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Yiddish language

Yiddish is a Germanic language spoken by about four million Jews throughout the world. Yiddish means Jewish and is a short form based on yidisch daytsch or Jewish German; an older term in English is Judaeo-German. The language arose in central Europe between the 9th and 12th centuries as an amalgam of Middle High German[?] dialects, incorporating also many Hebrew words.

Yiddish eventually split into West and East Yiddish. The latter in turn split into Northeast and Southeast Yiddish. Modern Yiddish, and especially East Yiddish, contains a great many words derived from Slavic languages.

Like Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish), Yiddish is generally written using an adaptation of the Hebrew alphabet. However, Yiddish itself is not linguistically related to Hebrew.

One curious aspect of the language is that it uses Latin derivatives for many of its words relating to religious rituals, apparently borrowing the terminology from Old French as spoken in Alsace and used by the Catholic Church. As an example, to say grace after meals is, in Yiddish, to bench, which is apparently a corruption of the same term that gave English the word "benediction," while to daven, or pray, is descended from the same root as the English word "devotion." There are a handful of other words which also derive from Old French, the most common of which, chulent (a popular Sabbath stew) derives from the French words chaud (hot) and lent (slow).

Largely because of the influence of Jewish entertainment figures, many Yiddish words have entered the American English lexicon. In 1968, Leo Rosten[?] (1908 - 1997) published his seminal The Joys of Yiddish (ISBN 0743406516), an excellent and highly entertaining introduction to Yiddish words used in the U.S.A. See also "Yinglish".


The 19th century is widely considered the Golden Age of Yiddish literature; this period also coincides with the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, and the revival of Hebrew literature.

Saloman Rabinovic, better known as Sholom Aleichem[?] (1859 - 1916), is known as one of the greatest Yiddish authors and humorists, the Yiddish equivalent of Mark Twain. A collection of his stories about Tevye the Milkman was later the basis of the Broadway musical and film Fiddler on the Roof.

At the start of the 20th century, Yiddish seemed to be emerging as a major Eastern European language. A rich literature was being published, Yiddish theater and film were booming, and it had even achieved status as one of the official languages of the Byelorussian S.S.R.. Yiddish emerged as the national language of a large Jewish community in Eastern Europe that rejected Zionism and sought to obtain Jewish cultural autonomy in Europe. In mid-century, however, the Holocaust led to a dramatic, sudden decline in the use of Yiddish, as the extensive Jewish communities, both secular and religious, that used Yiddish in their day-to-day life were decimated.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Yiddish was displaced by Modern Hebrew. This was associated with a major battle between religious and secular forces. The larger, secular group wanted a new national language to foster a cohesive identity, while traditionally religious people desired that Hebrew be respected as a holy language reserved for prayer and religious study.

In the United States, most Yiddish speakers tended not to pass on the language to their children who assimilated and spoke English. The major exception to this can be found in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, especially in Brooklyn, as well as in some smaller Ultra-Orthodox communities in other cities such as London. Among the European Ultra-Orthodox Hebrew is generally reserved for prayer and religious studies, while Yiddish is reserved for daily life.

In 1978 Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize in literature.

Yiddish words and phrases used by English speakers

Yiddish loanwords

  • Bubkes - small cakes; nothing (He isn't worth bubkes)
  • Chutzpah - audacity
  • Genuk - enough
  • Gonef - thief
  • Goy - Gentile (from Hebrew goyim meaning the nations outside of Israel)
  • Klutz - clumsy person
  • Kvetch - complain
  • Macher - important person (e.g. within an organization)
  • Mensch - an upright man
  • Mishe goss - this whole insane situation
  • Mishmosh - hodgepodge
  • Nosh - a snack
  • Nudnik - rug rat
  • Oy vey - Oh!
  • Putz - penis; stupid person
  • Schlemiel - an inept person
  • Schlemazel - unlucky person (from German schlecht, bad, and Hebrew mazel, luck)
  • Schlep - to drag (an object)
  • Schmeer - the cream cheese on your bagel
  • Schmuck - penis
  • Schnorrer - beggar or person always asking others for services
  • Schtick - comic theme
  • Schtuck - trouble, difficulty
  • Schtum - quiet
  • Schvartzer - Black person (derog.)
  • Shegetz - Gentile Male
  • Shiksa - young Gentile Woman
  • Shiksl - Gentile Girl
  • Shnoz - nose
  • Shtup - to have intercourse with
  • Tochis, Tush - rear end
  • Tsuris - troubles

Yiddish idioms used in English

  • "Enough already"
  • "My life"

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