Where does oy vey come from?
Oy vey comes from the Yiddish oy vey, which is translated and related to the English oh woe. It’s often uttered as a defeated-sounding sigh. Evidence for the phrase as borrowed into English dates back to the early 1900s.
Fewer than 200,000 Americans are estimated to speak Yiddish, making native utterances of oy vey relatively rare. However, oy vey thrives among American Jewish and non-Jewish speakers alike thanks to its appearance in popular media, especially from Jewish comedians like Larry David of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame. On Seinfeld, the character Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) notably issues some choice oy vey‘s.
Examples of oy vey
Who uses oy vey?
Oy vey is sometimes shortened to oy or seen in the longer expression, oy vey iz mir (“woe is me”). Earnest uses of oy vey, outside of its role as a trope in American Jewish comedy, tends to be associated with older Jewish Americans.
The late Jewish rapper Mac Miller released a track called “Oy Vey” in 2011. On it, he raps: “One day I’m a be so rich and I can buy my moms a house /
Have a livin’ room with a big TV and I’m a still sleep on the couch / I’m a have ’em like / Oy vey, holy cow, oh my god, wow.”
Thanks to the influence of Jewish culture on American life, oy vey is used by a wide variety of people regardless of background. It comments on a horrifying, frustrating, or wearisome situation, especially one one feels resigned to or can’t do anything about.
Stuck on highway 1 now. Oy vey pic.twitter.com/DMiuojippU
— John Hooper (@MrJohnHooper) October 2, 2018
Status update: Final flight delayed by 4 HOURS. 🤦♀️🤦♀️🤦♀️ Oy vey.
— Nicole (@faultmypride) October 2, 2018
But, of course, we can’t have nice things, so oy vey also is sometimes used in anti-Semitic content and other derogatory Jewish stereotypes.
This is not meant to be a formal definition of oy vey like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of oy vey that will help our users expand their word mastery.