I lived with two Jews for about a year. I learned the following terms while I was living with them:
Note, most of this comes from Leo Rosten, and his book, The Joy of Yiddish.

  • oy (also spelled oi, pronounced 'oi): 'Oh!' Can be used in about one hundred seventy different ways, from the 'oy' that you use when you heard that a friend's new car has gotten totalled going 75 miles per hour down Interstate 405, and he's managed to come out of it with bruises, scrapes and scratches, to the 'oy' that you use when Windows just crashed on you and wiped out the work that you THOUGHT Word was autosaving.
  • vey (pronounced 'vay'): Literally, 'pain'. Mostly used in conjunction with 'oy', as in, 'oy vey!' Generally used when you've just lost your job, have found out that your radiator just exploded, or anything serious that directly affects you.
  • gevalt (also spelled gevault, pronounced: 'gev ALT') Literally, 'bad thing'. 'oy gevalt!' is when you walk into your server room to find out it's been flooded by a water main breaking, or when you find out that you have a disaster that you can't recover from.
  • ismir (pronounced 'is MEER'): 'is me' or 'is mine' or 'belongs to me'. 'oy vey ismir!' is 'oh, pain is mine!' or 'oh, I'm in pain!'. This is when you're in big trouble for something, or you're having a heart attack.
  • kibitz (also spelled kibbutz or kibbitz, pronounced 'kib ITZ'): To stick one's nose into someone else's business, to try to tell them how to do it better than they are doing it. Particularly annoying is when they're a know-it-all, but they really don't.
  • kvetch (pronounced 'k vetch', with the k separated): To complain, especially when one has no real reason to complain. Taking an example from Leo Rosten's book The Joy of Yiddish:
    A young woman was driving her grandfather through the desert, and he kept complaining, "Oy, am I thirsty! Oy, am I thirsty!" And he kept going on like this, and on and on and on and on and finally the young woman pulled off at a gas station and got him some water and Gatorade and anything else she could think of to quench his thirst. He drank some of it, and they got on the road again, and the started kvetching again: "Oy, was I thirsty. Oy, was I thirsty..."
  • mensch (also spelled mentsch, pronounced 'mensh', short e): A good person, someone to look up to, a generous person, a well-behaved person. "Be a mensch!" is often heard spoken to Jewish children just before stepping into the home hosting the family gathering.
  • yenta (pronounced like it looks): A busybody, a gossip, someone you wouldn't want to know that your house was just burgled and your priceless antique china was stolen, cuz she'd spread it all over town faster than lightning.
  • nosh (also spelled gnosh, pronounced with a short o): The act of munching on food throughout the day, instead of 2 or 3 large meals. Supposedly better for your health.
  • tuckus (also spelled tuchus, pronounced 'took us' without a break): heiny, rear-end, rump, butt. In New York winters, if you don't bundle up, you'll freeze your tuckus off.

I can't remember any more right now, but I'll add to it when I remember.

The Yiddish language is written with the Hebrew script in keeping with Jewish tradition. While an abjad with very little vowel representation is perfectly suited to Semitic languages such as Hebrew, some tinkering is required to shape it around the vastly different phonemic aspects of a Germanic language. There is no true standardized orthography for Yiddish, however the most widely used standard is that produced by the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institute. This system combines traditional spelling of Hebrew or Aramaic words with their vowels removed and psuedo-phonetic spelling designed to bridge gaps between the myriad of Yiddish dialects (in other words, the spelling's recognizably phonetic, but no native speaker of the language pronounces it entirely as it is written).

Compromises to facilitate phonemic spelling are various. For example, several characters are combined in diagraphs to represent common sounds such as zayen-shin (זש) for 'zh' or tes-shin (טש) for 'tsh'. Characters preserve their unique final forms when they exist. Several characters do not represent any sound of Germanic origin and are used only for Semetic words. Some of these characters are duplicates of their Germanic equivalents. The aleph has the most variations from standard Hebrew, being used with diacritics to represent the vowels 'a' and 'o' as well as serving without diacritic to prefice silently any other vowel at the beginning of a word. Yiddish is written from right to left, which makes it rather odd to read even though reversing the letters will cause it to look recognizable to a German speaker.

Daniels, Peter T., Bright, William. The World's Writing Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. http://www.yivoinstitute.org/

Yiddish's Influence on English

One of the more interesting sides of Yiddish is the effect that the language has had upon American English and its speakers -- namely how certain phrasings and inflections have drifted by way of immigration. We often see this effect in pop culture without realizing it; many of us having become accustomed to the Yiddish influence. Especially in the northeast with large Jewish populations around New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, these language constructs became common, and have since crept into sitcoms and movies.

One of the key elements that Yiddish speakers brought with them to the United States was the syntax of their language. We now commonly understand the phrase "This you call a hospital?" to be a sarcastic or rhetorical question.

Leo Rosten expounded at length on the power of Yiddish as an expressive language that emphasized tone and inflection in addition to diction, and how much of this has been carried into English. For example, even the English question "I should buy two tickets for her concert?" can take on seven meanings depending on where the emphasis is placed -- a common thing among Yiddish speakers:

  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "After what she did to me? And nu, her mother should return some of my calls now and then?"
  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "What, you're giving me a lesson in ethics? And who are you that you should think you know?"
  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "I wouldn't go even if she was giving out free passes -- or if she paid me!"
  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "I'm having enough trouble deciding if it's even worth one - and you barely even call since your father died, nu, all the sudden you have time to see a concert with me?"
  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "She should be giving out free passes, or the hall will be empty, what with that tone-deaf mother of hers, she can be no better."
  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "Did she buy tickets at our daughter's recital? What, all the sudden she expects me to do for her? Hrmph!"
  • I should buy two tickets for her concert? -- "You mean, they call what she does a 'concert'? This is an art form?"
  • Aside from the inflection changes, Yiddish also introduced new ways of ordering of words as a device to express additional surprise, sarcasm or scorn. In the popular culture, a grandmother or grandfather is often seen muttering phrases in one of the following forms:

  • "Brilliant plan, isn't it?"
  • "She only tried to kill her husband."
  • "So soon you're going home?"

  • These language-tricks confer additional meaning; and while not as strong as the original Yiddish, lend greater expressiveness to English.

    For those with an interest in more of Rosten's work, see also The Education of Hyman Kaplan and The Return of Hyman Kaplan.

    Yid"dish (?), n. [G. jüdisch, prop., Jewish, fr. Jude Jew. See Jew, Jewish.]

    A language used by German and other Jews, being a Middle German dialect developed under Hebrew and Slavic influence. It is written in Hebrew characters.


    © Webster 1913

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