Issue: 1.08 June 1, 2000
by: Joe Klock Sr.

The Yiddish is Coming! The Yiddish is Coming!

The above variation of Mel Brooks’ parody on Paul Revere’s historic heads-up is not by any means the sounding of an alarm about an impending assault on our official, albeit embattled, language. Rather, it is a celebration of the fact that our national dialect has been and continues to be enriched by words and phrases borrowed from the warm, wonderful, magical, musical lexicology of Yiddish.

My own fascination with it began with memorable-and-long-ago lunches at Kramer’s Drug Store in Northeast Philadelphia, wherein the regular clientele (I was a token Goy) conversed loudly in a rich form of Yinglish (e.g., “don’t hok me no more of your dam tsheinik!”) and spent less time agonizing over the state of the nation than over the thickness (always insufficient) of their chopped chicken liver sandwiches.

Probably older than Modern English, and certainly older than contemporary Yankeetalk, the “alternative idiom” of the Jewish people worldwide grew out of their need, perhaps as early as the Tenth Century, to communicate with their fellow religionists in Europe, relatively few of whom were fluent in conversational Hebrew. Although preserved today mostly by “alter kockers” and show-biz types, this Judaic equivalent of Pidgin English was a flourishing means of communication among Jews of all ages for many centuries thereafter.

Few of we goyim in this country realize the extent to which Yiddish has crept into our everyday conversation, but it may well be our second most common linguistic import, topped only by the Queen’s English and maybe our home-made collection of slang.

Pure imports include bagel, maven, mish-mash, klutz, kibitz, mazuma, shtik, blintze, schlemiel, schmooze, schmeer, zoftig, kvetch, schmaltz, chutzpah, megillah, schlepper, ganef, meshugeh, schnook, yenta and schmo. (Move to the head of the class if you recognized all of those words AND knew of their pedigree.)

By the way, the “Americanized” spelling you see herein is a compromise of disagreements among a few friends, several Internet sites and the Oxford English (would I kid you?) Dictionary. Some of these sources, obviously, must be wrong, but none were in doubt. (So, nu?)

More than just contributing words and phrases to our vernacular, Yiddish has also lent unique patterns of speech to us, such as what one might call the “sch-“ disclaimer, as in “legal, schmegal, what’s the easiest way out of this mess?” There is also the “-nik suffix” that we’d be hard-put to do without; examples include beatniks, peaceniks and no-goodniks - all mutations of the root “nudnik,” referring to irritating nuisanceniks in general and/or most telephone solicitors in particular.

“Kosher” is one of the words we first adopted, then adapted to our use, serving a need that nothing in English could satisfy. Originally, it referred only to those specific kinds of food that were suitable for consumption by devout Jews because they had been prepared according to strict dietary laws and were served on proper dishware. In current parlance, it can mean proper, valid, reliable, authentic, fair, legal, genuine, according to Hoyle, or all of the above. It can also, in rare circumstances, refer to the character and performance of public officials.

There are certain words in Yiddish which have no English equivalent - and more’s the pity. One of my favorites is usually pronounced “far-BLUN-jit,” and written “farblondzhet.” Its majesty is owed to the fact that, in only three syllables, it describes people in situations that have spun totally out of control, well beyond the descriptive limits of chaos, confusion and emergency. Even the classic “SNAFU” and “FUBAR” of World War II and the “Chinese Fire Drill” of earlier vintage failed to embrace the full range of cataclysmic situations embraced by “farblondzhet.”

There is, in my view, a continuing future for Yiddish in our vernacular, to soften some of its sharp edges. For example, the term “housewife,” which was once descriptive of a lofty vocation, is now held in lower esteem; “balebusteh (bah-le-BOOS-tuh),” on the other hand, has the lyrical quality of a royal title. (“Ah, yes, she is a distinguished balebusteh,” rather than, “Oh, she’s just a housewife.”)

Much would I prefer a further incursion of Yiddish into our vocabulary than a spread of the cancerous “hear-aches” that have attacked our mother tongue. One, among many, of the latest and more insidious of these is “ya-nome-SAYN ?” (a micro waved version of “Do you know what I’m saying?”). Should this trend of shredding and then compacting our language continue, we will all, some unhappy day, sound like a combination of tobacco auctioneers and touch-tone telephones.

As I struggle with the cacophonous mutations being introduced by our younger generations and a growing number of immigrants, it strikes me that the timelessness and simplicity of Yiddish might be a preferable path to our future in communications.

Shalom aleichem!

Joe Klock, Sr. (The Goy Wonder) is a freelance writer and career curmudgeon. To read past columns (free), visit
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