27 May 2010

Dress British; Think Yiddish

I stole the title of this post from Gene Simmons--the Israeli-born frontman of KISS who once trained to be a rabbi. Simmons claims the key to being successful is to "dress British; think Yiddish." I kind of wonder if he isn't referring to the Yiddish term Yiddische Kof--literally "a Jewish head", which refers to being shrewd--as opposed to a "Goyische Kopf, " which is, well, a Yiddish phrase that means to not be quite so shrewd, but that's besides the point.

I dress anything but British--my style is more fashion inept dork--but I am somewhat over half Jewish (We argue about how much is on my dad's side, but my mom is full-blooded) and I practice Judaism, so I like to think that I think Yiddish. To that end, I also love to use Yiddish. It's a rich language with so many wonderful expressions--and heaps of delightful insults--and I think it is an absolute shame that Yiddish is dying out. Therefore, my dear readers, I want to introduce you to the joys of Yiddish with a small sampler of this delightful language.

I will start off by saying that this is by all means not an exhaustive list of Yiddish words. I would also like to add that I have excluded a few words just because, well, to be honest, Yiddish has a lot of profanity in it (Waaaaaay more than you guys would think and some of the more famous Yiddish words--like "schmuck" and "putz"--are actually very vulgar and would never ever be used in polite company. Therefore, for the sake of not having my younger readers' parents try to kill me for corrupting their kids' minds with Yiddish profanity, I have left the more loaded words off.)

And with that, I give you my list of favorite Jewish words, many of which describe specific personality types perfectly. ^^

chazzer--a pig. Chazzer refers to someone who either eats like a pig or acts like one by being slovenly, coarse, or greedy: "Look at that chazzer! He has a banana peel on his suit!"

chutzpah--audacity/brashness. Many people use chutzpah as a synonym for "courage" but actually this word has a very negative connotation in Yiddish. Someone with chutzpah is someone who has presumptuously crossed the line. Being told you have a lot of chutzpah is the equivalent of having an old lady shake her fist at you and shout "You got some nerve!" Feel free to use chutzpah in this context next time you get cut off while in traffic.

draycup--someone who is perpetually confused to a spectacular level. (Like, as one example I read puts it, someone who doesn't just lose her keys but loses her car in the process.) Perfect for describing a spacey airhead: "My sister is such a draycup!"

kibbitz: (verb) to butt in and provide unwanted advice. I believe all mothers do this at some point in their lives. :P Kibbitz describes the act of providing this advice. A kibbitzer is someone who is kibbitzing: "That kibbitzer has kibbitzed for the last time!"

klutz: a clumsy person. I am a klutz. If people look at you when you enter in a room not because of your graceful entrance but because you trip over the carpet and smash Grandma's antique Ming vase, you are also a klutz.

kvell: to be proud of an accomplishment (either your own or others'): The key to kvelling is the intense accompanying urge to tell everyone else about said accomplishment. When your parents embarrass you by telling your next-door neighbor that you won your school spelling bee, they are kvelling. When you tell your cousin that you stole her boyfriend, you are kvelling . . . maybe.

kvetch: to chronically and excessively complain. The noun for someone who kvetches is kvetcher. ("That kvetcher never shuts up!" "Don't kvetch about it anymore!"). This word literally means "to squeeze". Anyone who has ever been subjected to a kvetcher knows exactly what this feels like. :P

maven: an expert. Like many Yiddish words that are not blatant insults, this seems like a relatively innocuous phrase, but it's actually just another insult. (Yeah, we Jews have fully earned our reputation as sharp-tongued.) Maven is rarely used as a compliment, as in "You're such a maven!". Usually it is used as shorthand for "know-it-all." Next time your brother-in-law offers to fix your car and causes $3000 worth of damage instead, congratulate him on being such a maven. :P

meshugganer: a crazy person. This is a fun word, because there are so many variations. The adjective for crazy is meshuggah, and insanity itself is mishegas. Next time you're tempted to twirl your fingers at your ear to indicate that someone is a loon, instead exclaim, "Can you believe this meshuggah mushugganer's mishegas?!"

nebbish: a loser. This is one of my favorite Yiddish words. A nebbish is a someone who is so pathetic you really sorry for him, yet he is so annoying you can't stand him. Woody Allen often plays a nebbish.

noodge: to pester/whine. Noodge is also a noun that refers to someone who noodges. "I heard you the first time! Stop being such a noodge!

nosh: to snack. This is just a cute word! What sounds better: "I am going to eat some pretzels" or "I am going to nosh on pretzels"?

nu: This doesn't have an actual translation. Usually, nu is used to indicate "Well" or "So": "That is interesting, nu?"; "Nu? Why should I care?" Depending on the context, nu can mean anything from "Hello" to "Huh?" to "Duh!" It works for any occasion. Next time you feel like being cryptic, respond to everyone statements with a simple "Nu?"

nudnik: a pest. A nudnik is just annoying. Younger siblings are prime candidates for nudnik status.

oy: Like nu, this is a word with several meanings. Usually it is an outburst that indicates frustration or anger or exhaustion. "Oy! I just got beat up by a zombie ninja penguin!" but it can also be a good outburst: "Oy! I defeated a zombie ninja penguin in hand-to-hand combat!"

plotz: This is a word that has some controversy attached to it. I have always heard it as "faint" usually in frustration/anger--"Don't tell grandma. She'll plotz!"--but sometimes in a good way--"I was so surprised, I nearly plotzed!" During my study for this post, I learned that plotz actually literally means "explode" and some Jews use it solely in this context, which usually indicates anger: "ARGGGGGH! That idiot telemarketer makes me want to plotz!" Either way, it is a cool word to indicate strong emotion. Next time your mother yells at you, beg her not to plotz. (Well, maybe don't do that. She is liable to plotz if you say that.) :P

schlemazel: a born loser. Schlemazels have horrible luck. A schlemazel is someone who, to quote my father, can't win for losing. No matter what he does, it never works.

schlemiel: an incompetent, inept person. A schlemiel is someone who screws everything up no matter how simple the task is. To tie in with the previous entry, an old Yiddish saying says a schlemiel is the guy who always spills his soup. A schlemazel is the guy whom the schlemiel always spills his soup on.

schlep: to drag/carry something. Originally in order to schlep, one had to be carrying/dragging something somewhere. ("I'm schlepping my luggage to the airport.") Now schlep is also used to to indicate that one is dragging oneself. ("I'm schlepping to my next class.") As the definition indicates, the pace of a schlep would not cut it in most P.E. classes.

schlock: junk. There are several Yiddish words to indicate that something is worthless. Some of them literally mean than the object in question is a piece of crap, others--like schlock--just indicate that something is cheaply made and of dubious quality: "What did you pay for that schlock?"

schlub: an unattractive, stupid person. You may have noticed that a lot of Yiddish words call into question one's intellectual abilities, but I am not sure any of them sound quite as insulting as schlub. ("Rachel's boyfriend is such a schlub.")

schmaltz: Literally, this word refers to goose fat drippings, but it is commonly used to describe something that is overly sentimental, like most Disney movies. Next time you watch a heartwarming film and are feeling cynical, disrupt everyone's bragging on it by saying, "I thought it was too schmaltzy." And if you're feeling really mean or just really like Yiddish, try "I thought it was schmaltzy schlock." (or "schlocky schmaltz" if you prefer.)

schnook: an unusually meek/gullible person. You know that kid down the street who bursts into tears if you blink at him? He is a schnook. Your friend who always falls for April Fool's jokes is also a schnook. The guy who believes you when you tell him you have a bridge in Brooklyn that you want to sell is a major schnook.

schnorrer: a beggar/leech. This one is pretty self-explanatory based on the definition. We all know a schnorrer. Next time your no-count brother-in-law tries to borrow money from you, tell him to stop being a schnorrer and get a job.

yekke: a German Jew. I am a yekke. My maternal great-grandparents hailed from Berlin and Munich. You're probably wondering why German Jews have earned themselves their own name. Well, much as how Germans are stereotyped as being humorless and excessively efficient, we yekkes are stereotyped by other Jews as being freakishly obsessed with details and punctuality. This is a stereotype that cuts both ways. On one hand, we yekkes pride ourselves on our reputation. We think our meticulous thoroughness is a good thing. Other Jews think we're overbearing, condescending, and petty. I suppose some yekkes dislike this characterization of us, but I kind of like the look of holy terror that other Jews develop when I tell them I'm a yekke. *crafty smile* I would argue this is just a stereotype, but I fit the yekke stereotype to a tee, so there you go. Next time one of you catch me having an online meltdown over an incorrect fact or a semicolon, you have my permission to say, "Zella, stop being so yekkish!"

yente: a shrew. Many people think this word means matchmaker. Um, no. At one time, Yente was a perfectly respectable Yiddish name for girls. Eventually, it became an insult that describes a woman who gossips and talks incessantly. The confusion comes from the movie Fiddler on the Roof, because the village matchmaker is named Yente. The character's name is actually a play on the name and the insult, but many people incorrectly assumed a yente was a Jewish matchmaker. Never call a Jewish woman this to her face, but feel free to use it to describe a very disagreeable woman behind her back. :P

Based on Scott's suggestion, I was going to post a list of the words from Weird Al Yankovic's "Pretty Fly for a Rabbi", but when I googled the lyrics, I found this handy guide that already had the Yiddish words translated. It's a pretty good list, but in true yekkish fashion, I must add two notes: schtik, more correctly translated, is a gimmicky act or persona a performer is famous for, sort of like how Groucho Marx is famous for his insults and eyebrows. Also, "shicksa" is a misspelling of the word shiksa, though they got the definition right.

Now that you have read this list, I believe a party is in order. We shall dine upon bagels and listen to "Pretty Fly for a Rabbi" incessantly! *cranks up music*

P.S. In a language that is so rich in insults, you may be wondering if we even have a word that is a genuine compliment without underlying sarcasm. Yes, we do! We really do! No joke. The word is mensch. To be called a mensch by a Jew is the greatest compliment you could ever receive (and, as you may have noticed, is much better than some of the alternatives ^^). A mensch is an honest, honorable person who is a true friend. I consider all of my Blogger pals to be mensches. :)

What is your favorite Yiddish word?


  1. I love Yiddish. I'm attempting to learn Yiddish with a teacher but it's a slow process to get all of these Hebrew sounds out of my mouth and let the soft yearnings of my heritage escape.

    While I hate to kvetsh (who am I kidding, I'm Jewish), you could improve your Yiddish by using correct transliterations.


    For example, if you want to correct the spelling of "shicksa" then we might as well correct all of the misspellings according to that YIVO-based transliteration guide. Of course most of these words are used in Yinglish -- is a bisl Yiddish thrown into an otherwise English sentence. You might write "schmooze" and it should be written "shmooze" without that false crutch of the 'sch'. In actuality, it should be written shmues, the real Yiddish word.

    But maybe that's too much to expect, especially when so many of these words are now in English-language dictionaries, often spelled the way you use them.

    If you want to pursue more accurate uses of Yiddish, one could still approach it a little more academically. I would start by getting rid of double consonants (chazzer->chazer, shnorrer->shnorer). You could then move to correct vowel transliterations (schnook->shnuk).

    abi gezunt!

  2. Seeing this post and all the wonderful learning therein nearly made me plotz, Zella! I'm so glad you posted it! I think my favorite is noodge, but I liked nosh as well!
    It's also interesting how many words we use, sometimes regularly, that I didn't know were Yiddish. Like klutz, and schlep, and putz. Although maybe others know that these are Yiddish, and I'm just a draycup.

  3. wezzz, Never apologize for kvetching! I love to kvetch myself! Thanks for the link! I was familiar with some of the other spellings but some of them I have never seen before. *feels like a fool* I debated about how to write the transliterations of the ones I knew had alternative spellings, but I decided to go with the more familiar spellings, even if they are not the exact way they're spelled traditionally just because they do help non-Jews with the pronounciations and also because they seem to be more common. I will definitely start playing with this YIVO transliteration. *has a yekkish delight in detail* Good luck with the Yiddish lessons! Those sound fun. :)

    Scott, You're welcome! Noodge is a good one. I am also fond of schnook. Another Yiddish word that many people do not know is Yiddish is glitch. :)

  4. Very nice Zella, my vocabulary is so much larger now! I didn't realize some of these words were originally Yiddish, like klutz. I am also a klutz. People generally consider me rather graceful, until I break a dish or trip over my own feet, etc. :D

    Oh, you're part German too? *high fives*

    There's a word in Arabic that's rather like "nu". *thinks* If I can remember it later I'll post it, it's such a useful word. :D

  5. Thanks, Feathery! Glad you enjoyed it! I firmly believe we klutzes should stick together. We can pick each other up when the other trips and falls . . .

    *returns high-five* Yes! I am part-German. My mother, as I said in the post, is German-Jewish and my father is a combo of Sephardic (Spanish) Jewish, English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch, and Cherokee blood. I like to tell people I am a Jewish redneck. :P

    Ooooh, can you speak Arabic? *gets excited* It's such a lovely language! I have a few books on it--which have never helped me learn it but I just love to look at the calligraphy. I would love to see that word if you can find it! :)

  6. Haha I'm such an interesting mix as well, part German/Lebanese/Norwegian. :D

    I can't really speak Arabic, unfortunately (I really should by now, it's amazing I haven't picked it up already), but I do know many, many words and understand a lot of phrases. And I can write and dictate (badly) in Arabic. I just can't really understand what I'm writing, beyond words here and there. Funny you should ask, because properly learning Arabic is one of my summer goals. :D Shouldn't be that hard, hearing it my whole life.

    Yes, I completely agree klutzes should stick together. And stay out of china stores. :S Hehe.

    Can't think of the word yet, but "aiwa" is a similar one, it means yes, sorta, but is used way more generally than yes. They just like, throw it out all over the conversation. :D

  7. Oh, that's really cool! (I just love learning about everyone's ancestry. :) )

    Good luck with studying Arabic! That sounds like fun. :) I am much the same way about Hebrew and Yiddish. I can say things and recognize many of the words, but I cannot speak it fluently. One of my life goals is to achieve fluency in one of them--if not both of them--at some point. (However, I need to study two languages for college to get a grad degree, and the two that make the most sense for me based on my intended fields of study are German and Russian, so I suppose the Hebrew and Yiddish will have to wait. *cries*)

    LOL Yes, klutzes should definitely stay out of china stores. :P

    That's neat word! (I have a feeling the way I am saying it to myself--thankfully everyone else is asleep and cannot hear me muttering to myself--is probably not correct, but that's okay. :D) I wonder if most languages have their own equivalent of "Nu".

  8. I like learning about ancestry and people's heritage too, it's fascinating! Learning Spanish first made most sense for me, so I did that (sorta, I'm only about 4/6 functional in Spanish), but now I get to stop Spanish and pick up something else. I don't think I'll go for the formal written Arabic, I just want to be fluent speaking the Lebanese dialect. Because written Arabic is almost a completely different language than all the dialects!
    Ohhh learning Russian would be so so so cool! My skating coach is Russian and a lot of the skaters speak it, it's a really pretty sounding language, I think. :)

  9. Huh, I had no idea I used so much yiddish. I love schlep. For the record, my sister really IS a draycup.

  10. @Feathery, I took a little Spanish and German in high school. Hehe Most of it has left me. I want to take German and Russian because I hope to specialize in The Russian Revolution and WWII as a history major. That's neat about your coach! Russia has always fascinated me! I know the Cyrillic alphabet and how to say "Please" and that's it! I have my work cut out for me. :P

    That's very interesting about Arabic. I have heard that the Arabic dialects can vary greatly. My dad served in the Middle East in the 1980s and he said that one time they were talking to a Bedouin, and the translator spoke a few dialects of Arabic and still couldn't understand a word the guy said!

    @Jean: It really is amazing how much Yiddish has become fairly mainstream. I love schlep, too! It's a word I use quite frequently. (And I schlep quite frequently. It's the perfect pace to walk.) Ooooh, this is intriguing about your sister! That is a Yiddish word I just learned recently. ^^

  11. Wow, I had no idea so many of those were Yiddish! I knew several but had thought they were German or Hebrew. (I admit, I confuse Hebrew and Yiddish frequently *headdesk*)

    @Feathers: I can swear in Arabic, if that counts :D

    I can only say about five words of Hebrew, though. My grandpa was a German/Polish/Spanish Jew, so I'm trying to learn more. Even though I'm not Jewish, their culture is quite fascinating!

    This was really interesting, since in my house I've realized that a lot of the sayings I'd taken for granted were actually German and Argentine. Funny how things get mixed in.

  12. Please don't beat your head against the desk, Rebel! Yiddish is essentially German fused with Hebrew and Slavic languages, so a lot of the words do look German. (In fact, "mensch" in German means "man". We just use it with a more specific definition.) And usually it is written in the Hebrew alphabet, so it's easy to confuse with Hebrew. We can't make anything simple. :P

    That's neat about your grandpa! Hebrew is such a lovely language! I want to learn more than just the prayers. *feels like a bad Jew* :)

  13. That clears it up! I'd always wondered about the finer differences between Hebrew and Yiddish...since I associate both with Judaism, I wasn't sure what the actual difference was.

    Yes, I've discovered that Jews are very detail-oriented. xD
    Which totally sounds like my grandpa, now that I think about it...

    My friend knows some and it sounds so pretty! But, all I know are hello, goodbye, this is my friend, you're welcome, and a few other odd words.

    Which I suppose isn't bad considering all I know of Polish is 'I'm hungry for sauerkraut.' and that isn't exactly useful...

  14. @Zella- That's interesting about Bedouin and translator, I'm not surprised, the dialects are like entirely different languages. I wanted to get the Rosetta Stone program to help me learn this summer, but they only have Egyptian Arabic and the formal stuff, and my family wouldn't be able to understand Egyptian, and everyone starts snickering if someone talks in formal Arabic, it's not really a spoken language. :D

    @Rebel- Haha how'd you learn to do that? I don't know any swear words, since I've learned the phrases and words I know from basic children's books and my family. I don't think I've ever heard them swear, in Arabic, ever. xD
    Oh and sauerkraut is awesome, I used to hate it but I love it now. I think my genes are finally starting to kick in. :D

  15. Rebel: if it helps you further sort it out, Yiddish was often the social language of European Jews, while Hebrew was often just used for religious purposes. (Much how the Catholics use Latin.) it wasn't until Jews started moving to Israel again that Hebrew saw a resurgence as a language beyond religious usage. This is actually my problem, in that I know a lot of Hebrew words and phrases but they are all religious in nature! If I was dropped off in Israel, I would be doomed! I like the Polish phrase you know. Sauerkraut is quite wonderful. :D

    Feathery: That's funny how formal Arabic isn't even spoken! I assume it just exists mainly in written form? Have you found a program that teaches Lebanese Arabic? I used to have a catalog for a company that sold language courses. If I am not mistaken, they did have several Arabic dialect courses--and I am almost 100% sure Lebanese was one of them. I can't think of the name off-hand. Let me see if I can find it. :D

  16. Formal Arabic is the language books, essays, poetry and other literature is written in, but no one actually speaks it for some reason. That would be cool, finding a program to learn Lebanese! But I think I may just end up making my grandma teach me, because it would end up being cheaper. :D

  17. Oh, okay, that is interesting! :)

    Unfortunately, I can't seem to find my catalog--either here or online. It was about ten years old, so the business could be gone by now. I know they used State Department courses, though, so I imagine they're pretty good quality. I found this one from the Foreign Language Institute, but it is for Levantine Arabic, which they say is used in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan:


    Would that be the same dialect or a different one?

    Hehe Perhaps taking lessons with your grandmother would be better! :)

  18. Thanks for the link! I think that would be most similar to the Arabic spoken in the US. But still, I'm betting some of the words and phrases are different. My friend's family is Palestinian and they do have different slang for certain things, although it's mostly the same. I guess if I want to learn to speak fluently in the same dialect my family does I probably have to go right to the source, and start ordering them to speak in only Arabic around me. :D

  19. You're welcome! Yeah, I saw the description and based on what you had told me, I wondered if it was what you were looking for, but it was the only one I saw that didn't seem to be formal Arabic.

    That's a great idea! You could have a language immersion program right at home! :)

  20. zella - hello! great and nearly scientific is your blog
    if you come to vienna you will notice so many yiddish words you mention are commonly used in the viennese dialect /schlamassel, guter rutsch! (from roshhashana) you wish evry body at the turn of the year
    many many..
    thank you!
    may 2012 be your year!

  21. Reading this post made me want to comment about my own experiences with languages. However, it got too long, so I had to put it on my own blog. You can read it, if you want.

    Why I decided to learn these languages