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A Bisl (Little Bit) of Yiddish

Renee Eder on Monday, August 15, 2016

My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, who didn’t speak much English. I remember when we visited them every weekend, and they used to speak Yiddish to one another and to my mother. They thought I didn’t know what they were saying, but little did they know I started to pick up the language, and for those who know me, it’s still part of my every day vocabulary. I enjoyed Yiddish so much, I will share some of the words I learned with you!

The Yiddish language is a source of rich expressions, especially terms of endearment, with a heavy dose of complaints and insults. Jewish scriptwriters introduced many Yiddish words into popular culture, which often changed the original meanings drastically. You might be surprised to learn how much Yiddish you already speak, but also, how many familiar words actually mean something different in real Yiddish.

Here are 18 words you should know:

  • Baleboste: A good homemaker, a woman who’s in charge of her home and will make sure you remember it.
  • Bubbe (or bobe): grandmother. A zaidy (or zeide or zayda) is a grandfather.
  • Bupkes: It’s often used by American Jews for “trivial, worthless, useless, a ridiculously small amount”
  • Chutzpah: Nerve, extreme arrogance, brazen presumption. In English, chutzpah often connotes courage or confidence, but among Yiddish speakers, it is not a compliment.
  • Feh: An expression of disgust or disapproval, representative of the sound of spitting.
  • Klutz: Literally means “a block of wood,” so it’s often used for a dense, clumsy, or awkward person.
  • Kvetsch: In popular English, kvetch means “complain, whine or fret,” but in Yiddish, kvetsh literally means “to press or squeeze,” like a wrong-sized shoe. Reminds you of certain chronic complainers, doesn’t it? But it’s also used on Yiddish web pages for “click” (Click Here).
  • Maven: An expert, often used sarcastically.
  • Mentsch: An honorable, decent person, an authentic person, a person who helps you when you need help. Can be a man, woman, or child.
  • Mishegas: Insanity or craziness. A meshugener is a crazy person.
    Mishpocheh: It means “family,” as in “Relax, you’re mishpocheh. I’ll sell it to you at wholesale.”
  • Oy vey: Exclamation of dismay, grief, or exasperation. The phrase “oy vey iz mir” means “Oh, woe is me.” “Oy gevalt!” is like oy vey, but expresses fear, shock, or amazement.
  • Shlep: To drag, traditionally something you don’t really need; to carry unwillingly.
  • Schlock: Cheap, shoddy, or inferior, as in, “I don’t know why I bought this schloky souvenir.”
  • Shmaltzy: Excessively sentimental, gushing, flattering, over-the-top, corny. This word describes some of Hollywood’s most famous films. From shmaltz, which means chicken fat or grease.
  • Shmooze: Chat, make small talk, converse about nothing in particular. But at Hollywood parties, guests often schmooze with people they want to impress.
  • Shpiel: A long, involved sales pitch, as in, “I had to listen to his whole spiel before I found out what he really wanted.” From the German word for play.
  • Shmutz: Dirt – a little dirt, not serious grime. Something you’re known for doing, an entertainer’s routine, an actor’s bit, stage business; a gimmick often done to draw attention to yourself.
  • Chatchke: Knick-knack, little toy, collectible, or giftware.

Did you know that at the J we offer beginner Yiddish? Join this level one class if you have some knowledge of Yiddish and would like to continue to learn to speak and read the language. Learn more here.


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