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Yiddish

English words of Yiddish origin: schmoozing, kvetching, and keeping schtum

An extract from the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins

Yiddish, based on German dialect combined with words from Hebrew and Slavic languages, was spoken by Jews in central and eastern Europe before World War Two. It is still used in Israel and parts of Europe and the USA, especially New York, and has added an extra tang to English speech.

The most familiar Yiddish word may be nosh, ‘to eat greedily’, used in English since the late 19th century and deriving from Yiddish nashn. Foods worth noshing include bagels (ring-shaped bread rolls), lox (smoked salmon), matzos (crisp biscuits of unleavened bread), and that staple of huge American-style sandwiches, pastrami (seasoned smoked beef).

The opening sch- is characteristic of Yiddish words, including schlep (to go or move with effort), schlock (inferior goods or material, rubbish), schmaltz (excessive sentimentality, literally ‘dripping, lard’), schnozz (the nose), and schtick (an attention-getting routine or gimmick). Most of these date from the early or mid 20th century, although schmooze, ‘to chat intimately and cosily’, is from the 1890s.

A subtle influence on English

Yiddish words often express a certain attitude—oy vey! (oh dear!), enough with the kvetching (moaning and complaining) already! This use of already to express impatience is influenced by Jewish speech, and is a translation of Yiddish shoyn ‘already’. It is an example of the way Yiddish has exerted a subtle influence on English. If you say you need something like a hole in the head (used in English since the early 1950s), you are translating the Yiddish expression tsu darfn vi a lokh in kop. Other familiar idioms that are translations from Yiddish are it’s OK by me and get lost!, both of which are first found in the USA.

Chutzpah is almost untranslatable—‘extreme self-confidence or audacity’ is probably the closest approximation. A klutz is clumsy, awkward, or foolish and a nebbish is a feeble or timid man, while a schmuck is foolish or contemptible—the word literally means ‘penis’, as does putz, also used to mean ‘a stupid or worthless person’. On a more positive note, a maven is an expert or connoisseur, and a mensch a man of integrity and honour.

From New York to London

Although Yiddish is today associated particularly with New York, it has also influenced the speech of Londoners. Cockneys tell each other to keep schtum or silent, and call bad things dreck or rubbish and good ones kosher—a Hebrew word that was spread by Yiddish-speakers.

The -nik in words like beatnik is another Yiddish contribution to English. It was originally used in Russian to form words for people of a particular kind, and was taken up by Yiddish-speakers in the USA. Today we have terms such as kibbutznik, a member of a kibbutz or communal farm in Israel, and refusenik, a Jew in the Soviet Union who was refused permission to emigrate to Israel, or more generally a person who refuses to follow orders or obey the law. The beatniks were part of the subculture associated with the beat generation of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins

Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins is also available on Oxford Reference.

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