Y is for Yiddish

My wife, who teaches English as a Second Language, sent me this article about how “certain words from other languages express meanings that no English words can.”

The author, Connie Tuttle, notes: “Part of the richness of English comes from the thousands of words derived from other languages. Nevertheless, there are occasions when no English word expresses the nuance of a situation. A friend who is a linguist once commented that English was the language of commerce, but was lacking in vocabulary expressive of complex social relations. Maybe so. If she is right, that could explain why over the years I’ve found myself resorting to an increasing number of words from languages other than English, not only in conversation, but also while writing.”

Unsurprising to me, six out of the ten examples comes from Yiddish: ALTER KOCKER, OY VAY (or just OY), MISHEGOSS, MESHUGGE, PUTZ, NU, and BUBKES. Three of these I find that I use quite a bit: oy (which is a versatile word), putz (meaning a fool) and bubkes: “If you want to make a living as a poet, be prepared to earn bubkes.” These terms do not come to me as affectation; rather, they are words I heard from my great aunt Charlotte, and especially from her family.

But the word, not on the list, that IMMEDIATELY leapt to mind was chutzpah: “to express admiration for nonconformist but gutsy audacity.”

“Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as ‘gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible guts, presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to.’ In this sense, chutzpah expresses both strong disapproval and a grudging admiration. In the same work, Rosten also defined the term as ‘that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.'”

“Yiddish is a Germanic language originally spoken by the Jews of Central and later Eastern Europe, written in the Hebrew alphabet, and containing a substantial substratum of words from Hebrew as well as numerous loans from Slavic languages.” But the same word in Hebrew may have a different nuance in Yiddish; chutzpah in Hebrew is much more negative, for example.

There are a lot of words on the list beginning with SC, usually combined with other consonants, that are just fun to say. “Sclemeel, schlemazel” show up in the lyrics for the theme song to the TV show Laverne and Shirley, meaning “an inept clumsy person” and “a chronically unlucky person,” respectively. In fact, I’ll write at length about another one of those words…tomorrow.

Among the words of Yiddish origin I’ve been known to use include kvetch (complain habitually), schlep (drag or haul), and zaftig (pleasingly plump, buxom, full-figured, as a woman). I suppose a synonym for the latter would be Rubenesque, but zaftig suggests a more positive attitude, I’m told.

ABC Wednesday – Round 8

0 thoughts on “Y is for Yiddish”

  1. Very interesting Roger, but don’t complain about English lacking in vocabulary. As far as I know English is by far richer in vocabulary than any European language I know. It has 800,000 words. French has 200,000 words and Dutch 250,000. The Scandinavian languages about the same.
    Why is English richer than the most languages? Well it has adopted Celtic, Latin, French, Saxon words, Viking words, because all those peoples have lived and occupied the British Isles. Yiddish words are also found in Dutch like: mesjokke(MESHUGGE), poets( PUTZ), mazzel tov,schlemiel(Sclemeel). All of them have approximately the same pronunciation.English has more synonyms for each words than Dutch, but English has also adopted Dutch words especially those connected with shipping industry and navigation. The meaning of words change in the course of ages. Knight became “knecht”meaning servant. BTW we pronounce the “k” in front of “n”.
    I am very interested in languages, I also taught English as a second language, but as it is not my mothertongue, I used tapes of native speakers.


  2. You did a great job with Y. I find language in general interesting and you made some excellent point. I only speak one language well but there are a few words from other languages I use. My daughter is fairly fluent in 5 languages and has studied some of several more. Sometimes without even thinking she’ll use word from other languages when she’s speaking in her native language, English.


  3. Kvetch… another Yiddish word I used a lot raising kids.

    Thanks for another great post – I loved the background and information. I leave with a warm fuzzy feeling thinking of my nana whose Yiddish was quite good and who taught me a lot.


  4. Thanks for the interesting post. I use many of those words in my everyday language. My grandkids have no idea what I’m talking about.
    I have to admit I am zaftig. Now that sounds more graceful than overweight!


  5. Not until I read your post, Roger, did I realize how much Yiddish I know! What a fun read! Since I do speak a few languages and am exposed to a handful more, I can so identify with your premise that a word in another language better expresses what I want to say. For example, one word I often use it the Tagalog (or Malaysian) word “sayang”. I’ve seen it defined as an “expression of failure to capitalize an opportunity”… in ordinary parlance, it’s meant sort of like “what a shame” or “what a pity” – yet there’s really no shame or pity involved; it’s more like “oh, darn!” Sayang, with a certain intonation, just sounds better. There are similarly words in other languages that just says it better. Cultures or worldviews play a part in developing a language. And still I acknowledge that Wil is correct about the richness of English.


  6. You always come up with the good ones, the funny ones, the informative ones and I always enjoy them! Today is no exception! Hope your week is going well, Roger! Enjoy!

    ABC Team


  7. Oy, Rog, this schikta never, ever kvetches about your blog. It is never schlock. You are a maven, the mensch of ABC Wednesday! Mazel tov!


  8. Oy, Roger, here I sit in my shmatah (literally, rags, but used colloquially to mean an old dress you wouldn’t wear outside the house), kvelling and shpritzing over the amount of Yiddish you uncovered. So proud I am of you, my little latke.

    The English language is gorgeous but extremely hard to master, as its spellings are so complicated. Think Through, bough, cough… It is also a most flexible language, increasing in scope yearly, as evidenced by the OED making “google” into a recognized verb.

    I was going to try to find a way to work “shmekel” into here, but I guess it’s a bit too racy. Shalom, Amy


  9. Hi Roger, – this is a great post but it makes me feel that my vocabulary is very spare when it comes to including many of these words in my spoken language. I do understand many of the Yiddish words, and think they convey wonderful meanings, but here I am, just a farm girl, never exposed to the various languages that are spoken in more cosmopolitan environments.


  10. Fabulous post and I use lots of those words, too! I agree that they seem to be able to express the point and/or the emotion much better than any English words we could come up with.

    abcw team


  11. There are lots of French words(latin origin) in the English (germanistic origin) language ! When I learned English quiet easily because German is also from germanistic origin (the Scandinavian languages too), I really was very surprised how many French words are in the English language. I had a hard time to learn French because of its latin origin. Yiddish I understand very well because it sounds like a German dialect or the language they speak in Luxemburg. When I started working my boss spoke yiddish with his father and I thought they spoke Luxembourgian !


  12. The origins of language are very interesting and English is very rich, because of the influences of other nations upon it. We could not speak ‘pure’ English because there is no such thing!


  13. Oh, do thank your wife for passing on this interesting information, Roger.
    I love the fact that English contains so many words from other languages, but I know it can be very difficult for people learning English as a second language. My youngest brother went to Spanish schools in Mexico six months of every year until high school, and struggled with English spelling until he decided he wanted to do some writing. He asked me what to do, and I told him, “Learn to spell in English!” He did, very quickly, because he had a reason for doing so, grumbling because English spelling seldom makes sense, but he learned it.
    — K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie’s Guide to Adventurous Travel


  14. Hello Roger.
    I must say I found this post quite fascinating!

    I’m new to ABC Wednesday…my first post went up today. I’m sure you’ll see a lot more of me in the future.

    Thanks for taking the time to visit & comment at my blog.


  15. Pingback: Yiddish Languages

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