Monday, January 3, 2011

SCHLEMIEL, SCHLEMAZEL--YIDDISH WORDS IN AMERICAN CULTURE

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight
Schlemiel, schlemazel, hasenfeffer incorporated
We're gonna do it!
Give us any chance, we'll take it
Give us any rule, we'll break it
We're gonna make our dreams come true....

And so goes the LaVerne and Shirley theme song, written by Norman Gimbel.

Many of you will recall the LaVerne and Shirley Show, a spinoff from Happy Days which documents the antics of Fonzie's friends, LaVerne DiFazio and Shirley Feeney who played roommates in Milwaukee. They may have been a lot of things, but they were certainly not Jewish.

The English language is so rich because, unlike French, it welcomes foreign words into the language. Many non-Jewish Americans find themselves using now English words borrowed from Yiddish and other languages without even realizing it. Certain thoughts can be better expressed with one well placed word to replace a whole explanation in English. This is how new words come into the language. Many Jewish entertainers and script writers over the past 100 years have sprinkled their acts with Yiddish words so that now such words have come into common use. They used their shtick (comic theme or gimmick) to bring those words into the English language and American culture.

The Yiddish language is quite similar to German. The words are usually pronounced similarly but spelled differently, perhaps because Yiddish was traditionally written using Hebrew characters. Also, keep in mind that the connotations of certain words are different in Yiddish than in English. For example, the word chutzpah in English means gall, audacity or nerve, but in a positive way to describe an aggressive or successful person. In Yiddish, however, the example given by popular writer Leo Rosten is that chutzpah describes a young man who kills his parents and asks for mercy because he is an orphan!

Yiddish works well for describing the inconveniences or disagreeable people you encounter in life. A schlemiel is a clumsy, inept person, a klutz. On the other hand, a schlimazel is a chronically unlucky person. He's probably a poor schnook also, a gullible person who is easily cheated or taken advantage of. For example, the schlemiel often spills his soup--in the schlimazel's lap. Maybe he's a schmo also, a stupid person.

Stay away from a schmuck, or a putz which are insulting terms describing a foolish person, or a jerk. Both words refer to the penis. In the movie, Grumpy Old Men, Walter Matthau frequently calls Jack Lemmon a putz. A friend you try to avoid is the schnorrer, or beggar, because he hits you up for money. But if he steals it, he''s also a gonif (thief or scoundrel), a word often used to describe politicians. These aforementioned words usually describe men, but we have colorful words to describe women also.

Many think of a yenta as a matchmaker like the character in Fiddler on the Roof. The real meaning of the word is a talkative women or a gossip who gets in other people's business. So in Fiddler, a schmaltzy (excessively sentimental) movie the Yenta character really was a yenta. If a woman is plump or voluptuous, like your bubbe (grandmother), she is zaftig. Men often lament that their wives and kids kvetch (complain) too much and they must be told to stop hakn a tchynik (breaking a china teapot) which also means nagging or bothering incessantly. The women counter that their men kibitz (offer unwanted advice) too much rather than schmooze (make small talk). In a poker game, a kibitzer is a spectator offering advice but won't put up his own money to play. This self described expert is sarcastically called a maven, which is best described as a know-it-all.

We all aspire to become a macher, a big shot or important person. Las Vegas became Las Vegas because of gonifs from Chicago or Cleveland who moved there and became machers. In Vegas, they no longer had to schmeer (bribe) the authorities because gambling was legal. Thus, a gangster could go straight, organize charities, and become a mensch, an honorable man who does the right thing.

Many immigrants of 100 years ago went into the rag trade, selling schmattas from pushcarts on the Lower East Side of New York or Chicago's Maxwell Street. A schmatta is a rag, but more in the sense of low quality clothing like the schlock that you would buy at a rummage sale--or from a street peddler. Hard goods might be tchotchkes (toys), which I'll get into later. In any event, schlock refers to any type of cheap or inferior merchandise, like souvenirs you'd buy at tourist traps. The more vulgar word for that would be dreck (crap or sh*t), as in "you want ten dollars for this dreck!" Then you have to schlep the stuff home. To schlep is to drag or haul a large or heavy object at great inconvenience, like in "why is this schmuck making us schlep these schmattas and heavy clothes to Florida?" He must be meshuga (crazy).

We often use Yiddishisms to express mild obscenities where the English word might be inappropriate. For example tuchis or tush is a person's buttocks or rear end where you don't say "ass" in polite company. The word shtup, which literally means to fill, push or poke can be used in the sense "you keep shtuping the grandkids with candy to keep them quiet." But the word can also mean "intercourse". So the traveling salesman gives his spiel (sales pitch intended to persuade). If he uses it on a blonde tchotchke for a quick shtup, he'll have tsuris (trouble) when his wife finds out. If the salesman is much older, he's an alte kaker (old fart) . But don't tell that to Hugh Hefner.

As we said earlier dreck is any kind of worthless material, but substitutes for "crap". The word bupkes literally means "animal droppings" but in English means "nothing". For example, " I've been working on the deal for months and received bupkes. Then they give the deal to a little pisher (greenhorn or young, inexperienced person). " The term pisher actually refers to the penis of a young boy. Don't get me started on the mohel who performs the bris (circumcision) of the young boy.

With the popularity of delicatessens, some of the foods we eat are Yiddish words. Kosher means conforming to Jewish dietary laws, but in English, it means "legitimate" or "appropriate". If you hear of a shady or suspicious scheme, it probably doesn't sound kosher. Most of us are familiar with foods like bagels, blintzes, lox (smoked salmon), latkes or kishke that you would nosh (snack) on.

Oy vey, an unexpected Yiddish word is glitch, a minor malfunction, as in a computer.

The bottom line here is that the English language borrows liberally from many languages but, as one can see, many of the most "colorful" words are those borrowed from Yiddish.

KENNETH SUSKIN

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3 Comments:

Blogger stephanie gale said...

Mazel Tov! I'd have to be a 'noodnik' not to love this great post! You'd be justified in feeling 'kvell', for it's clever fun! But such a 'shanda' that this amazingly rich language is dying out. Thanks for making this old Bronx 'shiksa' feel downright 'Yiddishkeit'!

January 14, 2011 at 3:27 PM  
Blogger kenneth suskin said...

Thank you for your kind words.

KEN SUSKIN

January 14, 2011 at 4:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a Schlimazel :-(

August 9, 2013 at 11:43 AM  

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