Dying Language

Yesterday when I was at the bank I engaged the young teller in conversation (as I do) and used the word “kvetch”. In response to his puzzled look, I said “It’s a Yiddish word. It means ‘complain’ or ‘whine’.”

If you don’t already know it, Yiddish is the language of Ashkenazic Jews, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. It’s a dialect of German with a lot of borrowed Hebrew, Slavic, and Romanian words and constructions. The corresponding language of Sephardic Jews, the Jews of Southern Europe and North Africa, is Ladino, a dialect of Spanish.

Many prominent movie actors, e.g. Paul Muni and John Garfield, got their start in the Yiddish theater. Not long ago on CBS’s Sunday Morning they had a feature on Fyvush Finkel (look him up). Fyvush was a juvenile star in the Yiddish theater.

Carl Reiner has said that the formula for his comedy is “Talk British. Think Yiddish.”

American English has borrowed all sorts of Yiddish words. Food items like matzoh or kishkeh or blintz. Coarse words like shmuck or putz. Notably, chutzpah. Like pornography it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it. It refers to a particular kind of brazen assertiveness but it’s a lot easier to say “chutzpah”.

After we left the tough neighborhood of my childhood, in the more upscale neighborhood of my teens a number of my neighbors were native speakers of Yiddish. When you combine that with my dad’s large number of Jewish friends, many of whom were native speakers of Yiddish, I can’t remember a time when my spoken language wasn’t peppered with Yiddish words.

Yiddish was dealt a one-two punch in the 1930s and 40s. First, millions of Ashkenazic Jews were murdered by the Nazis. That cut the heart out of Ashkenazic Jewry. Second, the founding of the state of Israel breathed life into the synthetic language Modern Hebrew.

Now Yiddish is dying as its few native speakers pass away. I couldn’t recommend Leo Rosten’s delightful The Joys of Yiddish more highly. It’s full of stories and jokes. You’ll learn the difference between a shlemiel and a shlemazel. You’ll learn what a shnorrer is and why Groucho Marx is funny.

That’s my mitzvah for the day. Enjoy.

12 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds

    My grandparents were moderately fluent in Yiddish. They were second generation Russian/Jewish immigrants. The most frequent phrase was just “oy gevalt geshreeyeh.” Basically, “Good grief.” But putzes and schmendricks and schmucks abounded.

    They were a rather operatic couple with lots of cursing and yelling in both Yiddish and English. So the second most common phrase was the English, “Sam, you son of a bitch!” Absolutely and unquestionably a true love, but a noisy one.

    Later I was exposed to French cursing which I rather liked. I’d sometimes be driven by my French copains’ parents who liked, “Tu me fait chier avec tes conneries!” Basically “You make me shit myself with your cuntishness!” This of course accompanied by appropriate hand gestures, usually the sort of karate chop move with hand held near the speaker’s cheek.

    But I’ve heard that nothing beats Arabic cursing.

  • CStanley

    I grew up hearing English interspersed with Polish and Yiddish. Meshuggana and schmatta are the most frequent Yiddish words I recall. The Polish was either cursing (usually the blasphemous invocation of Jesus and his mother which was pronounced as a snarling “Yez-iss-MUH-dee-yah!”) or proverbs. When literally translated these were a source of humor, like “Listen with your ears and not with your stomach.” (The two nouns rhyme in Polish, so it certainly sounds better and isn’t so nonsensical in the original language.) My Mom had hundreds of these; I’m not sure if the purpose was to impart folk wisdom or to vent her own frustrations at the everyday annoyance of raising kids.

    I also just looked up, and found in an urban dictionary a term I thought might have been Yiddish but it seemed off…”skutch”. Apparently this one came from Italian Americans, so I guess Mom picked it up from the Brooklyn vernacular…regardless of origin, I was often enjoined to refrain from being one.

  • Slang and borrow words is an interesting subject. So, for example, the word “skosh” (it’s an engineering term 😉 ). If I didn’t know its origins, I’d guess it was Yiddish.

    Interestingly, it’s originally Japanese.

    Michael brings up yet another peculiarity of my upbringing. There was absolutely no swearing in our household. None. By anybody. The closest my dad ever got to swearing was the phrase “Gosh dog it.”

  • CStanley

    “skosh” (it’s an engineering term)

    Hah, that reminds me of “gradeaux”, a descriptive term used by several of my professors at LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. It took a few times before I realized that they were using a local slang word and not a medical term for, well, boogers.

  • sam

    My favorite yiddish saying (Plato in a nutsack, so to speak):

    Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd

  • Jimbino

    The best Yiddish word I know is:


  • Guarneri

    When I do this crap I at least try to tie it somehow to the subject of the essay. So call this “Dying Music Genre – Classic Rock.”

    I know Dave has no use for this genre, but for those who might, witness one of the two best ever. The Stones dominate pure seminal rhythm and blues based R&R (if you do, make sure to Google WTTW Channel 11 promotions – Muddy Waters with the Stones in Chicago. I missed it, my buddy saw it live. DVD available. Circa 1980 1981. A loss.) , Led Zeppelin dominates its next generation – hard rock rhythm and blues based R&R.

    The technique in this concert is more refined and less raw than the 70’s. But they did what they did…….the best. Have a good weekend. There is more than politics.


  • I don’t know that I’d say I have no use for it but my interest in popular music basically ends at rockabilly, white soul, and old style soul and R&B. People like Sam Cooke or Sam & Dave.

    I also like Creedence and The Hollies. Also Doobie Brothers (white soul, remember?).

    Tying back to dialects I don’t think that any white boy has ever done a more faithful version of Standard Black English than John Fogerty.

  • steve

    1) You really should throw in Southern Rock as its own genre, and place the early Allman Brothers as the best of the early practitioners. Best slide rock guitarist ever. Double drum kit. Second superstar guitarist.


    2) Learned to tell jokes behaving lunch with a bunch of old Jewish pharmacists on a regular basis for a year or two when I was much younger. It is quite the art form and heaven knows you have to master a lest a bit of Yiddish. Being a Midwestern kid I knew none, so it was funny as hell learning the stuff. They were gracious enough to mostly laugh with me and not at me.


  • michael reynolds

    I like and admire classic rock and will say there’s maybe nothing better than Gimme Shelter, but day to day it’s punk and alternative for me. However, if I were given only one genre to take with me to a desert island, it would be the Blues.

  • Don Rubovits

    Dave, no swearing in our family either. It was the Army that corrupted me.

  • I speak much more coarsely than my parents did and my speech is incredibly mild by comparison with most others in my age cohort. When I swear or use coarse language you know I mean it.

Leave a Comment