14 Hebrew & Yiddish Terms I Use a Lot - & One I Can't Stand

Thursday, August 16, 2018


My maternal grandfather's mother, Katie, for whom I'm named, spoke very little English. She immigrated to the U.S. from Poland before World War II, & as my mom tells it, she never quite got the hang of English. She spoke Yiddish almost exclusively.

Because my grandparents lived in a very not-Jewish area of the U.S. (that'd be Lima, OH) during a time when American Jews were trying to blend in, I never heard much Yiddish out of them - even though I'm told that my grandfather & his two sisters spoke it fairly well. My mom knows & uses a few stray phrases that I've picked up since childhood. Eleven years ago (!), I started working at a Jewish nonprofit, & since then, my Hebrew/Yiddish vocabulary has expanded.

Here are a few of the phrases I use on the regular - & one I hope you won't.

1. Oy (Ugh)

Everybody's familiar with the term "Oy vey," but my mom doesn't say that nearly as much as she says "Oy" alone. It's pronounced less like "Oy" & more like a very fast "Aaaii," a sort of guttural, Yiddishe sound that's impossible to write out. Whenever Joyce says "oy," I know something is going on. Either she's peeved or annoyed or in disbelief or has some opinions to share.

2. Mazal tov (Congratulations)

This is my default congratulatory greeting, though I find myself saying it to everyone, including people who aren't Jewish. Most people know what it means, but non-Jews are always a little confused to hear it (like the time my friends got engaged & I said "Mazal tov!" to their very Catholic parents). Pull a will.i.am & embrace it, goyishe friends!

3. Schlep (Lug)

Moving? So much to schlep to the new place! Carrying all your worldly possessions on the subway because you've got happy hour & the gym after work? You're schlepping a lot of stuff. Mom's making you carry her bags while you shop together? You're thinking, "Schlep your own shit, lady." (Don't say that to your mom, though. Love you, Joyce.)

5. Shvitz (Sweat)

As the world's self-proclaimed sweatiest human, I've passed the point of feeling like this word describes me. To me, shvitz is the flop-sweat that creeps in when you're nervous about something, or it's when you're just starting to glisten. But I am usually sweating like a whore in church, to mix some religious metaphors, so I'm typically far beyond shvitzing.

6. Kavod (Honor/Glory)

This word has a few translations & can be used in a lot of ways. The most common is "Kol ha'kavod," or literally "All the honor," which you might say to someone who has completed a difficult task, put on a great performance, gotten into a great college, etc. I usually use kavod in the middle of English sentences, though, like, "That project was actually my coworker's idea, so she deserves the kavod for it."

7. Shanda (Shame/Embarrassment)

No, not the one who created Grey's Anatomy & other such pop culture gems - though some people might consider it a shanda that I still watch & love that show. A common phrase is "a shanda fur die goy," which means something like "An embarrassment to the Jews,"

8. Schmutz (Dirt)

I am most commonly found saying this one to my husband, i.e. "Your shirt is covered in cat fur & you've got schmutz in your beard."

9. Balagan (Mess)

This isn't the sort of mess you might find in an unkempt home; it's the kind of mess that applies to a situation, especially one that has escalated - like when a work project has gotten out of hand or a gossipy game of telephone has resulted in serious issues. "What a balagan," you mutter, shaking your head & stepping away quietly.

10. Mishegas (Craziness)

Similar to a balagan, yes, but lightly different. Chris Matthews once referred to "fake news" as mishegas, & actually, the word probably nicely applies to the entirety of the Trump administration (though the Russia stuff is becoming a real balagan). The Yiddish word for a crazy person is "meshugga," which perfectly describes our Cheeto in Chief, too.

11. Mensch (Good person)

Here's one that doesn't describe the leader of the free world - though I would still use it to describe his predecessor. A mensch is anyone out there doing good, whether they're fighting for a better world or just walking a little old lady across the street. The word for doing such acts of good is menschlichkeit. 

12. Shmatte (Rag)

This is literally the word for, like, what you'd use to mop of a spill, but it's also more commonly used, today, to refer to clothing. The Olsen twins are a perfect example of celebs who were expensive dresses that always look like shmattes. And basically, I aspire to dress only in black shmattes so that I can someday achieve my dream of dressing like a crazy old bag lady.

13. Tchotchkes (Knick-knacks)

This is another one you probably know, but you've probably been spelling it wrong. In Savannah last fall for my bachelorette party, my friends & I stopped into a crowded store that I described as being "full of fun tchotchkes." My friend Elise, who I don't see often in person, responded, "You still use that word, huh?" to which I answered, "Well, I'm still Jewish."

14. Hock me a cheynik (To bother or nag)

There's a fun story to go with this one: This is the only Yiddish phrase my mom really said when I was growing up, but I didn't know it was Yiddish. I always thought she was saying, "Don't hock me to China about it," meaning "Don't nag me." I said it back to her one day, & I will never forget the look on her face as she realized what I was saying - & what I'd thought the phrase really was, all these years.

Bonus: And one phrase not to say...

It has been my experience that, upon learning I'm Jewish, a number of people have responded with "Shalom!" I cannot eye-roll hard enough at this.

Look, I get it. Shalom, which means hello, goodbye, & peace, is, like, the primary Hebrew word that most American non-Jews know. And that's cool. But to just shout "Shalom!" at a person when you learn that they're a Jew is the equivalent to yelling "Arigato!" at a Japanese person or "Hola!" at a Hispanic person. It's sort of stupid, it's not endearing, & it's vaguely racist, to boot.

What's your ethnicity? Do you use any non-English words in your everyday life? Do you use any of these?! 

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