Monday, November 21, 2011

25 Yiddish Words You Should Know

You'll know most of these words, but maybe not their literal meanings or proper spellings. From

Not a word for polite company. Bubkes or bobkes may be related to the Polish word for beans, but it really means “goat droppings” or “horse droppings.” It’s often used by American Jews for trivial, worthless, a ridiculously small amount. “After all the work I did, I got bupkes!”

Nerve or extreme arrogance. In English, chutzpah often
connotes courage or confidence, but among Yiddish speakers, it is not a compliment.

An expression of disgust or disapproval, representative of the sound of spitting.

A non-Jew, a Gentile. As in Hebrew, one Gentile is a goy, many Gentiles are goyim, the non-Jewish world in general is “the goyim.” Goyish is the adjective form. Putting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich is goyish. Putting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich on white bread is even more goyish.

In popular English, kvetch means “complain, whine or fret,” but in Yiddish, kvetsh literally means “to press or squeeze,” like a wrong-sized shoe. But it’s also used on Yiddish web pages for “click here."

An expert, often used sarcastically.

Mazel Tov
Literally “good luck,” (well, literally, “good constellation”) but it’s a congratulation for what just happened, not a hopeful wish for what might happen in the future. When someone gets married or has a child or graduates from college, this is what you say to them.

mentsh (or mensch)
An honorable, decent person, an authentic person, a person who helps you when you need help. Can be a man, woman or child.

Insanity or craziness. A meshugener is a crazy man. If you want to insult someone, you can ask them, ”Does it hurt to be crazy?”

It means family, as in “Relax, you’re mishpocheh. I’ll sell it to you at wholesale.”

To nibble; a light snack, but you won’t be light if you don’t stop noshing.

oy vey
Exclamation of dismay, grief, or exasperation. The phrase oy vey iz mir means “Oh, woe is me.” Oy gevalt is like oy vey, but expresses fear, shock or amazement, like when you realize you’re about to be hit by a car.

Literally, to explode, as in aggravation. “Well, don’t plotz!” is similar to “Don’t have a stroke!” or “Don’t have a cow!” Also used in expressions such as, “Oy, am I tired; I just ran the four-minute mile. I could just plotz.” That is, collapse.

Cheap, shoddy, or inferior, as in, “I don’t know why I bought this schlocky souvenir.”

It means “deep peace,” and isn’t that a more meaningful greeting than “Hi, how are ya?”

A clumsy, inept person, similar to a klutz (also a Yiddish word). The kind of person who always spills his soup.

Someone with constant bad luck. When the shlemiel spills his soup, he probably spills it on the shlimazel. Fans of the TV sitcom “Laverne and Shirley” remember these two words from the Yiddish-American hopscotch chant that opened each show.

A jerk, a stupid person, popularized in "Welcome Back, Kotter."


Often used as an insulting word for a self-made fool, but you shouldn’t use it in polite company at all, since it refers to male anatomy.

A long, involved sales pitch, as in, “I had to listen to his whole spiel before I found out what he really wanted.” From the German word for play.

A non-Jewish woman, often used derogatorily. It has the connotation of “young and beautiful,” so referring to a man’s Gentile wife or girlfriend as a shiksa implies that his primary attraction was her good looks. A shagetz or sheygets means a non-Jewish boy, and has the connotation of a someone who is unruly, even violent.

Dirt - a little dirt, not serious grime.
If a little boy has shmutz on his face, and he likely will, his mother will quickly wipe it off. It can also mean dirty language. It’s not nice to talk shmutz about shmutz.

Something you’re known for doing, an entertainer’s routine, an actor’s bit, stage business; a gimmick often done to draw attention to yourself.

Or tshatshke. Knick-knack, little toy, collectible or giftware. It also appears in sentences such as, “My brother divorced his wife for some little tchatchke.”

Pronounced "tookus." Rear end, bottom, backside, buttocks. In proper Yiddish, it’s spelled tuchis or tuches or tokhis, and was the origin of the American slang word, tush.

I am reminded of this classic clip:

More woids here.


  1. One of my favorite movie scenes is from the movie "Frisco Kid" with Harrison Ford as a cursing cowboy and Gene Wilder as a sweet Jewish they're diving off a cliff on their horses they sort of switch roles as Ford yells "Oy gavault" and Wilder yells "Oh shit"... if you've never seen this movie, you must see it...hilarious!!

  2. Probably my all time favorite SNL commercial.

  3. Oy vey iz mir. Now I want chicken soup. With a bagel and a schmear.

    BTW, where did you get that picture of me? I thought I burned all the Olan Mills pics.

  4. After all these years, I finally find out what Laverne and Shirley are saying? Damn.



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