Lexical Investigations: Mazel Tov

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.)

Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.


Mazel Tov

Though mazel tov can literally be translated as “good fortune” or “good luck,” the phrase is not used in Yiddish the same way as “good luck.” Whereas “good luck” expresses a wish that something will turn out well, mazel tov is a recognition that something good has already occurred—much more like “congratulations” along with “thank goodness.”

The Yiddish mazel tov derives from Hebrew words meaning a constellation of good stars and destiny.

As Leo Rosten noted in his classic, The Joys of Yiddish, “Don’t ‘mazel tov!’ a man going into the hospital; say ‘mazel tov!’ when he comes out. Do not say ‘mazel tov!’ to a fighter entering a ring (it suggests you are congratulating him for having made it to the arena), or a girl about to have her nose bobbed (which would mean ‘and about time, too!’).”

Mazel tov first appeared in an English publication in the late fifteenth century, though at that point, the spelling of this transliteration had not yet been standardized.

This Yiddish phrase and others were absorbed into American English as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe established homes throughout the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, The Industrial Removal Office, created in 1901 as part of the Jewish Agricultural Society, worked to relocate people from New York’s Lower East Side to communities around the country. Possibly as a result, instances of the phrase mazel tov in English publications surged in the early 1900s.

Popular References:

Mazel Tov Cocktail, Movie (2007)

“I Gotta Feeling,” Black Eye Peas, Song (2009). Contains the lyrics “Fill up my cup, mazel tov!”

“Tevye’s Dream,” Fiddler on the Roof, Song (1964). Contains a chorus of deceased ancestors singing “Mazel Tov” repeatedly.

Relevant Quotations:

“The atmosphere and even the ring was Chinese, with the possible exception of the Mazel-tov which was in the purest Yiddish as most of the friends of the bride could not find out how to render Mazeltov in Chinese.”

The Reform Advocate: America’s Jewish Journal, Volume 37, Issue 4 (1909)

“Suddenly Rebbe Hersh hose, removed his white kaftan, and wrapping it around the Maggid’s shoulders, wished him mazel tov, mazel tov, congratulations. After a moment of surprised silence, all those present joined in approvingly: Mazel tov, mazel tov, may the good star accompany our new leader.”

—Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters (1982)

Sources:

From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America, A Library of Congress Exhibition

“Jews in England,” Once a Week, Volume 7. Edited by Eneas Sweetland Dallas, 1862