All about Yiddish
Last updated: 2004-08-26
Jewish children reading
Yiddish (××Ö´×××©, Jiddisch) is a Germanic language spoken by about four million Jews throughout the world. The name Yiddish itself means 'Jewish' and is originally short for yidish daytsh, or 'Jewish German'; an older term in English is Judaeo-German.
The language arose in central Europe between the 9th and 12th centuries as an amalgam of Middle High German dialects that also borrowed heavily from Hebrew/Aramaic terms found in traditional Jewish literature and from the Romance languages.
Yiddish eventually split into West and East Yiddish. The latter in turn split into Northeast and Southeast Yiddish. Modern Yiddish, and especially East Yiddish, contains a great many words derived from Slavic languages.
Like Judaeo-Arabic and Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish), Yiddish is written using an adaptation of the Hebrew alphabet. However, Yiddish itself is not linguistically related to Hebrew, even though it absorbed hundreds of Hebrew and Aramaic terms taken from Jewish tradition.
One curious aspect of the language is that it uses Latin derivatives for many of its words relating to religious rituals, apparently borrowing the terminology from Old French as spoken in Alsace and used by the Catholic Church. As an example, 'say grace after meals' is, in Yiddish, bentshn, which is apparently cognate with the same term that gave English the word benediction; while davnen, meaning 'pray', is thought to be descended from the same root as the English word devotion. The Yiddish verb leyenen 'to read' also reflects a Romance background. There are a handful of other words which also derive from Old French, the most common of which, tsholnt (a Sabbath stew, spelled cholent in English), probably derives from the French words chaud (hot) and lent (slow).
Largely because of the influence of Jewish entertainment figures, many Yiddish words have entered the American English lexicon. In 1968, Leo Rosten (1908 - 1997) published his seminal The Joys of Yiddish (ISBN 0743406516), a highly entertaining introduction to words of Yiddish origin used in the English of the U.S.A.
The late 19th century and early 20th century are widely considered the Golden Age of Yiddish literature; this period also coincides with the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, and the revival of Hebrew literature.
The three great founders of modern Yiddish literature were Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholom Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz. Solomon Rabinowitz, better known as Sholom Aleichem (1859 - 1916), is known as one of the greatest Yiddish authors and humorists, the Yiddish equivalent of Mark Twain. A collection of his stories about Tevye the Milkman was later the basis of the Broadway musical and film Fiddler on the Roof.
At the start of the 20th century, Yiddish seemed to be emerging as a major Eastern European language. A rich literature was being published, Yiddish theater and film were booming, and it had even achieved status as one of the official languages of the Byelorussian S.S.R.. Yiddish emerged as the national language of a large Jewish community in Eastern Europe that rejected Zionism and sought to obtain Jewish cultural autonomy in Europe. In mid-century, however, the Holocaust led to a dramatic, sudden decline in the use of Yiddish, as the extensive Jewish communities, both secular and religious, that used Yiddish in their day-to-day life were largely destroyed.
In the United States, the Yiddish language bound together Jews from many countries, whose national origin was often as important as their Jewish identity. Within some families, marrying across national origin lines was seen as equivalent to marrying out of the faith. American Yiddish music was another binding mechanism. Michel Gelbart, a very prolific composer, probably best known for "I Have A Little Dreydl," wrote music that was very Jewish and very American. In some ways this was a continuation of the conflict between Hebrew (and Zionism) and Yiddish (and Internationalism) as the means of defining emerging Jewish nationalism.
Meanwhile, in Israel, Yiddish was displaced by Modern Hebrew. This was associated with a major battle between religious and secular forces. The larger, secular group wanted a new national language to foster a cohesive identity, while traditionally religious people desired that Hebrew be respected as a holy language reserved for prayer and religious study.
In the United States, most Yiddish speakers tended not to pass on the language to their children who assimilated and spoke English. The major exception to this can be found in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, especially in Brooklyn, as well as in some smaller Ultra-Orthodox communities in other cities such as London. Among the European Ultra-Orthodox, Hebrew is generally reserved for prayer and religious studies, while Yiddish is reserved for daily life.
In 1978 Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize in literature.
Yiddish words and phrases used by English speakers
Ai-ai-ai (sometimes spelled "ai-yi-yi") - an exclamation of strong emotion
Bagel - a hard ring-shaped bread roll
Blintz - a sweet cheese-filled crepe (from Yiddish blintse)
Bubkes (also spelled "bupkis") - nothing, as in He isn't worth bubkes (from Yiddish bobkes 'little beans')
Chutzpah - audacity, effrontery (from Yiddish khutspe)
Genug - enough
Gonef - thief (from Yiddish ganef, from Hebrew ganav)
Goy - Gentile (from Yiddish goy, plural goyim, from Hebrew goyim meaning 'nations', i.e., the nations outside of Israel)
Klutz - clumsy person (perhaps from Yiddish klots 'wooden beam')
Kosher - conforming to Jewish dietary laws. Slang: appropriate, legitimate.
Kvell - beam/ be proud
Kvetch - complain (from Yiddish kvetshn 'press, squeeze')
Lox - smoked salmon (from Yiddish laks 'salmon')
Macher - big shot, important person (e.g. within an organization)
Maven - expert (from Yiddish meyvn, from Hebrew mevin 'one who understands')
Mazel - luck
Mazel tov! - congratulations! (literally, 'good luck', from Hebrew)
Megillah - a long, boring document or discourse (from Yiddish megile, from Hebrew megillah 'scroll')
Mensch - an upright man; a decent human being (from Yiddish mentsh 'person')
Meshuga - crazy
Mishegoss - insane situation, irrationality (from Yiddish meshugas, from meshuge 'crazy')
Mishmosh - hodgepodge (from Yiddish mishmash)
Mishpucha - family (from Yiddish mishpokhe)
Nachas - pride (usage: I have nachas from you)
Nosh - snack (from Yiddish nashn)
Nudnik - pest, "pain in the neck"
Oy vey - Oh no! (literally, 'Oh, pain!')
Oy gevalt - Oh no! (from Yiddish gvald 'emergency')
Plotz - to burst, as from strong emotion: "I was so angry, I thought I'd plotz!" (from Yiddish platsn 'to crack')
Putz - unclean penis; stupid 'dirty' person (from Yiddish pots)
Sheygetz - Gentile male (plural shkotsim)
Shiksa - young Gentile woman, generally used derisively
Shiksl - Gentile girl
Shlemiel - an inept, clumsy person
Shlemazl - unlucky person (from Yiddish shlimazl, from German schlimm 'bad' and Yiddish mazl 'luck'). The difference between a shlemiel and a schlemazl is described through the aphorism, "A shlemiel is somebody who often spills his soup; a shlemazl is the person the soup lands on."
Shlep - to drag (an object)
Shlong - penis (from Yiddish shlang 'snake')
Shmeer - to spread, e.g. the cream cheese on your bagel
Shmuck - penis; a jerk, an unpleasant person (from Yiddish shmok)
Shnorrer - beggar or person always asking others for services
Shnoz - nose (possibly from Yiddish shnoits 'snout')
Shtick - comic theme (from Yiddish shtik 'piece, whims')
Shpiel - a lengthy talk (from Yiddish shpil 'play')
Shtum - quiet (from Yiddish shtum 'mute')
Shtup - to have sex, screw (from Yiddish shtupn 'push, poke')
Shvartzer - Black person (derog.) (from Yiddish shvarts 'black')
Tochis, Tush - rear end (from Yiddish tokhes)
Tsuris - troubles (from Yiddish tsores)
Yiddish idioms used in English
"OK by me"
"I need this like a hole in the head"
Cohen, Rabbi David. Yiddish: A Holy Language. New York, NY: Mesorah Publications. Hebrew language.