About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog

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!