Schvitz, spritz, klutz—these are only a few of many Yiddish words used every day without a second thought to their origin. Now, if you happen to have a relative who affectionately calls you bubelah or yells “Get your tuchus over here!” or maybe you like to watch reruns of The Nanny then these words aren’t that unfamiliar. In fact, you can find any of these from the maven of all words: the dictionary.
Several of the words adopted within American English have changed in meaning depending on the context. Many Yiddish words once carried negative connotations. Chutzpah is a great example of this. Leo Rosten defines it in The Joys of Yiddish as “arrogance such as no other word, and no other language, can do justice to.” In American English, chutzpah carries a more positive connotation, a characteristic that one is proud to have. Yiddish slang brings so much flavor and humor to a conversation. Even if some of the words are used in a heated situation, there is something about Yiddish that lightens the mood. And sure enough, the source of the majority of today’s yiddishisms comes from comedy movies and TV shows: look to anything with Mel Brooks or Adam Sandler.
The advent of cinema is not the sole reason for the adoption of Yiddish in English. Similar to how Yiddish was a product of Jews interaction with non-Jews in Europe, Yiddish slang within American English became a product of non-Jews interaction with Jews in America.
Countless times, I informed both Jewish and non-Jewish friends, “You know that’s Yiddish, right?” People order a bagel with lox every day without realizing they just used Yiddish. I have had professors refer to their lectures as spiel or shtick and usually receive a few laughs in response. These words are used so much that even I forget their origin. Sometimes I call myself a ditz when I am scatter-brained. That’s Yiddish, though the verdict is still out on this word. Or I am a big fan of crepes filled with cheese a.k.a blintzes, that’s Yiddish! If you are like my sister and like to say “Oy vey schmeer,” that’s…kind of Yiddish. The proper phrase is “Oy vey ist mir” or “Woe is me.” Schmeer is what you spread on bagels.
The next time someone sighs “I am stuffed to the kishkas” or your bubbe licks her thumb and says “You have some schmutz on your punim” and then proceeds to wipe it away, just remember there’s more to where that came from, and if you have the urge to say “Oy gevalt,” then I say go for it. No one will call you a meshuggener. Α
Dvorah Lewis is a contributing writer.