Religion & Beliefs

Nu, So You Think You Know Yiddish…

My confession this morning, about how there are lots of Jewish terms I can use in a sentence but not really define with confidence or authority, got me pondering all the words I don't really know, but throw around. And … Read More

By / April 16, 2007

My confession this morning, about how there are lots of Jewish terms I can use in a sentence but not really define with confidence or authority, got me pondering all the words I don't really know, but throw around.

And that got me thinking about Yiddish.  Because recently, a friend of mine admitted on a list serve that she'd spent her whole childhood using the word "kibbitz" wrong.  She had always assumed it just meant "chat idly" when in fact, it means "to give unwanted advice."    But SO MANY people on the list stepped forward to admit that in their houses, growing up, kibbitz had also just meant "chat".

For me, Yiddish is a scary language, full of terms I feel I should have some fluency with, and occasionally pretend to understand.  But in fact nobody in my family ever used Yiddish at all.  So I'll admit here and now that any comfort I have with Yiddish comes from books and movies.  I don't really know for sure what any of it means.

So I thought I might offer a short vocabulary list here for some of the most commonly used Yiddishisms,  (taken from this site).  I'm also including some great links below.  In case anyone else grew up without the benefit of suitably old-world grandparents, and wants to know what's up…

Bupkes Literally means "beans" in Russian; usually translated as "nothing," but it is used to criticize the fact that an amount is absurdly smaller than expected or deserved. Examples: "I was assigned to work on that project with Mike and he did bupkes!" or "I had to change jobs; the work wasn't bad, but they paid bupkes."
Chutzpah Nerve, as when the Three Stooges say, "The noive of that guy!!! Why, I oughta…" It expresses an extreme level of bold-faced arrogance and presumption. Example: "She asked me to drive her home, and once we were on the road she told to stop at the supermarket so she could pick something up. What chutzpah!"
Frum Observant of Jewish law. Almost always used to describe someone else; almost never to describe yourself. "He wasn't raised very strict, but when he went away to college he became very frum." The Yiddish name "Fruma," derived from this word, was once quite popular.
Nu An all-purpose word that doesn't really mean anything, like "well," "so" or "wassup?" I usually hear it as a prompt for a response or explanation. A friend of mine who worked for a Jewish history museum joked that they answered the phone "Jew mu, nu?" When someone takes too long to respond in an online chat or trails off in the middle of a thought, I might type "nu?" (are you still there? are you answering?) If someone says something that doesn't seem to make any sense, you might say, "nu?" (what's that supposed to mean?)
Shmutz Dirt. Refers to a trivial amount of nuisance dirt, not real filth. Example: "You have some shmutz on your shirt; brush it off."
Shmooze Having a long, friendly chat. Can be used as a noun, but is usually used as a verb. Examples: "Come to our party! Eat, drink and shmooze!" or "Our salesman is very good at shmoozing the clients."
Tchatchke 1) Little toys; knick-knacks. 2) A pretty young thing, like a trophy wife. Examples: "The collector had so many tchatchkes that he had to buy a bigger house!" or "when my mother visits, she always brings tchatchkes for the kids" or "The boss divorced his wife; now he's dating some little tchatchke." The Yiddish spelling of the word uses the letter Tsadek, so it should be pronounced "tsatske," but I've always heard the word pronounced as if it were the "ch" in "chair."

Further reading:

A HUGE Yiddish-English dictionary online

Here's a good long list, with brief definitions!

Another list

In case you shoulod want to join a "Yiddish Club"

A list of some AWESOME Yiddish phrases, including gems like "Good health to your belly button!"

List of English words borrowed from Yiddish (meaning they're fair play in Scrabble!

Buy a "Yiddish phrase a day" calendar