Oy! Adding a Little Yiddish to Your English

I am proudly one-sixteenth Jewish. For most of my life, I didn’t even know that. I think I learned of my Jewish heritage in my teens or 20s. However, I realized the other day how many Yiddish words I naturally use! Perhaps Jewish genes are just that strong. Whatever the reason, on this Amaze-ing Words Wednesday I invite you all to add a little Yiddish to your English.

Below are some of my favorite Yiddish words that we English-speakers have incorporated, along with their definitions from Dictionary.com and examples of usage.

bupkes. absolutely nothing; something worthless. Stupid muse. I stared at my screen for hours and wrote bupkes last night.

chutzpah. unmitigated effrontery or impudence; gall; audacity; nerve. You’ve got a lot of chutzpah to ask me out after I divorced your brother!

glitch. a defect or malfunction in a machine or plan. There is a glitch in SPECTRE’s plan to take over the world.

klutz. a clumsy, awkward person. I am such a klutz that I fell off the stage right after accepting my Oscar.

maven. an expert or connoisseur. I would love to be a maven of words and their origins.

mensch. a decent responsible person with admirable characteristics. My little brother paid for our lunch with his first paycheck; he’s such a mensch.

putz. fool; jerk. (In Yiddish, literally penis.) Get your hand off my knee, you putz!

schmaltz. exaggerated sentimentalism, as in music or soap operas. (In Yiddish, it’s literally chicken fat.) My guy won’t watch chick flicks with me because he says they’re all schmaltz.

schlep. to carry; lug. I schlepped my grocery sacks up the stairs to my apartment.

schmooze. to chat idly; gossip. At every work party, I have to schmooze with the higher-ups for at least an hour.

schmuck. obnoxious or contemptible person. (In Yiddish, literally penis.) My friend’s ex-husband better watch out because I have no patience for that schmuck.

schmutz. dirt; filth; garbage. Hey, you have a little schmutz on your cheek. Want me to wipe it off?

schpiel. (In Yiddish, to play a game.) a usually high-flown talk or speech, especially for the purpose of luring people to a movie, a sale, etc.; pitch. The politician gave me the whole schpiel on why I should vote for him.

tuchas. the buttocks. After sitting in this chair for hours, I can barely feel my tuchas.

It might help to practice making your h have a little k sound in it as well. That will help with words like “chutzpah” and “tuchas.” Also, you should note that spellings of these words in English vary. For instance, you might see hutzpah, chutzpah, or khutzpah. Take your pick.

When you get comfortable with Yiddish words, you can start talking in Yinglish (Yiddish/English). For instance, “Rosie schlepped through the mall with her packages, while I got bupkes. Some putz had stolen my card, and the credit company kept saying it was a glitch. I had to schmooze my way up to a manager who had the chutzpah to give me his schpiel about upgrading to a gold card. Oy, what a schmuck. It’s just as well, I suppose. I can’t find any pants these days to fit my big tuchas.”

If you still need some help, perhaps this video will help: Yiddish with Dick and Jane (based on a book of the same name by Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman).

Do you have any favorite Yiddish words? Do you find yourself using any of the ones above? What Yiddish words would you add to my list?

Sources: The Yiddish Handbook: 40 Words You Should Know – Daily Writing Tips; Yiddish Phrases – Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara; Some Yiddish Words – HebrewforChristians.com; Dictionary.com

33 thoughts on “Oy! Adding a Little Yiddish to Your English

  1. LOVE IT!! I was shocked that there were plenty of words I didn’t know – some I did. I’ve used glitch, putz, schlep and a few others. I LOVE tuchas and am sooo going to work that in. LOL!! Love the video to get the true sense of the words…LOL!!

  2. I never knew what some of these really meant and am grateful for the definitions. We DO really use these a lot, don’t we, and many of us have no Jewish heritage. A lot of these words are so perfect to describe certain situations.
    Thank you.

  3. I use a lot of these words and did not know they were yiddish. And I even learned something new today. I did not know mensch was something positive. I always thought it meant a grinch or a tightwad. I always learn something on your Wednesday posts.

  4. My daughter’s name is hebrew and starts with the “Ch” sound like in chutzpah or challah–it’s rare that anyone can get that guttural h/k sound right! My husband and I were young when we thought it would be so traditional and lovely to pick that name–oy vey, right? But she’s used to the mispronunciations now! 🙂 My father in law is Israeli and grew up with some yiddish–it’s funny when he “lovingly” refers to my husband as a “yutz.”

    1. Really, Coleen? I bet her name is lovely. I think I could pronounce it after having practiced these! I have to look up “yutz” now. I don’t remember that one.

    2. She’ll love her name when she gets older! It will remind her of family. That’s lovely.

  5. Thanks for the vocab, though I knew most of them it was fun to read.
    Did you ever watch The Frisco Kid? Gene Wilder plays a Polish rabbi and Harrison Ford is a bank robber who befriends him back in the wild west. It’s kind of cute.

    1. No, I haven’t seen The Frisco Kid! Gene Wilder & Harrison Ford? I never knew they did anything together, but I like both of these actors. I should check it out. Thanks, Donna!

  6. LOL. OK, I hate to admit this, but when I heard many of these words before I thought they were made up, just to sound funny or to suggest something without actually saying it. I’m so dumb!


    1. And this is how we feel about some of those British words, Nigel! Did y’all make those up? LOL. Actually, one of the delights of English is how we beg, borrow, and steal words for every other language and then make them our own.

    2. Actually, you’re sort of right. They are made up words. Yiddish (or “Jewish” as it was often called”) was formed as a mix between Hebrew and German due to the political and governman practice of isolating Jewish settlements. Hebrew was considered a holy language and not for every day use. It was pretty radical that Hebrew was chosen as the national language of Israel, and post WWII jews did NOT want to speak yiddish like their parents, it was considered the old country/ghetto language. My grandparents were that generation and spoke some yiddish, but only to their parents. Never outside the home.

  7. Julie…no wonder we’re so cozy together. I’m a shiksa (non-Jewish female, usually blonde) who grew up in a neighborhood where, if you were were white you were Jewish. Otherwise, it was mostly black. Yiddish was like a second language to me for many, many years.

    As long as you remember that “punim” is ‘cute face’ (which is different than Purim, the holiday) and that the grannies will pinch it and call you “bubbeh,” all is fine.

    1. Ah, punim sounds wonderful. (And Purim always sounds fun — with the noisemakers and all.) My grandma never used any of this stuff, even with her Jewish heritage. Maybe I’ll have my grandkids call me bubbe some day. Thanks, Jenny!

  8. What a fun post! I’m stupid and had no idea (actually never really thought about it) that glitch and klutz were yiddish. Very cool! Thanks for sharing.

  9. Well I’m 100% Jewish and my grandmothers speak a lot of Yiddish. Sadly it’s dying as a spoken language, but it’s fun that so much Yiddish has become part of American vernacular. My favorites are “Shpilkes” I’m not sure of the literal definition, but it’s what my son has when he has the wiggles and can’t sit still. “He’s got the Shpilkes” Also, “B’shert” as in meant to be or fate. But it’s so much more than that. It can mean when you meet the love of your life, or when those strange cosmic universe things happen that just seem to make sense. “It’s B’Shert”

    1. Lynne, these are awesome! I love “B’shert”! How can I slip that into a novel and have all the non-Jews know what I’m talking about? Thanks for the new words.

    1. Multilingual indeed, Alica! Can I count Tex-Mex words as a whole other language too? I’m not fluent in anything but English, and sometimes not even in that.

  10. I had no idea some of these were Yiddish – fun! A long time ago, I worked for a guy who occasionally used to come out to the work area and grumble at us to “stop futzing around” and get back to work. 😀

    1. Hey, Jennette, I looked it up. Futz: To waste time or effort on frivolities. There’s another Yiddish word I need to add to my vocabulary. Thanks!

  11. My very German family (with Jewish sprinkled in – we call my Father the Closest Jew as he is a Christian – I prefer Messianic Jew…ha!) relied heavily on Yiddish words. Has anyone else heard ‘fotch-face’? My family used it to describe cranky-ness. Quit your Kvetching (whining, complaining)! Oh! She’s meshugga (crazy). Everyone was schmlatzing over my new dress (gushing). Yeah, he was schmoozing sie up (chatting you up!) It’s time to dust the chatchkes (things on the table, decorations, knick-knacks). What a mamzer (disgusting person). Add in little terms of endearment like Eema (Mama), schmootzie (I guess like poopsie), Putchka (another little nickname) and getting verklempt (choked up) and you’ve got an idea! Ha. Love this post, Julie. :}

    1. Oh my goodness, Nadja, this is awesome! I should have just interviewed you for this post! I love the word “verklempt” and have also used “kvetch” a few times. The others I wasn’t familiar with.These are great! Thanks for sharing.

Comments are closed.