10 Essential Words in Judeo-English

Dear Josep,

After the rousing success of “15 Weird Things Jews Do,” it is now time to elaborate on item #15. 😉

Much as you and I are kindred spirits, and much as our friendship has defied significant distances over space, time, language, culture, religion, and lifestyle (to name a few!), those gaps do sometimes cause confusion and frustration.

It was when I began writing to you regularly that I noticed that it was not just you who was struggling to communicate in English. My normal way of expressing myself–in general, but particularly when I was talking about Judaism–included a surprising amount of words from other languages. Mostly Hebrew and Yiddish, but also Aramaic and even Arabic. I hadn’t even realized how often I used these words and phrases until I found myself constantly translating myself for you.

It was only recently that I realized that this is because my mother tongue is not actually English.

It is Judeo-English. (Or as it is more often called, Jewish English.)

You see, I recently read a book called “The Languages of the Jews: A Sociolinguistic History” by Professor Bernard Spolsky. (Well, of course I did. History, Judaism, and linguistics all in one academic volume?! Yes please!!!) The book explores the usage of various languages by Jews throughout history, and you can imagine that this is a vast and fascinating topic. We are unique in that we have lived among many, many different cultures and acquired hundreds of different languages, and yet, through much of history, we lived in groups that were distinct from the native population. So our exposure to the languages of our neighbors was somewhat limited, and our most intense contact was with other Jews, with whom we maintained a working knowledge of the languages in which we prayed and studied–Hebrew and Aramaic.

These conditions created a unique phenomenon: Jews developed their own variety of the languages of our “host” cultures. Sometimes this variety was not much different from the “host” language–just a few words and phrases from Hebrew and Aramaic thrown in. But sometimes it became a dialect with its own grammar and syntax, or indeed a language of its own. The most well-known of these languages are, of course, Yiddish, and the varieties of Judeo-Spanish known as Ladino, Judezmo, or Haketia. But Jews developed their own variety of almost every language they spoke–from Judeo-Greek to Judeo-Arabic to… yes, Judeo-Catalan.

Now… I am a fifth-generation American Jew, descended from Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe. But the influences on my linguistic tendencies were not only my heritage: I also grew up in a religious community, where the vernacular tends to include a lot more Hebrew and Yiddish because we spend a lot more time discussing the traditional texts, using the languages our teachers and their teachers used. Given that the vast majority of anglophone Jews are of Ashkenazi origin and their ancestors’ mother tongue was Yiddish, it is Yiddish that has the strongest influence on Judeo-English. This website, Jewish-Languages.org, is a great resource about Jewish languages, and it has an almost 1,000-word lexicon of “Jewish English” words.

However, my personal “linguistic history” was further complicated by the fact that I moved to Israel and became bilingual as an older child/preteen. This means I was influenced not only by Hebrew, but also by the English spoken by the “Anglo” (what we English-speaking Israelis call ourselves) communities here–which include not only Americans, but also Canadians, Brits, Australians, and South Africans. (Which is why you might hear me say I “told someone off” instead of “scolded,” or “Good riddance!”–both phrases that are more British than American.)

There is a joke among Anglos that when you make aliyah, you don’t become bilingual, you become semi-lingual. You acquire Hebrew words and phrases for everyday things, neglecting them in your mother tongue, and eventually find that you can no longer speak one language without the other!

So, sometimes I want to use a word or phrase that is completely natural to me, but I realize that you won’t understand it and I’ll have to explain it. Sometimes I go ahead and explain, but sometimes I just avoid it to save time and headaches all around. And I think it is high time I clarified some of the most important words I use regularly so I don’t need to constantly explain or censor myself for you. 😉 Thankfully, you may already recognize some of them. I did not include words that describe Jewish law or practices–those you can find in the glossary. 😉

(A note on spelling and pronunciation: on this blog I usually use a “Ḽ” for the deep-throated ח sound, and “kh” for the lighter כ sound that sounds like the Spanish “j”. But the words I will list here have common English spelling that usually uses “ch” for both sounds, which are indistinguishable in Yiddish or in modern Hebrew. In Yiddish, as in German, “sch” is pronounced “sh”.)

Here they are:

1)

HASHEM

This is what religious Jews call God.

It literally means “The Name” in Hebrew, because we are not allowed to say His name(s) except in specific contexts.

This word brings us to these common phrases that religious Jews say:

  • Barukh Hashem–literally “Blessed is God”; equivalent to “Thank God”
  • B’Ezrat Hashem–“with God’s help”
  • Im Yirtzeh Hashem–“if God wills it,” “God willing”
  • Hashem Yishmor–“God will protect”; equivalent to “God help us” or “God forbid”

2)

OY.

The classic expression of Jewish dismay, this exclamation can be traced back to the Bible. I remember you mentioning that it was funny to hear me use that word because Catalans also say it–“oi”–but with an entirely different usage. [For you non-Catalans: It’s like the Canadian “eh”.]

The following expressions mean the same, just more emphasized: Oy vey! Oy vey zmir! Oy gevald!

Often used while kvetching. (See below.)

3)

NU-!

This is my absolute favorite Yiddish word. It expresses so much about quintessential Ashkenazi Jewish culture (and the Israeli culture that was built on it–which currently employs the word with just as much gusto). Impatience, irony, warmth, humor, chutzpah (see below!), a little suffering, a little triumph… all packed into one short syllable.

So what does this word mean? It has many uses, and if I recall correctly I sent you this article on it recently. Its most common use, however, is as a prompt (“Nu, so how is life?”) or an expression of impatience (“Nu, get over here already!”). It can be used in a phrase, as above, or as a complete, emphatic, exasperated sentence: “NU?!

4)

CHUTZPAH (1)

This word started out in Hebrew, shifted into Yiddish, and is such a great word it made it into mainstream English. You might translate it as: nerve; gall; shamelessness; brazen defiance; audacity. It can be a positive or a negative trait. In modern Hebrew it usually has a negative connotation, though it is considered an intrinsic trait of Israeli culture, and one of which we are rather proud. 😉 In fact, chutzpah has long been considered typically characteristic of Jews. The Sages say that no nation has chutzpah like the nation of Israel (Exodus Rabbah, 42:2). (You will notice, by the way, that when a Jewish word makes its way into mainstream English, it’s usually because its meaning has some inherent association with Jews.)

Negative chutzpah is acting shamelessly and brazenly in the name of your own selfish interests. Positive chutzpah is acting shamelessly and brazenly for ultimate good. (Sometimes the line between the two can get blurry…) Earlier this week I posted about Matisyahu’s performance in Valencia; to me, that is an example of positive chutzpah. Matisyahu had the nerve to get up on a stage in front of the BDS protesters and sing about Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jews. The author of the book “Start-Up Nation” argued that it is Israeli chutzpah that makes the country such a fertile ground for innovation and bold new ideas, because Israelis don’t take anything on authority, and challenging leaders and managers is part of the culture (which people from other cultures–such as your own–may find shockingly arrogant and obnoxious).

And really… if you think about it, what do you call surviving and thriving over 2,000 years of exile and persecution, surrounded by nations that wanted nothing more than for you to disappear? What do you call returning to your homeland in an unprecedented historical phenomenon that still has historians and philosophers scratching their heads? What do you call secretly maintaining your Judaism under the eyes of the Inquisition only to return to that tradition after 500 years?

Chutzpah. That’s what you call it. 😉

5)

NACHAS

Another word that started out Hebrew (as naḼat) and was adopted into Yiddish (as nachas or naches), this is another of those essential and untranslatable words that I hate having to avoid using. What it is, is that warm glow of pride and satisfaction you get from your loved ones, either because of something they did or accomplished, or just by being themselves. The Yiddish phrase for deriving this feeling is “to shep nachas.” (Not to be confused with schlep below…) So you might shep nachas watching your son take his first steps, or just seeing him smile; or from a close friend of yours getting married, or graduating college, or, I dunno, publishing a book. 😉 (B’Ezrat Hashem!)

6)

KVETCH (1)

Another very important Yiddish word! This one means “complain.” And it is important because it is the #1 Jewish mechanism for coping with adversity. 😛 (#2 is dark humor, remember?) We’ve been doing it since time immemorial. See Exodus 15:11, for starters… “Were there no graves in Egypt that you brought us here to die?!” Sarcasm, chutzpah, and kvetching, all in one, and we hadn’t even crossed the Red Sea yet!

7)

DAVKA

This is another untranslatable word, this time from Aramaic. Basically, it means “precisely” or “in particular,” as in, “I need davka that sweater.” Sometimes it connotes irony or unexpectedness: “I waited for the bus for 20 minutes, and davka when I went into the nearby store to get a drink, it pulled up!” or “I davka liked that hummus-flavored ice cream.” Sometimes it connotes willfulness or spite, as in “doing davka“: “He said that davka because he knew it would infuriate me.”

8)

STAM

This is sort of davka‘s equal and opposite: another untranslatable word (in Hebrew) that kind of means the opposite of davka. Something like “of no consequence” or “for no reason.” “You’re stam arguing with me. You know I’m right.” “He’s stam a liar.” Israelis also use it to mean “Just kidding”–usually dragging the word out: “I just won the lottery! Staaaaaaam…”

9)

megilla png

This is a very important word in the context of our friendship. 😛 It literally means “scroll” in Hebrew (as in “the scroll of Esther”), but on its journey through Yiddish it has come to mean a particularly long-winded discourse (written or spoken) of any sort. 😉 So for example, pretty much every e-mail I’ve ever written you is a megilla. 😛

10)

SCHLEP

This is another great Yiddish word, and it means to carry or drag–usually something burdensome. As a noun, it means either the act of carrying something burdensome, or a long, arduous journey. “I make my husband schlep the groceries from the car to our apartment.” (You’ve been to my apartment, so you know it’s quite a schlep. 😛 )

Well I hope that clears things up! 😉

Love,

Daniella


Dear blog readers: obviously, I had to sift through quite a list of words and phrases to come up with my top ten, and I’m sure you other Judeo-English speakers will hotly dispute my choices. (Two Jews, three opinions, and all. 😉 ) Feel free to comment with more “Jewish words” without which you find it hard to express yourself!

6 thoughts on “10 Essential Words in Judeo-English

  1. Great post once again, Daniella! Forwarding to some of my friends.
    BTW, To “shep” nachas, usually connotates “to reap” the pride that comes from…whatever.
    You have benefitted from something. You are enjoying that sense of pride. ~ thanks.

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