Why is May 2019 different from all other months? It’s Jewish American Heritage Month for one, a period that feels especially important to mark given the rising insecurity coursing through Jewish American life. Because visibility is more important than ever before, Refinery29 brings you our celebration of Jewish American culture. L’chaim!
In my family, you’re not on pins and needles; you’re on shpilkes. When you’re down in the dumps, someone will ask why you’re so ongebluzen (or tell you to stop looking so ongebluzened). Bothering someone? They might tell you to stop “hocking my chainik.” In Yiddish, this means “banging the kettle,” but in the Americanized version of the expression, it means “stop bothering me.” For years, I didn’t realize these were words some people didn’t know if they aren’t Ashkenazi Jews, who mostly come from Eastern Europe. I used them freely in conversations at public school only to be met with some very confused expressions.
Shpilkes and ongebluzen are some of the less-common “Yinglish,” (words loosely of Yiddish or Hebrew origin that have become part of the English language) words and phrases out there. You’ve probably heard the ones on the list ahead (chutzpah, nosh, kvetch), and have possibly wondered what the speaker actually means. Since they’re not truly Yiddish — in fact, some of the words have the complete opposite meaning in Yiddish as they do in English — I consulted self-described “humorless Yiddishist” Rokhl Kafrissen to best break them down. Kafrissen writes a regular column called “Rokhl’s Golden City” for Tablet (an American Jewish online magazine) in which she celebrates new Yiddish art and culture.
A quick pause for anyone not familiar with O.G. Yiddish. According to Kafrissen, “Yiddish was one of the primary languages of the Jews of Eastern Europe, an area historically referred to as Ashkenaz. It was spoken by an estimated 12 million Jews before World War II. Yiddish is a fusion language written using the Hebrew alphabet. It grew out of Middle High German and acquired elements of Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as significant Slavic, Latin/Romance, and even Turkic elements. It continues to grow and adapt today, incorporating more words and ideas of the areas where it is spoken, especially English and modern Hebrew, reflecting its use in the United States and Israel.”
Please note that this is not a perfect or definitive glossary, since the transliteration spellings are much debated. Instead, it is meant to be a fun, basic primer where you can finally learn what words that have made their way into pop culture (see: Mike Myers’ famous character Linda Richman on SNL, who is permanently verklempt) are intended to mean. Kafrissen offered some “extra credit” on a few of the words, in which you’ll learn everything from the actual Yiddish origin of a term to a popular Yiddish song lyric.
One way Yinglish words may differ from their Yiddish origins is that they tend to be charged with emotion — verklempt, which in Linda Richman parlance means “choked up with emotion,” actually comes from the Yiddish farklempt, which is associated with grief. If you’re interested in learning more about the “Yiddish” words you’ve heard on shows like Seinfeld, Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish is a great resource on Yiddish words in English (my grandfather had not one, but two copies on his bookshelf. You can never have too many books celebrating Yiddish.).
Don’t plotz if some of these words are foreign to you. Once you’ve read the list, use them with chutzpah, and we will kvell. L’chaim!
An old fart
Extra credit: In Yiddish, bupkis comes from the word for goat turd. The usual Yiddish word for nothing is gornisht.
Extra credit: Keep in mind that chutzpah is a breath-taking audacity (something that is not valued in Yiddish culture, but is highly praised in the United States).
In English, klutz has come to mean accident-prone
Extra credit: However, in Yiddish the “clumsy” sense of klutz comes from its primary meaning of wooden beam, which was extended to refer to really awkward questions (klutz kashes), the kind of questions that stop a conversation like a wooden beam in the middle of the road. The usual Yiddish word for clumsy is umgelumpert.
To feel happy and proud
Extra credit: In Yiddish, kvetchn means to squeeze.
Hebrew: to life; Yiddish: used as a toast
Extra credit: If someone says l’chaim, you can respond by saying “L’chaim toyvim u’l’sholem,” which means “for good life and peace.”
Hebrew: good luck; Yiddish: congratulations
A genuinely good person of esteemed character
A crazy person (although it is also used as an adjective in Yinglish)
Verb: to snack; noun: a snack
Oy Vey/Oy Gevalt
An expression of great dismay
Exploding with emotion
Extra credit: In Yiddish, plots means to crack; split; give out (like your patience); fizzle out or burst. Compare with krapirn, which means “to expire horribly.” In the song “Yosl Yosl,” there’s a lyric that says “Ikh krapir nokh dir,” which loosely means “I’m dying for you” (and not in a fun way).
Incompetent person (Example: The schlemiel accidentally drops a bowl of soup.)
Unlucky (Example: The schlimazel is the one the soup falls on.)
To haul (usually not in a comfortable way)
Extra credit: Jewish involvement in the schmatte trade (read: fashion industry, sometimes called the schmatte industry) shaped American Jewish history. There’s a musical called Rags about Jewish immigrants to New York City’s Lower East Side in the early nineteenth century in which one of the characters works in the garment industry.
Dirt or soil
Extra credit: means piece in Yiddish
Verb: to sweat; noun: a steam bath
A non-Jewish woman (Warning: This term is considered offensive; do not use it, even if you hear it on TV!)
Verb: to speak one’s opinion at length; noun: a speech; usually intended to persuade
Extra credit: in Yiddish, the verb shpiln means “to play.”
A small decorative item (often breakable; usually dust-collecting)
Extra credit: In Yiddish, tchotchke usually refers to a doll.
Overcome with emotion
Extra credit: We learned from Linda Richman on SNL that it means overcome with happiness; throat clenched up with happiness, but in Yiddish, the word farklempt was almost always associated with grief (usually associated with the heart, as in the heart was clenched with grief). Ver is a German prefix; far is the Yiddish version.
Extra credit: You could use the Yiddish word kokhlefel (literally meaning a cooking spoon) to mean a person who mixes in/a busybody. Yenta is also a woman’s name, famously the name of a comic strip character in The Forward who was a gossip as well as the matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof. The word yenta never meant a busybody or gossip in Yiddish.