Yiddish Expressions Everyone Should Know
What is Yiddish?
Yiddish is a hybrid language born in Eastern and Central Europe during the Middle Ages. It is comprised of German, Hebrew, and Slavic, with Romance language and other elements too.
The Yiddish language has pervaded other cultures so much so that the odds are high that almost everyone you have spoken with has used Yiddish at some point, perhaps without even noticing!
The following list is just a sample of the myriads upon myriads of Yiddish words and phrases used in everyday language... with a little Yinglish thrown in for good measure.
Yiddish Words and Phrases and Their Meanings
Alevay: (ah-le-VAI) May it be so; if only...; as if (ironically)
All right already!: It's enough!, Shut up!, I can't take any more of this!, an expression of exasperation
Appetizing: Not an adjective, this word refers to the dairy and fish goods of a deli (i.e. herring, lox, cheeses, etc.) but not meat. Traditionally served with bagels.
Ay ay ay!: This all-inclusive and eloquent expression can be used to signify regret, happiness, surprise, scorn, worry, admonition, rebuke, or congratulations. Just don't confuse it with oy oy oy!
Blintz: A thin pancake rolled around cheese or fruit filling, served with sour cream
Borscht: Beet soup, or cherry soup
Chak: (KHAHK) To nag.
Chazzer: (KHAHZ-er) A glutton; a cheapskate; someone who takes advantage of another person
Chutzpah: (KHUTZ-pah) Boldness, shamelessness, or absolute gall
Daven: (DAH-ven) To pray
Dreck: Cheap, worthless, trashy
Eppes: (EPP-es) A little, something, kind of. But it also can mean large, very, or remarkable. It can also mean perhaps or maybe, debatable, or inexplicable. (I don't know why people get so confused about Yiddish. It's perfectly clear!)
Fancy-schmancy: (Yinglish) Overdone, pretentious, or trying to be classy but failing
Feh! (Yinglish) An expression of disgust, disapproval, or rejection
...in good health: A common phrase to end statements like "use it...", "wear it...", "take it..." etc. It's used to signify favorable feelings of the lender to the borrower.
Kibitzer: (KIB-itzer) Someone who offers unwelcome advice, jibber-jabbers, fools around, ticks his nose in where it doesn't belong, or wastes time
Klutz: A clumsy oaf, or someone without grace
Kvell: To beam with pride.
Kvetch: Complain, whine
Live a little: Used when you are telling someone not to be stingy, or skimp on what makes them feel good.
Mazel: (MAH-zil) Luck
Mentsch: An honorable, decent person; someone to look up to
Mishegas: (MISH-eh-goss) Craziness
Ongepatshket: (UNGa-potch-gut) Overdone, in excess, or having far too many of.
Oy: Another expression-of-all-expressions. Use this to indicate relief, worry, joy, revulsion, awe, pain, shock, surprise, outrage, contentment, dismay, disbelief, concern, irritation, or irony.
Oy oy oy!: An expression of suffering
Plotz: To explode; to be extremely aggravated or infuriated
Schlep: To carry or be burdened by
Shtarker: Musclebound, strongman, tough guy
Tsuris: (TZUHR-is) Troubles, problems, worries or afflictions
Examples of Yiddish Curses
Some old standbys are:
- He should have 100 houses, with 100 rooms in each house, and in each room ten beds each more luxurious than the last, and insomnia.
- May he own a large shop stocked full of expensive goods! And what he has, may no one want; and what they want, may he not have.
But if you're looking for something a bit more up to date, consider these instead. I’ve whipped up a couple short modern-day Yiddish-style curses. Use them in good health!
- She should have 1000 pairs of Manolos, and none of them fit.
- Shall your smartphone's notification sound constantly... and may it be your mother.
- May his posts go viral the day the Internet crashes.
How to Build a Curse, Yiddish-Style
The art of Yiddish curses originated in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where even if the inhabitants didn’t have much, they still had their pride… and the desire to outdo each other, at least in words. Think of it as old-school dance-offs.
So the next time someone insults you, try thinking in Yiddish instead of flinging back a swear word or flipping them the bird. That’s too good for the schmendrick! Here’s how to build a proper curse, Yiddish-style.
It’s all about planning: for a successful curse, one must act as soothsayer. As the curser, you must lull the cursee into a false sense of security and pride, then hit 'em where it hurts!
Also, consider the insult you have received, and don’t overdo your response curse. Never throw out curses without reason, despite the possible fun. (That’s just bad karma!)
What Do These Words Mean, Literally?
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- Rosten, Leo. Hooray for Yiddish: A Book About English. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982
For a wonderfully appropriate short story about Yiddish curses, read:
- My Mother Was a Witch, by William Tenn (Philip Klass), 1966