originally published March 31, 2014
I’m not one to toot my own genetic horn, but I have yet to discover a language more palette-ticklingly entertaining than Yiddish. I may have been raised in a Jewish home whose only strict adherence to the faith involved my father slightly furrowing his brow when I’d order a bacon cheeseburger at a restaurant, but I still feel connected somehow to those roots, at least to the comedy synthesized within them. Sure, it took me years before I understood what Laverne & Shirley meant by “Schlemiel, Schlimazel” (and I still have no idea what “Hasenpfeffer Incorporated” means), but dammit I learned.
Yiddishisms have spiraled outward from the Lower East Side to become a part of our national (and I’m in Canada, so it’s safe to say international) lexicon. Those words ring out with the clarity of a brilliant punchline: “putz” splats against the wall in high definition, “schmuck” delivers a crisp, voiceless velar uppercut, and “plotz” speckles our aural ceiling with the sonic lucidity of what it means to convey.
I love these words, both as a Jew and as a writer. Carved from the euphonic stones of an ancient dialect, they pepper our language with capricious consonants and cough-vented vowels. A few days ago I wrote about ‘leet’ – the pseudo-language of the old-timey computer era, concocted to massage a false sense of elitism and smug superiority. But Yiddish – in particular the words that have become commonplace in English – is all about fun, spice, and delivering a laugh with the deftness of Jackie Mason.
Let’s start with the schmuck. You might use this to describe a guy who leaves his shopping cart seemingly strategically so that it blocks off two spaces in the parking lot. You might as well call him a dick, because that’s what the original Yiddish definition of a schmuck is. In German, the word translates to ‘jewelry’, whereas they’d use the word ‘shmok’ (which is actually closer to the original Yiddish pronunciation) if they want to employ it the way that we do. Actually – and I’m not making this up – this is cited as one way the term ‘family jewels’ came to represent the male dong.
Lenny Bruce was apparently arrested in 1962 for using the word ‘schmuck’ on stage. In Jewish homes today it’s nothing to utter the syllable, but back then it was a genuinely taboo word. Bruce claims it was a Yiddish undercover agent in the audience that nabbed him while checking to see if Lenny was using Yiddish terms to cover up profanity. Ten years later Richard Pryor had a standup career… times changed quickly.
A number of quality Yiddishisms refer to penis, including putz, schlong, shvantz, shmeckle (which refers to a boy-size wang), and schmo. That doesn’t mean that the term ‘Joe Schmo’ should be literally thought of as ‘Joe Penis’, but you’re welcome to make that leap if it elbows a giggle loose from your ribs. Cartoonist Al Capp’s lovable befooted blob known as the Shmoo may have been derived from this word also, though Capp himself hints that it may have derived from the Yiddish term ‘shmue’, meaning uterus.
‘Shtick’, which clangs off the walls of one’s mouth with a delightfully quirky reverberation, is one Yiddish word that refers directly to comedy itself. It can refer to the worn-out repetition of a politician’s position or the oft-used comedic bits that consistently work for a performer, like Harpo Marx pulling endless goodies from his trenchcoat pockets or Chris Farley falling on his ass. Orthodox Jews often incorporate the ‘wedding shtick’ into the post-ceremony party; this is when guests dance around the bride whilst holding silly signs, goofy banners, jumping ropes made from tied-together napkins, and generally acting like asses for laughs. Those Orthodox Jews are a riot.
Some of the best Yiddish words refer to food, and some of the greatest food ever to splash into the murky waters of a human stomach are Yiddish in origin. Lox – that brined salmon that can transform an ordinary bagel into something exquisite – is actually an import from the German word for salmon: ‘lachs’. ‘Pastrami’ scooted over to North America courtesy of the influx of Romanian Jews in the late 19th century. Kugel, an egg-noodle-based pudding or casserole, is another word that found us via our German-Jewish imports.
Perhaps more important than foodstuffs and body parts, Yiddish terms can effectively describe the buffoonery around us. A nudnik will noodge and potchka until you want to club him in the kishka. A fershtinkiner may come off as an alter cocker, when in fact he’s just a gonif after your gelt. Just stay away from the word faygala – it’s not politically correct and we try not to use it anymore.
If you’re feeling a little fertummelt, let me help you out. You may believe you have a lot of chutzpah just because you can tell a dreck from a mensch, but don’t spend all day kvelling about it or you’ll come off as a little meshugge. You can nosh on some schmaltz – that’s chicken fat to you goyim – but it’s more fun if you’re also listening to some schmaltz on the radio. I recommend some Air Supply.
A shmendrick is a little guy, too feeble to shmeer some butter on a matzo. But like any shlub he can schmooze his way to the top. It helps to be rich, to invent some schlock the folks will buy, maybe a fancy tchotchke the people will like. If he fails, don’t get all ver clempt on his behalf – maybe he’ll marry a rich shiksa with a cute little shnoz and have a big brood of little pishers, or maybe deep down he’s a little meekait and he deserves it. Don’t kvetch about him behind his back – the world doesn’t need another yenta.
The words ‘schlemiel’ and ‘schlimazel’ are related beyond the infinite bonds of a 70’s/80’s sitcom’s opening theme song. A schlemiel is an inept or clumsy person – another way of calling someone a klutz (which is also Yiddish in origin). A schlimazel is someone with chronic bad luck. So if a schlemiel is going to fall out a window, you should probably spare some pity for the poor schlimazel he lands on.
Oy vey is perhaps one of the most poorly-used expressions in the Yidglish cannon. Too often I hear people – yes, gentiles, but I’m not picking on you – utter it as an alternative for “oh boy.” An element of surprise is certainly optional when an oy vey is called for, but it translates from the German “oh weh” or “au weh”, more as an exasperated cry of “oh woe is me” than anything else. Actually, oy vey is simply “oh woe” – if you want the full “oh woe is me” you’d need to employ the full-length “oy vey ist mir”.
It’s the Jewish sensibility, blended swimmingly into our language through expressions of self-deprecation, humor and food. And any ol’ schnook is free to use these words, so long as they don’t screw them up and fall flat on their tukhus.