Monday, April 30, 2012

Yiddish? Hebrew? Oy vey!

S_L_M by Last-Dino - A quick vectorization of Shalom-Salaam-Peace graphic from Wikimedia en:Image:ShalomSalamPeaceIsraelisPalestinians.png This graphically shows the similarity between Hebrew and Arabic, displaying a shared cultural heritage.We all know that the English language is changing at a faster pace due to the Internet. As more people around the world connect, we pick up words from other languages and soon they become an accepted part of whatever language we speak.
Spanish is most quickly assimilated language in the United States but Yiddish terms have been a part of American English for decades. Being an American English speaking Methodist, I was always confused about the difference between Yiddish and Hebrew.
Hebrew is an ancient Semitic language along with Arabic, Amharic and other sub-African groups. It is from ancient Canaan and spoken and written by various people regionally. It has its own alphabet with no written vowels. The reader supplies the vowels. It has strict rules and is slow to change. It died down but it has emerged especially since the formation of Israel in 1948 and the end of the Holocaust. What is used now, mainly by Jews, is Modern Hebrew and spoken and written in Israel with pockets in the United States.
Yiddish is a non-territorial, High Germanic language originating with Ashkenazi Jews in the 10th century. It is spoken around the world but mainly by Jews in Germany and the United States. It uses a modified Hebrew alphabet with many more casual rules than Hebrew. Both Hebrew and Yiddish are considered official languages of Israel. Hebrew is the designated language for government, education, signs and official speak. More and more signs are being printed in Hebrew, Yiddish and English in Israel but use of Yiddish is dying down in other parts of the world as fewer people speak it.
“Hebrew is not Yiddish just because they use the same letter system. English, Spanish & French all share the same alphabet system yet no one would argue that these three languages are one and the same! The same is the case for Hebrew and Yiddish, they use the same alphabet system but they are two different languages." (
Adaptations of terms from other languages present a problem for the well educated and writers, educated or not. As writers, we need to know how to use them correctly. Here are some Yiddish and Hebrew words and phrases often used or heard by English speaking people.
Aleichem shalom—to you be peace
Shalom (Hebrew), sholom (Yiddish) means completeness, peace, hello or good-bye. The meaning is based on the Jewish belief that we want the best health for people so we wish them that in greeting or closure.
L’chaim—To life!
Zel Gesund—To your health!
Drek—worthless material
Ess—Eat! Eat!
Goyisher maze—good luck
Glick—a piece of good luck
Mensch—decent person
Hamish—down to earth person
Mitzvah—blessing or congratulations
Bobbemyseh—old wives’ tale; nonsense
Nebbish—inadequate or insignificant person
Fe! or Fey!—expression of disgust
Goy—used to mean “nation” in ancient times but now means gentile; can be used disparagingly or with respect
Nudnik—a persistent pest
Bupkes—worth nothing
Handle—to bargain
Kibitz—to offer unwanted advice, especially in a group or game situation
Yutz—a fool
Zaftig—pleasingly plump, buxom woman
Oy! or Oy vey!—exclamation of pain, grief or horror
Shemiel, Schmazel—idiot, jerk; one with consistent bad luck. The difference between a shlemiel and a shlimazl is described through the aphorism, "A shlemiel is somebody who often spills his soup; a shlimazl is the person the soup lands on."
Bubbe, bubbeh—grandmother
Chutpah—daring, audacity, both positive and negative connotations

P. S. Remember that our Can You Haiku? contest starts tomorrow, May 1! 

1 comment:

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

If I could add another career to the stack, I'd become an etymologist. I just adore the study of words and their origins. Thanks, Jennifer!