yawk accent. Leonard Bernstein, the first American-born music director of the New York Philharmonic, set Hebrew verse to music. And comedians began telling Yiddish jokes on TV, to say nothing of You Tube.

    1. I suspect the sprinkling of Yiddish in the works of such writers as S.J. Perelman, J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Jerome Weidman, Philip Roth, and Bud Schulberg also had a lot to do with the migration of Yiddish into everyday English.

  3. Delfin

    Great article, of course, and per usual. I miss a brief history of the language in the US and its importance today, which I believe has declined. Isaak Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), Nobel Prize in Lit., wrote his work in Yiddish in New York, as we all know. He is a source of information on Yiddish lore.
    Let us not forget Yehudi Menuhin either.
    Thank your.

    1. As a New Yorker, I can assure you that Yiddish is still the everyday language of local Hassidic communities: South Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park, all in Brooklyn, plus the Orthodox communities in suburban Rockland County. Residents also speak English and pray in Hebrew, but the old lingua franca is still very much alive.

      1. Yiddish terms also appear frequently in The New York Times and other English-language publications. My post sampled some of those that members of the general public are most likely to encounter.

      2. I worked and studied in NYC (living in Brooklyn) for 16 years, and I’m pretty sure that all the Yiddish words I know I learned from Jewish and Gentile friends (of all shapes and colors) while living in The City. I recall an article in the NY Times about the use of “Yidlish”, and their theory was spot on, I believe. They said simply that English-speakers enjoy using Yiddish words because they’re fun to pronounce. Especially with all the words that begin with “sh” sounds. Lots of fun. Growing up as a Reform Jew in a SoCal town outside Pasadena, I only heard a few words my maternal gramma and her poker-playing pals used. Unfortunately, I did get “picked on” in NY, because of what they referred to as my “white bread” upbringing. My grandparents and great-grandparents were born her in the US. My paternal granny was born in Chicago, but moved with her family to Birmingham, AL as a youngster. She was reared to be a “proper southern belle”, or so my great-grandpa had hoped. Instead, he had a head strong, renegade of a daughter, who dared to elope with an immigrant. He was Jewish, but that didn’t help my granny’s cause. When she returned home to get her belongings, she was locked in her bedroom by my great-grandfather Henry, who was a genuine putz! I think she was “grounded” for a week or so, until her new husband returned to get her, using some kind of “secret method” to break her out. They left Alabama, and headed over to Georgia, my dad’s home state. I think my mixture of Southern roots, and my mom’s Northeastern youth, with her parents being from Boston (but residing in a Northern New Jersey suburb of NYC) I had an odd way of saying things, which my mom, an English Lit major, tried so hard to make me pronounce things in a NE “accent”.
        Still, there was no Yiddish. However, I have my life in NY State and City to thank for my [limited] Yiddish vocabulary.
        Zie Gezundt, y’all!

    1. And thank you for your comment. I’m afraid that even a brief history of Yiddish in the U.S. would be too long for a blog post. I probably should have included Singer, however, in the list of writers in my note above about the migration of Yiddish into English. And that list is just a sampling. Others include Judith Krantz, Meyer Levin, and Norman Mailer.

  4. A dear friend tells me that only a klutz would omit “klutz” from a list of common Yiddish words. My Cambridge editor agrees. So here goes: A klutz is a bumbler, a bungler, a clumsy person, a fool. The word derives from the German “klotz,” a block (of wood), via the Yiddish “kluhts,” a log. This makes the YIddish “klutz” the functional and linguistic equivalent of the English “blockhead.”

  5. carmin

    I hope you will not consider me a tokhis leker if I comment that I enjoyed your article and would love to learn more.

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  8. I miss it badly, as now I live in a non-Jewish area of CA. I was speaking it at a local Chabad shul, but that did not work out, so now I am at a loss as to where I can still speak it. It is a pity, as I am getting more and more rusty.

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