Oy Vey - it's Yiddish! 20 words you should know

My Dad was raised in the Bronx by his Lithuanian parents to whom Yiddish was their primary language.  But like so many 1st generation Americans, the focus was on assimilation and speaking English.  Dad mostly spoke Yiddish with his sister (my Mom was a 2nd generation American and spoke very little Yiddish).  Still, there was a bissel of Yiddish in our home and as happens, it was often used to say things they didn't want the kids to understand.  One of my Dad's sayings was "Zolst vaksen vi a tsiba'le, mit kop in d'rerd!"   He meant it as "you are driving me nuts", but it means "you should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground!"  Like so much in Yiddish, it is very emotionally expressive, but loses something in the translation.  

The term machetunim refers to in-laws.  But an Auntie of mine, who was a very funny lady, used to refer to the Machetunim and the Machetooties.  One being the male side and the other the female side of the family.  It was not until I was in my 30's, and taking a Yiddish language class at the JCC, that I learned she had made up Machetooties.  It sounded so like a Yiddish word I never thought to question it!  Vey is mir! which is similar to “Woe is me!” and like Oy vey! but a lot worse.  In Yiddish, it can always get worse!
Man Plans and God Laughs
With its mixture of German with Hebrew,  Aramaic, Slavic, and even some Romance Languages, it is written in Hebrew, but thankfully it can be found in English transliteration.   No kvetching or kvelling, here is a list of 20 common Yiddish words that everyone should know:

Bissel (bisl)— A little bit, as in “I just want to eat a bissel right now.”

Bubbe (bubby) — Grandmother

Chutzpah —Nerve, extreme arrogance, brazen presumption, confidence.

Kibbitz - To chat

Klutz — A clumsy person

Kvell — To experience pride in someone else, typically one’s children, as in “David decided to go into oncology, and I’m just kvelling.”

Kvetch — To complain, whine or fret, as in “He likes to kvetch at me when we serve kasha varniskes, because he doesn’t like it.”

Mensch (mentsch)— Literally “man,” an honorable, decent, stand-up person, as in, “I don’t care who you marry, as long as he’s a mensch.”

Meshuggeneh — Crazy, ridiculous, insane, as in, “He must be meshuggeneh to think he can wear that getup to a funeral.” (A related word is mishegoss, or craziness.)

Mishpocheh (mishpokhe, mishpucha)— Family, or someone who is “like family”

Nosh — To eat or nibble, as in “I’d like something to nosh on before dinner.” Can also be used as a noun to mean any kind of food.

Oy vey—An expression of woe, as in “Oy vey, we left the gefilte fish at the grocery store!”

Putz — a fool, an idiot, a person who lacks good judgment.

Schlep — To carry or travel with difficulty, as in “We shlepped here all the way from New Jersey.”

Schmooze (shmooze)— Chat, make small talk, converse about nothing in particular.

Schmuck (shmuck)—A jerk, or a self-made fool, but this word literally means penis.

Shande (shanda, shonda) — A scandal, embarrassment.

Shmatte — A rag or old garment.

Tchotchke (tchatchke)— Knick-knack, little toy, collectible or giftware.

Tuches (tuchis, tuchas) — Butt, behind, sometimes shortened to tush or tushy.  Also found in another great Dad saying "The mind can only absorb what the tuchas can endure".


So as Dad also used to say - Zie gesunt.  Go in good health.


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  • Joanne Leibowitz on

    Hi Sara,
    Love this. My dad was also raised in the Bronx, and my grandparents were from Lithuania as well. Maybe we’re related. Lol.

  • Judith Chase on

    Thanks for the translations, Sara, to many expressions I heard when growing up in Queens. it’s fun to use them with old friends. Be well.

  • Barbara on

    Tested my vocabulary knowledge with each word. Loved reading about Yiddish.

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