A Brief Guide to Yiddish Fool Types

Is there any language as rich in different terms for fools as Yiddish? There seem to be as many as Inuit allegedly has for snow.

nebech (anglicized as “nebbish”): an innocuous, weak, or helpless unfortunate
shlemiel: a foolish person or simpleton
shlimazl: a chronically unlucky person

These aren’t just in alphabetical order. They’re also in pity order. You pity the nebech more than the shlemiel and the shlemiel more than the shlimazl.

The rule of thumb is that the shlemiel pours soup down the neck of the shlimazl. The nebech cleans it up. I would characterize Harpo as a classic nebech, Chico is a shlemiel. Groucho is something entirely different: a shnorrer. Not a fool.

More fools NSFW:

putz: a jerk (literally, the male sexual organ)
shmuck: same thing but worse. Not to be used in polite company.

The members of the Obama Administration are emphatically not shlemiels. They might however, be shmendricks. I will leave it to the interested student to point out examples of the NSFWs above in the Obama Administration (or any other, for that matter—the White House tends to be full of them).

Note: there are probably as many definitions of these words as there are people who use them.

3 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    I love Jewish terms and humor. There were no Jews where I grew up, so I had very limited contact until med school. One of my anatomy partners knew every JAP joke ever told. I now work with a couple of Jewish eye docs who consider joke telling an art form. By the end of the day, our nurses want to kill us.

    OT- Cannot post at OTB. I run a MAC Powerbook. Will work to see if it is on my end.


  • I spent ages 0 through 10 in an extremely gritty inner city neighborhood and ages 11 through 17 in a neighborhood that was about 50% Jewish. One of the neighbor kids was named Todd Sussman (look him up on imdb). His dad owned a toy store. One of our neighbors and a good, good friend was nearly a stereotypical Jew—Russian, clothing business, speech filled with Yiddish.

    Many of my dad’s college friends were Jewish. My mom’s great uncle was the Irish half of a Jewish-Irish dialect comedy team. Despite his Irish ancestry my grandfather was the Yiddish side of an Irish-Jewish dialect comedy team. Yiddish slang was practically a mother tongue for me.

  • Hi Dave!
    There’s also schtarker -(a muscle bound fool) and na’ar – (idiot), among the more G-rated terms!


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