Know Your Yiddish!
I have often marveled at words like culaccino, which in Italian means "The mark on a table left by a cold glass." Words like this simply can’t be replaced by the sum of their parts. The English language has a wealth of words to choose from—over a million by some estimates—to complete the perfect turn of phrase. But, alas, sometimes one million words are not enough to lovingly tell your boyfriend that he has cream cheese in the corner of his mouth.
Enter: Yiddish. Like many other languages, Yiddish words can often help express sentiments that are inexpressible in plain English. Last week I had a conversation that went something like this:
Me: You've got some schmutz on your face.
Me: Schmutz. Ya know, schmutz!
Him: . . .
I was vaguely horrified when I realized that my significant other had no inkling, not only about schmutz, but about the entire Yiddish language.
To me, Yiddish is a language of love. Sure, it doesn't roll off the tongue like Spanish, or inspire poetry like Italian. Yet Yiddish words communicate humor, annoyance, and yes, love, more accurately than any other languages I know. Yiddish pops out when emotions run high and are often accompanied by a good amount of gesticulating, eating, and gesticulating while eating. They remind me of my roots, an element of one of the many blended cultures that make me who I am. They remind me of home.
In keeping with my love of Yiddish, I have decided to "spread the word(s)" [Pun intended]. Here are a few of my favorite everyday terms.
Schmutz: A little bit of dirt or grime. Often rubbed off with your mother's/grandmother's spit.
Schmatta: A bit of old fabric. Used by my father to refer to anything from a scarf to a tablecloth.
Tchatchke: A doodad. Usually sits on a surface and has no real purpose. (i.e. that small ceramic turtle on your nightstand)
Farklemt: Choked up, too emotional to speak. Notably used by Mike Myers in the SNL skit "Coffee Talk." Also used by my mother after seeing Nights in Rodanthe.
Chutzpah: Nerve. Can be negative, but has been appropriated into a positive term for admirable levels of grit and determination.
Schlep: To drag, haul, and otherwise carry around. I schlep my groceries up the stairs every week.
Schmooze: The greatest skill my father ever taught me. How to work a room, make small talk, and chat up with ease.
Schmear: What goes on a bagel. Obviously.
Shiksa: A gentile woman. See Martha Stewart saying “oy vey schmear.”
Oy Vey: Perhaps the most important Yiddish phrase, used to express exasperation. This can be used while hurriedly applying schmear to your bagel, after your bag breaks while schlepping your groceries up the stairs, or when your mother gets farklemt after watching Nights in Rodanthe.
Did I leave out your favorite Yiddish term? What Yiddish words infiltrate your daily conversations? Have you ever had to calmly explain Yiddish to your tragically unaware significant other? (He’s learning . . . slowly.)
Leave your favorite Yiddish word below!
How to cite this page
Metal, Melanie. "Know Your Yiddish!." 21 July 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 16, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/know-your-yiddish>.