Y is for Yiddish

Leo Rosten also defined chutzpah as ‘that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.’


My wife, who teaches English as a Second Language, sent me this article about how “certain words from other languages express meanings that no English words can.”

The author, Connie Tuttle, notes: “Part of the richness of English comes from the thousands of words derived from other languages. Nevertheless, there are occasions when no English word expresses the nuance of a situation. A friend who is a linguist once commented that English was the language of commerce, but was lacking in vocabulary expressive of complex social relations. Maybe so. If she is right, that could explain why over the years I’ve found myself resorting to an increasing number of words from languages other than English, not only in conversation but also while writing.”

Unsurprising to me, six out of the ten examples comes from Yiddish: ALTER KOCKER, OY VAY (or just OY), MISHEGOSS, MESHUGGE, PUTZ, NU, and BUBKES. Three of these I find that I use quite a bit: oy (which is a versatile word), putz (meaning a fool), and bubkes: “If you want to make a living as a poet, be prepared to earn bubkes.” These terms do not come to me as an affectation; rather, they are words I heard from my great aunt Charlotte, and especially from her family.

But the word, not on the list, that IMMEDIATELY leapt to mind was chutzpah: “to express admiration for nonconformist but gutsy audacity.”

“Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as ‘gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible guts, presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to.’ In this sense, chutzpah expresses both strong disapproval and grudging admiration. In the same work, Rosten also defined the term as ‘that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.'”

“Yiddish is a Germanic language originally spoken by the Jews of Central and later Eastern Europe, written in the Hebrew alphabet, and containing a substantial substratum of words from Hebrew as well as numerous loans from Slavic languages.” But the same word in Hebrew may have a different nuance in Yiddish; chutzpah in Hebrew is much more negative, for example.

There are a lot of words on the list beginning with SC, usually combined with other consonants, that are just fun to say. “Schlemiel, schlimazel” show up in the lyrics for the theme song to the TV show Laverne and Shirley, meaning “an inept clumsy person” and “a chronically unlucky person,” respectively. In fact, I’ll write at length about another one of those words…tomorrow.

Among the words of Yiddish origin I’ve been known to use include kvetch (complain habitually), schlep (drag or haul), and zaftig (pleasingly plump, buxom, full-figured, as a woman). I suppose a synonym for the latter would be Rubenesque, but zaftig suggests a more positive attitude, I’m told.

ABC Wednesday – Round 8