Tag Archives: joys of yiddish

Yiddish – a brief introduction to its joys

I really liked this recent post about interesting words not found in English. Getting inside another language is a powerful way to understand that culture – traditions of thinking within it can be unlocked if you look closely. I’ve long been wanting to share some Yiddish terms that already greatly enrich our language. You’ve no doubt heard and may already use some of these: bagel, golem, klutz, schlep, schmaltz, shmooze…

What is particularly wonderful about Yiddish, apart from the delicious sound, is the delight in character traits that reveal such insight into the human condition.

So very much by way of introduction, what about some of these? Much of this is shamelessly stolen from the timeless “Joys of Yiddish” by Leo Rosten…

  • Chutzpah (pronounce “khoots-pah” to rhyme with foots -bar and be as gutterally phlegm filled as you can with that first phoneme)

Meaning brazen effrontery, gall. Cheek is far too anaemic a translation.

If you want to be an effective “schnorrer” (beggar, see below) you need plenty of chutzpah as in:  A schnorrer is invited in to a house by a woman who feels sorry for him. On the table is a pile of dark bread and some delicious challa. “There’s black bread,too”, the woman hinted. “I prefer challa” he replies. “But challa is much more expensive”. “Lady,” as he continued to chew “it’s worth it.”

Modern day examples of chutzpah: Bankers claiming mind numbing bonuses having recklessly and criminally contributed to the collapse of financial markets.

  • Meshuggeh

Basically means crazy, absurd – Somehow it’s the perfect thing to say to pupils when they do that stuff they do…

  • Schlemiel

There are loads of words in Yiddish that  describe with exquisite nuance the person who doesn’t quite measure up…today crudely and less interestingly called a “loser”. The schlemiel is not a ‘shlimazl’ nor a ‘schmendrick’, because he’s at he same time foolish, conjenitally maladjusted, gauche, naive, gullible, clumsy as in: Two schlemiels are drinking tea. In time one looked up and announced portentously: “Life! What is it? Life – is like a fountain!”  The other pondered for a few minutes, the asked “Why?”  The first thought and thought , then sighed, “So OK: life isn’t like a fountain.”

Modern day Schlemiel – Our schools minister ?

  • Nudnick

A particular favourite of mine to describe,at times, my own kids and it works perfectly with pupils… meaning pest, nag, annoyer, more than just a nuisance definitely! As in “Doctor, I’m worried. I keep talking to myself.” “You really don’t need to worry, lots of perfectly healthy people do that.” “But doctor, you don’t know what a nudnick I am!” 

A Phudnick, by the way, is a nudnick with a PhD.

  • Schnorrer

A beggar, but not a fool nor in any way apologetic – high on chutzpah, low on false modesty…as in: “A schnorrer came to the back door on his bi weekly rounds. “I’m sorry,” said the lady of the house, “I don’t have any change in the house. Come back tomorrow.” “Tomorrow,” frowned the schnorrer, “Don’t let it happen again…I’ve lost a fortune this week extending credit.”

Do you have a schnorrer in your circle of friends?

Maybe these are already in your wordbank. What words, of any origin, would you like to see incorporated into daily usage? Please feel free to share your ideas.