Yiddish: Judaism’s most colorful language

There’s a flavorful language known for its colorful, buoyant vocabulary. It has a Central European Jewish origin. But it settled in Eastern Europe, before spreading to the world. And, as a result, it has given many loan words to English. Words that are useful to this day in order to express yourself flamboyantly! That language is Yiddish.

In this article, we’re going to look at the history of the language as well as some of its more ostentatious words and their meanings, providing context for you to use them in everyday conversation. Either in the company of Jewish friends or to spread among goys (Yiddish for non-Jews) so they too can partake in this wonderful language.

The origin of Yiddish

Throughout the history of the Jews, many tongues have been spoken. Such as Hebrew, Babylonian, and Aramaic. They adopted Hellenistic Greek as their everyday speech for a time. And, of course, depending on the country they found themselves in, those native languages, too.

The Jews that remained in the Middle East became part of the growing religious influence of Islam. They were called “The People of the Book”, and given special, though not necessarily exemplary, status, in the Arab countries. The so-called Persian Jew, for instance, lived in Bagdad for over a thousand years. They took on the languages of the region, most notably, Arabic. (Various, n.d.)

Meanwhile, a soon-to-be separate branch of Jews traversed Europe. They traveled from country to country, sometimes forced out, but eventually settling in parts of Eastern Europe. Although pockets of Jews remained and became part of society in Western European countries and states like Prussia. Arriving in the eastern parts of the continent, close to Asia, and mostly falling under the Russian empire’s influence, the Jews brought a new unique language with them. It originated during their travels through Central Europe, picking up High German vernacular. This combined with elements of Hebrew and even the remains of Aramaic. During their journey, they had passed through many Slavic countries and picked up those influences as well. This was Yiddish.

Yiddish loses a home, gains a heart

It is as unique as Hebrew is to the Jewish people and for those who lived in Eastern Europe, it became the common tongue. Spoken in many Jewish villages and communities of the day, it has sadly started to die out. Pogroms, ruthless raids against the Jews by officials of the Russian empire, or sometimes disorganized ones by their non-Jewish neighbors, convinced the Jews of the region to leave for safer waters. Many Jews immigrated to other countries, including some to Palestine, some to South Africa, and some to the United States of America, amongst others.

In fact, New York, where a large segment of Jews lives today, was the port of call for many escaping the pogroms because they saw America as a land of opportunity. Their Yiddish language started entering the lexicon of the specifically New Yorkie speech. To the point where many non-Jewish New Yorkers know and understand certain Yiddish phrases and words. Yiddish is a magnificently expressive language, as we shall see when we examine some of the most used terms in this article.

Some commonly spoken Yiddish words

Let’s introduce you to Yiddish! To make it more fun, why not say the words aloud, so you can hear how they sound?

Bupkis: it means “nothing”. As in, “I know bupkis”. Used when a friend’s wife comes looking for him when he’s been missing in action for two days, and he’s just fled through your backdoor. When his wife asks you where he is, you say you know bupkis.

Wife: Where’s that good-for-nothing husband of mine?! Do you know where he is?

You: Eh, I know bupkis.

Wife: Of course, you know bupkis! You have bupkis between your ears!

Geld: Quite simply, Yiddish for money.

Man 1: I have a new job opportunity.

Man 2: Hopefully it’ll bring you lots of geld!

Chutzpah: This is a lovely word. It has an English equivalent we won’t use here as this is a family-friendly blog. But essentially, chutzpah means having the sheer audacity to say or do something that contravenes the rules of natural law. Below is our take on the classic example given by Leo Rosten, an American humorist.

Judge: The Defendant has been found guilty on both charges of murdering his parents. Does the Defendant have anything to say in mitigation of sentencing?

Defendant: I plead for leniency, Your Honor, for I am now an orphan!

Judge: I should have you rot in prison for the rest of your life, for your chutzpah!

Keppie: literally, the forehead. Often used in the context of giving affection. Such as when you kiss someone’s keppie.

Mom: Meirah, my angel, you got such a good school report! Bring your keppie here.

Meirah: Ma, can I have some extra geld instead?

Schmendrik: this is a derogatory word, loosely translated to mean “jerk”.

A man is walking alongside the road during rainy weather. A car drives past, splashing him with water.

Man: Hey, I’m walking here, you schmendrik!

Nebbish: a nebbish is what we’d call someone who is awkward, nerdy, and perhaps socially inept. The typical nebbish has a creased shirt sticking out his pants while he accidentally walks into a wall.

Young Woman 1: Hey, Daniel, what are you reading?

Daniel: Oh, um, Applied Physics, for, um, course work.

Young Woman 1: Would you like to see a movie together on Saturday night?

Daniel: I, um, er, don’t know, um, if I’ll be done with my studies then.

(Walks off awkwardly, before stumbling on his loose shoelaces)

Young Woman 2: I don’t know why you’re interested in him, he’s such a nebbish.

Young Woman 1: Because one day, he’ll be the next Bill Gates!

There are advantages to a nebbish! Invest in one now!

Oy vey: an exclamation, normally in surprise at something unpleasant that’s just been said or happened.

Old Man: You know that nebbish with a crush on your granddaughter?

Old Woman: Yes, the useless one always reading his strange books instead of studying to be a lawyer.

Old Man: Bertha saw going into a movie theatre after Shabbos. Holding hands.

Old Woman: Oy vey!

Old Man: Don’t worry, they say he’ll be the next Steve Jobs.

Old Woman: The next who now?

Klutz: This is a word you probably know. If you don’t, surely you can guess from the way it sounds? No? It’s a person born with two left feet. A klutz is a very clumsy person.

Man 1: Here’s your drink, ma’am…

SPLASH!

Woman 1: Oy vey, you spilled it on my new dress! You’re such a klutz!

Kvetch: This means to complain.

Man: Waiter, call the manager, this gifilte fish isn’t cooked properly.

Couple sitting at the opposite table: Oh, he’s always kvetching about something.

Mazel Tov: Probably the most famous Yiddish phrase on the list, it’s up there with the Greek Opa! of well-known celebratory expression loan words.

Woman: Guys, look at this rock… I’ve just gotten engaged!

Everyone in the room: MAZEL TOV!

(A disappointed suitor drops a plate in surprise.)

Everyone in the room: OPA!

Mensch: A good and honorable person. It is gender-specific in that it refers to a man of high moral qualities and gentlemanly conduct.

Man 1: Do you see that? Schlomo is helping that little old lady cross the street!

Man 2: His mother must be so proud. What a mensch!

Nosh: basically, to snack on something.

Mom 1: My baba loves noshing on chips.

Mom 2: Mine on dough when I’m baking cake!

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Meshuggeneh: Me-shuga-nah. This adjective describes the actions of someone as crazy.

Man 1: Look at this nebbish, to think she will date him.

Man 2: Yes, he’s being very meshuggeneh!

Man 1: As if he will be the next Elon Musk!

Schmooze: Yeah, you’ve done this before. You’ve gone up to someone, like a boss, and schmoozed them so you could impress them. Schmoozing is to act charming and, in a manner, trying to impress a person.

Man 1: Look at him go, with his fancy talk.

Man 2: He’s really trying to schmooze the investors! Probably by throwing us under the bus.

Man 1: What a schmendrik.

Shtick: It’s your gig, your routine. It’s your party trick. It’s what you’re known for as your talent.

Talent Agent: Okay, let’s see what you’ve got for me.

Performer: “Hello, my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime, summertime gal!” [All the while doing high kicks with a cane underarm and lifting a hat in rhythm to the music.]

Talent Agent: That’s quite a shtick you got there!

And that’s it from us. There are plenty of other useful Yiddish expressions out there. Feel free to use them in everyday English, there are plenty that fit in nicely with the English language. And you’ll have an easier way of understanding everyday conversation with Jews with these simple phrases in mind. If you’re interested in learning this unique and expressive language, sign up for our Yiddish course today!

About the author

Anthony FreelanderAnthony Freelander is a lifelong student of linguistics and history. His interest in Hebrew stems from a deep-rooted connection to it and its speakers. He’s been writing professionally since 2005.

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