Monday, March 31, 2014

Enough With The Yiddishisms

(This article first appeared in the April 2014 Lexpert)

Enough with the Yiddishisms Already!


Howard Richler

Fewer than one-third of English words stem from the original Anglo-Saxon word stock and to some extent the language's ascendancy lies in the internationality of its words. Even with its grammatical irregularities and illogical pronunciation and spelling, English is best suited to be the world’s bridge tongue due to its welcoming, absorbent nature. From aardvark which comes from Afrikaans to zebra which we received from Bantu, English has taken words from virtually every language in the world. While other languages treasure chastity, the English language tends to sleep with whomever it finds most attractive. In the 20th century, one of is most common bedmates has been Yiddish. Countless Yiddishisms, such as “bagel” and “kibbitz” now pepper the mainstream vernacular.

Still, even as a Jewish person, I am sometimes surprised by the extensiveness of these Yiddish inroads. Last month in this column I touched on the ubiquitous use of “chutzpah” ; actually this is but one of many Yiddishisms that have wormed their way into English. The following are but a few examples.

A February 2005 edition of Time magazine featuring a story written by JFO Mcallister on the upcoming marriage of Charles and Camilla said, “Last week there were a few signs of apathy in the sea of schmaltz (sentimentality) about enduring love.” Montreal Gazette staffer Don MacPherson wrote on August 21,1999, “Perhaps {Lucien} Bouchard was just trying to avoid unnecessary tsuris (worries) at the next meeting of the PQ national council.” Last year, in an interview in the New York Times, Robert Deniro characterized Silver Lining Playbook director David O. Russell's “lovable craziness” as messhugas. Some years ago, I phoned a non-Jewish Gazette editor to see if he had received the controversial book I wanted to review. He told me he had and that in his opinion “it looked like a bunch of dreck.” This surprised me, but not because I held a contrary view of the book. What surprised me was the editor’s knowledge of the word “dreck” - a word of Yiddish derivation that means “crap” or ”worthless thing.”

Ultimately, “dreck” is a word of German derivation where it referred to excrement. According to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, In English, the word “dreck” has a particular application to the arts. So the editor's use of the word to describe a book was bang-on. I was amazed to learn that “dreck” found its way into English dictionaries as far back as 1922. The first OED citation is from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Farewell. Fare thee well. Dreck!”

Occasionally, we even see a word with Yiddish pedigree achieve lexicographic recognition that conveys a concept not having an English synonym. Such is the case with naches which was added to the OED in 2003, where it is defined as “Among Jews, a sense of pleasure or pride at the achievements of one’s children.” (I would add “or grandchildren.”)

I suspect, however, that many Yiddish words get absorbed into English not because they introduce a new concept in English but because they’re fun to say. After all, English has many derogatory words for people but, “schlemiel,” “schmo,” “schmuck,” “schmegegge,” “nudnik” and “meshugenne” roll off the tongue with glee.

Yiddish terms have found surprising English homes. We see the word nosh being used in England in the 1870s but with the idea of it being a meal not a snack; this usage only became prevalent in North America in the 1940s. The term shicker, “drunk.” is also listed in the OED as an Australian and New Zealand coloquialism. A 1970 citation from the New Zealand Listener says, “After midnight, Jerry got so shicker that he was quarreling with everyone.” Up to twenty years ago, the term shicker was a very common term for a drunk Down Under.

Israel Zangwill’s 1892 work Children in the Ghetto is the most prolific source of cited Yiddish words in the OED. Along with nosh and shicker, all the following words are first mentioned in Zangwill’s work: schnorrer, “beggar”; shlemiel, “blunderer”; nebbich, “non-entity” ; shiksa, “gentile girl”; schmuck “contemptible person” ; rebbitzin, “rabbi’s wife”; narrischkeit, “foolishness”; chutzpah, “gall” and the interjections nu and oy.

A century later the program Saturday Night Live made popular the usage of two unlikely Yiddish candidates. In a segment entitled Coffee Talk, Canadian Mike Myers played the character Linda Richman who was prone to using the words shpilkes, “nervous energy” and farklempt, “all choked up.”

It is difficult to escape one’s roots. I had used the phrase “go know” several times to a non-Jewish business associate before he informed me that he had never heard the expression . I checked in a phrase book which showed ”go know” as Yinglish, from the Yiddish expression gey vays (meaning, “go know.”) It explained that the expression could mean “How could I know?”, or “How could you expect me to know?” So go know, I had been using the perfect Yiddishism unknowingly!

Go figure?

Howard Richler's book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts was published in May 2013.

Friday, March 14, 2014


601-What do these words have in common? ketch-insolent-relies
602-Discern the convergent words: house-i -night man-car-woman free-black-camp
603-What do these words have in common? manger-cinerama-tangerine-raincoat
604-Discern the convergent words: bottle-tie-broken back-bag-basket master-mast-a
605-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means exchanged paintings.
606-Discern the convergent words: hill-station-sting electric-skin-spin net-shrimp-stroke
607-Name a 3 word palindrome phrase that could describe the physician to a former president or a mayor of one of North America's 5 largest cities.
608-Discern the convergent words: ad-up-over rod-bow-break red-pin-high
609- Name a 2 word palindromic phrase for a possible description of February 1 Polish weather.
610-Discern the convergent words: bag-party-green rubber-sitting-soup big-sauce-golden
611-What do these words have in common? stray-baby-arts debases-pale-elapses-abed
612-Discern the convergent words: bush-ears-keeper book-heart-hole mother-bumps-bay
613-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means seduce a socialite
614-Discern the convergent words: swindler-infested-white times- brain-lip holy-lick-milk
615-Name at least 2 palindromic brand names
616-Discern the convergent words: house-ice-cup green-oil-palm king.moose-cheese
617-Name a commercial product that spells a different English word in reverse order
618-Discern the convergent words: let-need-bone big-silver-sticks mar-twist-be
619-What do these words have in common? government-budget-jeopardy-pedigree
620-Discern the convergent words: run-devil-running hug-baiting-tolerate pro-tail-con
621-What do these words have in common? bloodthirstiness-coughing-menopause
622-Discern the convergent words: tie-red-break brother-cold-libel out-running-in
623-Name an animal that is an anagram to a food
624 -Discern the convergent words: cereal-ding-flake pie-wild-wood small-barrel-ginger
625-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase for a dexterous government agent
626-Discern the convergent words: bend-jerk-wounded bender-bird-right hot-on-cold
627-Change 2 parts of the body to another part by changing 1 letter
628-Discern the convergent words: money-ginger-sweet kosher-pork-water top-tree-boat
629-What do these words have in common? laity-flu-ale
630-Discern the convergent words: skin-hot-sweet alphabet-can-duck apple-bald -chart
631-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means veteran pro athlete representing a city in Ohio .
632-Discern the convergent words: tar-French-boot blue-ski-flak mother-less-false
633-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means gloomy destiny
634-Discern the convergent words: bed-doodle-hum weather-pea-ball work-meat-opera
635-Name a 3 word palindromic phrase that means beer that you might get on a Mideast airline
636-Discern the convergent words: peas-fire-hem cake-stone-complain amount-skills-fat
637-a)Name a composer whose surname is an anagram to a resident of a middle east country b)Name a nickname for a resident of this Mideast country that is an anagram to residents in the Mideast and a city in the Gulf states.
638-Discern the convergent words: bling-ash-part all-hunt-sea bow-bot-ford
639- What do these words have in common? Pilates-Gentile-Islam
640-Discern the convergent words: face-crazy-around book-wood-hole mimic-fish-king
641-Name a novel with a palindromic title.
642-Discern the convergent words: inter-cream-down rest-be-jar game-oil-care
643-Name a 3word palindromic phrase that means gender of sly animals
644-Discern the convergent words: hole-holy-well glass-iced-kosher boat-bonus-train
645-Name 2 words that are anagrams to each other that can form a phrase that means exacting cooking formulas
646-Discern the convergent words: dive-gay-red off-bad-watering dumb-wipe-bone
647-Name 2 words that are anagrams to each other that can form a phrase that could refer to lying pleasure seekers.
648-Discern the convergent words: up-or-bake bell-salad-stand color-bed-main
649-Name 2 words that are anagrams to each other that form a phrase that means oily Middle East German cars..
650-Discern the convergent words: on-gas-brain id-zen-vest ace-head- scoff

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Many Moods of Chutzpah

(This article first appeared in the March 2014 Lexpert.)

The Many Moods of Chutzpah


                  Howard Richler

I don’t know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it.” White House Press Secretary Tony Snow July 5, 2007

(In reference to Bill Clinton’s criticism of George Bush for pardoning Scooter Lobby, given that Clinton spent his final hours as President issuing 140 pardons.)

For Mr. Salmond {leader of Scotland's pro-independence party} to act dismayed by anti-English grumbling requires a degree of political chutzpah bordering on performance art.” The Economist, January 21, 2012

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's economic update of one year ago almost brought about a coalition of the opposing parties and the defeat of the government. Now, one year later, the Conservatives are tossing off another quarterly report en route to the Prime Minister's latest overseas excursion. Chutzpah, my boy, chutzpah.” John Ibbitson, Globe and Mail, Sept 10, 2012

Judging from the above, the word “chutzpah” has become a favourite word for commentators to describe the failings of political leaders in many areas of the globe.

In case you are not familiar with the word, it is defined by the OED as “brazen impudence, gall,” and its etymology is given as “Yiddish.” Chutzpah's first OED citation is the following from Israel Zangwill's Children of the Ghetto: “The national Chutzbah which is variously translated enterprise, audacity, brazen impudence and cheek.” It is worthwhile noting, however, that the OED adds that “this entry has not been fully updated.” We see a more updated definition in Merriam Webster Online Dictionary (MWOD) which defines it as “supreme self-confidence: nerve, gall.” As an example, MWOD provides this sentence: “He had the chutzpah that he be treated as a special case and be given priority in settling his insurance case.”

Needless to say, the above commentators were accentuating the hypocrisy and gall sense rather than the positive sense of ballsiness, but increasingly the lukewarm approving sense seen in the MWOD definition is employed by many. In fact, when Alan Dershowitz wrote his book Chutzpah in 1992, he defined the word as “a boldness, a certain aggressiveness, a certain willingness to assert one's rights.” We also see the word's positive sense in a January 9, 2013 story in The Philly Post that was entitled “I admire Chuck Hagel's chutzpah.”

While the OED shows a Yiddish etymology, ultimately the Yiddish term came from Hebrew where it has the same negative meaning of “impudence” or “insolence.” There is no positive connotation to the word in either Yiddish or Hebrew. In an article in Tablet Magazine, Michael Wex states that chutzpah in these languages is an “unambiguous negative quality characterized by a disregard for manners, social conventions, and the feelings of others.” This being said, in the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin, written over 15,000 years ago, there is a reference where the word seems to get grudging respect: “Chutzpah against heaven is of avail.”

Chutzpah if often defined by wags with the aid of an example. Two of my favourites are:

  • A 14 year-old boy deliberately murders his parents with a meat-axe. He's found guilty by a jury, and the judge asks him if he has anything to say before sentencing. The boy replies, “ I hope your Honour will show mercy for a poor orphan.”

  • Reporting your landlord for building-code violations when you’re six months behind with the rent.

In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten tells us that chutzpah is “pronounced khoots-pah; rattle the kh around with fervor; rhymes with foot spa. Pronounce the ch not as in “choo choo” or “Chippewa, but as the German ch in Ach! Or the Scottish in loch.”

This sound does not come easy to every Gentile tongue and in 2011, as a prospective Republican nominee for president, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann gave a speech in Charleston, South Carolina in which she accused Barack Obama of having “chootspa.” Unfortunately, her pronunciation of this last word was rendered in the “choo choo” manner Rosten advised avoiding. Her rendition, however, was more authentic-sounding than one that graced the Canadian Parliament in the 1990s. Then Reform Party (later renamed Canadian Alliance) backbencher Lee Morrisson from Saskatchewan wanted to refer to Liberal Human Resource Minister Jane Stewart’s gall, but felt that the word gall wasn’t strong enough. So he said “You got to admire the jutsper of the Minister.” Parliament realized a linguistic travesty had been committed and convulsed in laughter. Being Jewish, Liberal Minister Herb Gray was delegated to respond to Morrison's bastardization and characterized it by these two Yiddish words, gornisht (nothing) and absolute narishkayt (nonsense).” This again greatly amused the distinguished members notwithstanding the fact that hardly anyone had a clue what Gray had uttered causing Speaker Gib Parent to pronounce, “Order please, I have no way of knowing whether these words are unparliamentary.”

Oy vey!

Next month I will discuss some other prevalent Yiddishisms.

Howard Richler's latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and Other Mysterious Semantic Shifts.