By Hugh Rawson
Yiddish has enriched the English language with many lively, often earthy contributions to everyday speech. A previous post listed a number of examples of what is sometimes called Yinglish. Here are some more:
kibitz. To look on at a card game or other activity in an officious way; by extension, to stick one’s nose into another person’s business. The person who does this is a kibitzer. The word stems from the German name of a bird, kiebitz, the lapwing or pewit, a member of the plover family. The lapwing has long symbolized forwardness because it is so active so soon after hatching. This is the bird that is often portrayed in cartoons as running around with its head still in its shell.
kvetch. To complain, to gripe, to whine, or as a noun, a person who is constantly complaining, usually about little things. Technically, the male of this species is a kvetcher, the female a kvetcherkeh, but most people do not bother making this distinction, simply saying that he or she is a kvetch.
meshuga (also mashuga, meshuga, meshuggah, meshugge, and so on). Crazy, mad, stupid, absurd, both as a noun and an adjective. “Meshuggah. Off his chump” (James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922). A crazy man also may be dismissed as a meshuggener and his female counterpart as a meshuggeneh.
nudnick. An irritating bore, a pest. The –nik, meaning “one who,” has taken on a life of its own as a derogatory suffix, as in beatnik (coined by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen in 1958), no-goodnik, and peacenik. The suffix was imprinted on the consciousness of Americans by the shocking (to them) orbiting in 1957 of the first Russian Sputnik.
putz. A stupid fellow, a fool, a jerk; also a slang term for the penis, and for this reason, as Leo Rosten cautions in The Joys of Yiddish (1968), “Putz is not to be used lightly, or when women or children are around.”
schlep (also schlepp, shlep). To haul, to drag, to pull; the one who does the schlepping is a schlepper. Shleppers Moving & Storage, a well-established New York City firm (“Reliable Movers Since 1978”), defines the verb on its website this way: “to move; carry; lug (to shlep a sofa).” As nouns, schlep and schlepper describe a beggar or worthless person, often an untidy one. “Hike up your slip; straighten your seams; you look like a shlepper” (Rosten, Joys of Yiddish).
schlock (schlack, shlock). Shoddy, trashy merchandise originally, but since extended to intangibles, such as schlock fiction and schlock entertainment. Schlocky goods may be sold in a schlock house, joint, or shop by a schlockmeister.
schlong (shlong). The penis or a person, considered contemptuously; an American slang version of the Yiddish shlang, snake. “’You,’ she said…are a putz…a schmuck, a schlong…’” (Judith Krantz, Scruples, 1978).
schlump (schloomp, shlump). A slob, a fool; sometimes used affectionately or sympathetically. I don’t know why but I loved the poor shlump.
schmaltz (shmalz, shmaltz, and so on). Excessive sentimentality, especially as manifested in entertainment and the arts; from the German schmaltz, meaning “fat,” “drippings,” referring to melted fat, usually chicken, used in cooking. The music that is piped into elevators is almost always pure schmaltz.
schmeer (schmear, schmere, shmeer, etc.) To spread a substance on someone or something, or the substance itself. I like a bagel with a schmeer of cream cheese. By extension, to flatter or to bribe. I was shocked when I heard an author say he might be able to schmeer an editor. From the German schmiere, grease, bribe.
schmooze (shmoos, schmooze, shmues). A long, friendly conversation or the act of engaging in one; an Americanization of the Yiddish shmues, to chat, to gossip, from the Hebrew shĕmūʽah, rumor, idle talk.
schnorrer (shnorrer, shnorer). A beggar, from the schnurren, to go begging, with many extended meanings, all derogatory: a moocher, a cheapskate, a chisler, a good-for-nothing who expects to live off his relatives. “All you need to do is confide in one ‘yenta’ that your son’s father is a ‘schnorrer’ and word will get around” (Dear Abby, Feb. 2, 2012). And see yenta below.
schnozz. The nose, especially a large and unattractive one; from the German schnauzer, snout. Jimmy Durante (1893-1980), the American comedian, singer, and piano player, was known as The Schnoz or The Great Schnozzola. He had one that Cyrano de Bergerac would have envied.
tochus (tochas, tochis, tokas, tockes, tuchis, etc .). The rear end (of a person); the ass, buttock, or anus. The anatomical term commonly is euphemized as tush, tushie, and tushy, or further hidden by initials, as in T.L., standing for tochus lekker, which can be translated as “backside licker” or, still more discreetly, as “apple polisher.”
tsatske / tchotchke. A trinket, bauble, toy, plaything, or miscellaneous item, often tacky and of no great worth; also a pretty woman, a chick or babe, a sexy but brainless female. Tsatskeleh / tchotchkeleh are affectionate diminutives. The two basic forms of the word are used interchangeably.
yenta (yente, yenteh). A coarse woman, addicted to gossip; a noisy busybody, scold, or shrew. The earliest citation in The Oxford English Dictionary refers to “The slattern yentehs lounging on the stoops.” (A. Yezierska, Salome of the Tenements, 1923). This term has fallen a long way down the social ladder. It comes from a personal name, Yentl, which, in turn, derives from the Italian gentile, kind, gentle, and before that, high-born, noble.
And in conclusion:
zaftig (zoftig, zoftic, zoftick). A physically well-rounded woman; from the German zaftig, juicy. It is impossible to improve on Leo Rosten’s explanation: “Zaftig describes in one word what it takes two hands, outlining an hourglass figure, to do.”
This post was written before Hugh’s sad death earlier this month; we are publishing it now, with his family’s permission, as we believe it is what he would have wanted.