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.

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