Yiddish Words That Will Make You A Maven

Yiddish

Like English, the Yiddish language is a mixture of many tongues. Its main influences are German and Hebrew, fused with elements of Slavic and Aramaic vocabulary.

It's written using Hebrew characters and pronounced with German inflection, and the language has brought many well-loved words to English. So, let's explore some of the Yiddish-inspired words we've all been using (without even knowing). By the end of this, you'll be a Yiddish maven!

maven

Speaking of maven, maven means "an expert or connoisseur," and it entered Yiddish via the Hebrew word mebhin (meaning "one who understands"). In the early 1950s, maven entered popular English usage. A 1952 article in The New York Times Magazine used an early transliteration of this Yiddish term to complain about know-it-all customers.

tushie

This word that is fun to say (and funny to think about): tushie. Literally meaning "the buttocks," tushie is a variation of the Yiddish tokhes (or tokus). It was added into English vernacular around 1960, and it seems to be a word everyone loves.

glitch

A glitch is "a malfunction in something, often a machine or in a block of code," but this tech jargon was on the lips of European grandparents long before sparks flew from a keyboard.Glitch is likely derived from the Yiddish glitsh, meaning "a slip," which is from the German root glitschen. Astronaut John Glenn helped bring the word into popular usage in his 1962 book Into Orbit. "Another term we adopted to describe some of our problems was 'glitch,'" Glenn writes, "literally ... spike or change in voltage."

Spiel

A spiel is "a high-flown talk or speech," often given in the style of a sales pitch. The word can also be used in a verb sense, to spiel ("to give such a speech"). It is derived from the original Yiddish and German spielen meaning "to play."

In 1896, the term was on the way to its current definition when spiel meant "to speak in a glib manner." But, an 1870 source maintained that definition by claiming to spiel meant "to play circus music," which is related to the German word singspiel (which literally means "a singing play").

chutzpah

This spirited word came to English from Yiddish in the 1890s. It means "audacity, nerve, gall, and courage bordering on arrogance." First transliterated as khutspe from the original Yiddish, our modern chutzpah was perhaps best defined by humorist and Yiddish lexicographer Leo Rosten as "that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan."

schmooze

This worldly word was introduced to English in the early 1900s from the Yiddish shmuesn meaning "to chat." Schmooze was used in a 1939 edition of The New Yorker discussing the social habits of New York's fashion elite: "But schmoozing in the garment district is more than just a lot of idle chatter. Schmoozing is a careful tradition, dear to the hearts of everyone in New York's most thickly populated business section."

tchotchke

A tchotchke (or chotchke, pronounced chahch-kuh) is "an inexpensive souvenir, trinket, or ornament." The word entered the American vernacular in the late 1960s from the Yiddish tshatshke (from similar terms in the Slavic languages, including the Polish word meaning "knickknack," czaczko). Tchotchke also meant "pretty girl," but this version of the word has largely fallen out of use in English.

plotz

To plotz is "to collapse or faint, as from surprise, excitement, or exhaustion." The word is derived from the Yiddish platsn meaning "to crack" or "split" (which is from the Middle High German platzen meaning "to burst").Plotz gained popularity in American English in the 1940s. In Patricia Welles's 1967 book Babyhip, she writes, "'You're not smoking that filthy thing in here. I'll plotz,' Mrs. Green said."

schmaltz

Have you ever heard musicians and performers talk about their level of schmaltz? Well, they're talking about chicken fat.

In the kitchen, schmaltz refers to "fat or grease most commonly from a chicken and often used in soups." In Yiddish, schmaltz means "melted fat," but in the 1930s the word took on the figurative meaning of an overly sentimental or overwrought performance. A 1935 issue of Vanity Fair described it as "a derogatory term used to describe straight jazz."

meshuga

Meshuga (or meshugga) is an adjective meaning “crazy” or “foolish.” It’s derived from the Yiddish verb shagag, “to wander, go astray.” William Safire (he of the famed “On Language” column in The New York Times) described a word like meshuga as filling a "vocabugap (vo-CAB-you-gap).” Because English has no equivalent word to meshuga, he reasons, the original word has crossed over into popular use.

shtick

Steve Allen’s 1987 book How To Be Funny is peppered with the word shtick (or shtik, schtick). And with good reason. Comedy loves this word, which is used to mean “a routine or piece of business inserted to gain a laugh or draw attention to oneself” or “one's special interest, talent.”

In the Yiddish, shtik means “a slice,” and comes from the German word for stücke (“piece, play”). As Allen quipped, “Let's all do some schtick. I'll schtick it to you, and you schtick it to me.”

nosh

If you’re headed to a nosh-house, you’re on your way to a restaurant. While you seldom hear this word, you do hear nosh, which means “to snack or eat between meals.”

It derives from the Yiddish nashn for “nibble," and it can have a connotation of eating in an unhealthy manner. If you’re fond of this word, try nosherai, which would refer to the snack itself. Your party just got a little fancier with nosherai!

schmear

What do cream cheese and cheaters have in common? The word schmear! Derived from shmir, which is the Yiddish for “spread,” this word has very varied uses. You can schmear (“spread”) cream cheese on a bagel, or you can ask “Who did he have to schmear ('bribe') to get this job?”

Another common translation is also used in a business sense: the whole schmear describes the whole “number of related things … attitude, plan, or the like.”

schmutz

Schmutz (“dirt or garbage”) is a variation from the Middle High German noun smutzen (“to soil”). According to Chabad.org, it should be pronounced to rhyme with “puts,” not “cuts.”

Cleanliness is an important value in Judaism, and a word like schmutz (and its related adjective schmutzike) can be used to refer to the literal washing of hands and also keeping one’s self figuratively clean (refraining from cursing, for example). As one mother bird says in a Yiddish tale, “Little Bird, the world doesn’t smell—there’s just a piece of schmutz stuck to your beak.”

Oy!

And finally, we give you one of the most beloved Yiddish interjections of all, oy or oy vey. The term combines the Yiddish shout of dismay oy, with the German term meaning "woe," weh.

Used mainly to express annoyance, Oy vey! is the quintessential expression for that moment when you miss the train, spill red wine on your white tablecloth, or simply can't hear another word from your mother-in-law.

SIGN UP FOR A VOCABULARY BOOST IN YOUR EMAIL
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The Dictionary Is More Than The Word Of The Day

Enter your email for quizzes, quotes, and word facts in your inbox every day.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.