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Word Nerd: Nu, let’s sit and kibbitz about those shlemiels and schnorrers

Fewer than one-third of English words stem from the original
Anglo-Saxon word stock and to some extent the language’s ascendancy lies in the internationality of its words.

Even with its grammatical irregularities and illogical pronunciation and spelling, English is best suited to be the world’s bridge tongue because of its welcoming, absorbent nature. From aardvark—which comes from Afrikaans—to zebra—which we received from Bantu—English has taken words from virtually every language. While other languages treasure chastity, the English language sleeps with whomever it finds most attractive. In the 20th century, one of is most common bedmates has been Yiddish. Countless Yiddishisms, such as “bagel” and “kibbitz,” pepper the mainstream vernacular.

Even as a Jewish person, I am sometimes surprised by the extensiveness of these Yiddish inroads. Last month in this column, I touched on the ubiquitous use of “chutzpah”; this is but one of many Yiddishisms that have wormed their way into English.

Gazette staffer Don Macpherson wrote in 1999: “Perhaps Lucien Bouchard was just trying to avoid unnecessary tsuris (worries) at the next meeting of the PQ national council.”

Two years ago, in an interview in the New York Times, Robert De Niro characterized Silver Lining Playbook director David O. Russell’s “lovable craziness” as messhugas. In the1990s, I phoned a non-Jewish Gazette editor to see if he had received the controversial book I wanted to review. He told me he had and that in his opinion “it looked like a bunch of dreck.” This surprised me, but not because I held a contrary view of the book. What surprised me was the editor’s knowledge of the word “dreck”—a word of Yiddish derivation that means “crap” or “worthless thing.”

Occasionally, we see a word with Yiddish pedigree achieve lexicographic recognition that conveys a concept not having an English synonym. Such is the case with naches, which was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003, where it is defined as “among Jews, a sense of pleasure or pride at the achievements of one’s children.” (I would add: “or grandchildren.”)

I suspect that many Yiddish words are absorbed into English not because they introduce a new concept in English but because they’re fun to say. After all, English has many derogatory words for people but, “schlemiel,” “schmo,” “schmuck,” “schmegegge,” “nudnik” and “meshugenne” roll off the tongue with glee.

Yiddish terms have found surprising English homes. We see the word nosh being used in England in the 1870s, but with the idea of it being a meal, not a snack; this usage only became prevalent in North America in the 1940s. The term shicker—“drunk”—is listed in the OED as an Australian and New Zealand colloquialism. A 1970 citation from the New Zealand Listener says, “After midnight, Jerry got so shicker that he was quarreling with everyone.” Up to 20 years ago, the term shicker was a very common term for a drunk Down Under.

Israel Zangwill’s 1892 work Children in the Ghetto is the most prolific source of cited Yiddish words in the OED. Along with nosh and shicker, all the following words are first mentioned in Zangwill’s work: schnorrer, “beggar”; shlemiel, “blunderer”; nebbich, “non-entity”; shiksa, “gentile girl”; schmuck “contemptible person”; rebbitzin, “rabbi’s wife”; narrischkeit, “foolishness”; chutzpah, “gall” and the interjections nu and oy.

A century later, the program Saturday Night Live made popular the usage of two unlikely Yiddish candidates. In a segment titled Coffee Talk, Canadian Mike Myers played the character Linda Richman who was prone to using the words shpilkes, “nervous energy” and farklempt, “all choked up.”

It is difficult to escape one’s roots. I had used the phrase “go know” several times to a non-Jewish business associate before he informed me that he had never heard the expression. I checked in a phrase book that showed “go know” as Yinglish, from the Yiddish expression gey vays (meaning, “go know”). It explained that the expression could mean “How could I know?” or “How could you expect me to know?” So go know, I had been using the perfect Yiddishism unknowingly!

Go figure?

hrichler@gmail.com

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