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Vivian Henoch

Vivian Henoch
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Northville, Michigan, USA
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June 17
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Writer and editor:myJewishDetroit.org
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I write around. Follow me on Twitter @vivianhenoch or @myJDetroit

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DECEMBER 23, 2010 9:39AM

10 Essential Yiddish Words for the Holidays (and Then Some)

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“Do you speak Yiddish?” That’s how the conversation started in the office the other day, when a friend asked me: such a question. Do I speak Yiddish!?   


Of course, I don’t speak Yiddish. What do I look like, my grandmother?  Who under the age of 95 can speak Yiddish in actual fluent sentences? 


And yet the language lives and persists.   Spoken everywhere.  Yiddish is the salt and pepper of everyday speech, used with discretion, in a smattering of words, most helpful as a means of expressing disdain, irony, sarcasm or extreme emotion. 


Then another colleague piped into the discussion with the observation that he knew but one Yiddish word,  meshugge.  (How crazy is that?)  He admitted that he didn’t know what the word meant, but he was told never to use it in mixed company.  Ha! I assured him that we all work in mishegaas (not to be confused with Michigan) and that the word isn’t by any means offensive.  


“You probably use more Yiddish words than you know,” I told him. Words like blinzbagel, bubbe, kosher, kibbitz, klutz, mazal tov, menschnosh, shmeer, and of course, the all- purpose insult,  schmuck!”    It’s all Yiddish, or words in their assimilated form of Yinglish or Ameridish. (Ameriknish?)  


Google the word Yiddish and all manners of lists of Yiddish words  can be found for your entertainment on the Internet 


In a quick check on Wikipedia we learn that Yiddish is a language with a 1000-year history of adaptation, spoken first among Jews living along the banks of the Rhine. Over time and through assimilation, Yiddish grew into a tasty stew of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic and Romance languages. Yiddish, as described by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish is the “Robin Hood of languages,” stealing from the linguistically rich, and giving to the of lexiconically challenged. 

 

Of course you understand:  you don’t have to be Jewish to know Yiddish, and you probably speak it in more tongues than you imagine, especially under duress.   


It’s only a guess, but I wager that over the next few days, at least 10 essential Yiddish words (or their approximation) will insinuate themselves into your holidays: 



  

1. Mishpucha – that’s Yiddish for your nearest and dearest, your family – not to be confused with the word Mishmash which means all mixed up.  Or mishuginnah, which most families are anyway.  


2. Schlep.  Of course you know what that means: to lift (sigh), carry (and sigh), or to trudge (and sigh some more) traveling place to place, transporting unwieldy packages – in other words-  to suffer the crowds of fellow last-minute holiday shoppers, schlepping.  Careful not to schtup -- meaning to overstuff -- or uh, never mind.  


3. Schmaltz – literally chicken fat, but schmaltz in the Hallmark Card sense of the word has come to mean overly sweet or sentimental, as in the schmaltzy holiday muzak heard everywhere for the 55 Days of Christmas, starting the day after Halloween.  As for Schmaltz’s Alt from Schell Brewing Co. in  Minnesota.   Hmmm, dunno, a seasonal beer may be worth a try. 


4. Glitch  Who knew?  Glitch is a Yiddish word.  And here we thought glitch was a computer term,  hiccup or F’up, as in a minor glitch in the system that holds a hundred thousand passengers sleeping overnight in an airport.  Not to be mistaken for glitz or Ritz (the hotel or the cracker).   


 5. Bupkes!  pronounced BOP-kess with an exclamation point and spoken with utter scorn to mean “nothing, nada, squat” (literally goat droppings).  Work like a dog all year, and what do I get for a Christmas bonus? Bupkes!  Make no mistake, the word is not Babka- as in the heavenly coffee cake rolled in chocolate and nuts, notably found in Jewish bakeries. (Photo and recipe source: thanks to Smitten Kitchen )




6. Tchotchke  pronounced t-chotch-kee, a beautiful useless thing, as in trinkets, inexpensive toys or Christmas kitsch. T’is the season for Tchotchkes like snowmen mugs, greeting cards that sing Jingle Bells, and shiny new things like diamond studs.   


7. Chutzpa  O.K. clear your throat as if you were about to swallow a fishbone or hawk a loogie for the sound of “ccccch”  in Cccchutzpa. There you have it, no other word like it. Chutzpa, just as it sounds, is brazen,  arrogant,  audacious. Undeservedly proud.   It takes chutzpa to insinuate Yiddish into a Christmas holiday post.  The nerve!


8. Kvetch   Oy-yoy-yoy.   This is to fret, complain, or fuss (literally to squeeze or suppress) finding fault for any reason, the more trivial the matter the better. As a noun, a kvetch is a wet blanket, one who can suck the air out of a room.   The opposite of kvetch is to kvel, from the German word quellen, “to gush” or swell, usually doting over a child, finding uncontrollable delight over some achievement,  the more trivial the better.  

 

9. Farklempt  To be overwhelmed, overwrought,  overcome with emotion, choked up  and ready to cry (in a good way), as in Mike Myers’ Coffee Talk on Saturday Night Live - Oy. I’m getting a little farklempt, talk amongst yourselfs: Rhode Island, neither a road or an island. Discuss!”    That’s Farklempt: not to to be confused with Farmisht - which means confused,  or Farblondget, meaning lost and clueless. Then there’s Farshluggina,  meaning messed up and Farpitz, all dressed up, and Fercockt, all effed up.  Farshtay? Understand?   


10. Zaftig: pronounced zoff-tik, with heft.  Exactly how we all feel after the holidays.  Well fed and well rounded, juicy and plump, but in a good way. Not to be confused with Zoloftig, well medicated - but in a good way.   


Oy, enough already!  


Thanks for schmoozing by, and Happy Holidays.


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What a fun piece! I've always loved Yiddish words. They almost all *sound* like what they mean, you know?

I once dated a Jewish girl from "Lung Island" who used those great words as easily as I do something like "What's up?" She used to crack me up. To this day, my own language is salt and peppered with words she taught me. "Shlep, nebbish, dreck, schlemiel"... on and on.

Brings a smile to my face just thinking about them.
Thank you, Veronica...no doubt, you've read Aaron Lansky's "Outwitting History, The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books." Highly recommended.

As a student of Yiddish, you are one of an estimated 180,000 in the U.S. who can speak the language. In Israel, the number is 215,000 or about 2.8% of the total Jewish population there. Worldwide, there are an estimated 1.7 million people who can speak Eastern Yiddish.
(Source: Wikipedia... where else?)
I love Yiddish words. Somewhere in my house is a Yiddish dictionary. Love your primer - I didn't know glitch was Yiddish.
Thank you, thank you! What a wry and cheery relief from the standard Happy Holidays !
BTW, Would 'Debbie Downer' kvetch?
Rye, indeed. Thx for your comment, Bob.
Rye, indeed. Thx for your comment, Bob.
Love this - what a fun read! Thanks!
~R~