Half Hebrew, half Aramaic, this classic lament is all Jewish
Oy vey!—also: Oy vavoy! Oy vey iz mir! Oy gevalt! Or quite simply: Oy!—is an iconic Jewish expression that conveys the weariness of a people overly familiar with hardship and oppression, as well as the resilience of a people that finds hope and sometimes even humor in catastrophe. It’s both heavy and light. It’s tragic and funny. It’s so much better with a thick Yiddish accent. But where did it come from?
The word “oy” goes back thousands of years, all the way to the Hebrew Bible. In that classical biblical mode, there is nothing funny about it—“oy” is simply an expression of anguish, and may well be etymologically related to that English word “woe.” Of all the biblical authors, the prophet Jeremiah uses it the most, a total of eight times. (Not for nothing has his name become synonymous with lament—giving us the English word “jeremiad.”)
A few examples will give a sense of the way this word was originally used. In the Bible, “oy” can be wielded as a curse or at least a poetic barb thrown at one’s enemies. For example:
Oy to you, O Moab!
You are undone, O people of Chemosh!
Today we think of “oy” as a Jewish exclamation, but in the Bible it is used by all peoples. Another sworn Israelite enemy, the Philistines, have this to say when they realize that the Ark of the Covenant is back on the battlefield, protecting the armies of Israel:
Oy to us! Nothing like this has ever happened before.
—1 Samuel 4:7
As with many onomatopoeic words, oy has variations—including in the Bible itself. Consider this line from Proverbs:
Who cries “oy!” and who “avoy!”?
Here, “oy” and “avoy” sound similar and clearly mean the same thing. Other variations of “oy” appear in Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew that was the lingua franca of Jews for many centuries in antiquity (and is also the language of the Talmud). So, for instance, the Talmud’s Aramaic version of “oy” is the word “vay”—which may well give us the “vey” in “oy vey.” As we saw from Proverbs, doubling the expression of woe was common even in biblical times.
Although “oy” seems to have been a nearly universal expression of lament, today the expression “oy vey” comes to us in English through Yiddish, where it feels very much a part of the Jewish character of that language. It is perhaps for this reason that Merriam Webster’s dictionary traces “vey” not to the Armaic “vay” as suggested above, but to the Middle High German wē—which also means “woe.”
Yiddish also gives us all the resonant variations of this lament, most notably oy vey iz mir (“woe to me!”) and oy gevalt (“woe! violence!”). This last variant might seem the most disturbing, but it is usually the one used in the most comical way, employed to ruefully bemoan surprise disasters, such as: “He wore that? Oy gevalt!”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “oy vey” entered English usage in the 19th century, when the word was more commonly spelled “oi” before the more contemporary “oy” took over in the 20th century. In English, it exists alongside similar expressions of different origin—including a Scottish “oy” that means “grandchild” and an “oy” that is a variant of “hoy” and “ahoy,” words used to call someone’s attention.
According to an analysis run through Google Books, the word “oy” has been in steady decline in English since the 1980s. Nonetheless, “oy” and “oy vey” continue to be some of the most resonant and recognizable Jewish expressions. This was on literal display with Deborah Kass’s devilishly simple bright yellow aluminum sculpture of the word. One side reads “OY” in capital letters, and the reverse side reads “YO,” the Spanish word for “I” and also an English slang term that not only mirrors the original word but is nearly opposite in tone. Kass has explained that she loves the way these two letters, read in either direction, resonate in so many languages. Funnily enough, the English slang “yo” is pretty close to that older English “ahoy” that was also sometimes shortened to “oy.”