My zayde was a mensch, while bubbe spent her time kibitzing with her friends, kvelling over her grandkids, or kvetching about something. Yiddish slang has worked its way into the English language, often popping up where we don’t even recognize it.
A once-popular amongst Ashkenazi Jews, the Yiddish language is still spoken in a few pockets of the world by an estimated 200,000 people, mostly in the US, Israel, and Russia. It’s a German derived language with a mix of root words from Hebrew and other modern languages.
Here is some fun Yiddish slang still used today, at least in our neighborhood. Have a look, you might be surprised how many words you know from your home. Or, perhaps you discovered a few words on late-night Laverne and Shirley reruns.
An old fart (not a nice name to call someone).
Pronounced “buh-bee,” by now, we all know this refers to our grandmother. It’s used when we talk about our bubbe, or when we address her.
Literally, bubkis means ‘beans,’ but in Yiddish slang, it refers to nothing. Actually nothing. “How much do you have?” “I’ve got bubkis.”
Extreme self-confidence, a lot of nerve to the point of arrogance. In Yiddish slang, chutzpah is not a compliment.
Someone who is not Jewish. Multiple goy are goyim. A non-Jewish woman is a shikse while a male is a shagetz. Interestingly, the term shikse generally implies an attractive woman, while shagetz is an unruly boy.
The forehead, the spot where bubbe gives you a kiss at bedtime. This is different from punim, which is a face or “sheyna punim” (beautiful face), which is what your zayde says as he pinches your cheek.
Similar to a schlemiel, a klutz is a clumsy person.
A nice word describing and sharing that feeling of pride for someone else’s accomplishments.
To complain or whine too much. You know it’s the right term when you are thinking, ‘Stop kvetching already.’
A genuinely good person, a decent person be it man, woman, or child. This is a compliment. It is good to be a mensch.
More Yiddish slang
Crazy or silly behaviour, the noun being Meshuggeneh, refers to a crazy person; not clinically insane, but rather one who has crazy ideas or ambitions.
Stronger than oh my, it’s an expression of exasperation, dismay, even grief. When it includes an element of fear, the expression is more often oy gevalt.
An exaggerated reaction, often implying collapsing from exhaustion or laughter.
To carry, drag, or, when referring to oneself, to move slowly.
shlemiel and shlimazel
A shlemiel is a clumsy, inept person, while a schlimazl is one who has bad luck. A shlemiel spills their drink; it lands on the shlimazel. The terms might sound familiar from the Yiddish-American hopscotch game played by Laverne and Shirley during the opening of the old sitcom of the same name.
Dust or dirt, the stuff inside of your vacuum cleaner, or the mustard wiped off of your face by your mom or your bubbe with the thumb she has just licked to get it wet.
Cheap, tacky, or substandard.
To make small talk, to network, or to try and impress with friendly conversation.
Not a nice word with more than one meaning. It’s both an insult for a fool and a part of the male anatomy. (Check out this page if you want more Yiddish words for that same male body part.)
A long-winded speech or story about something, often a salesperson’s new product.
A female busybody or gossip but not a matchmaker. The confusion comes from the matchmaker in the movie Fiddler on the Roof, who is named Yente.
More Yiddish fun
But, if you are looking for an interesting story, don’t miss Lost Jewish Belief in the Healing Power of Crystals and Gemstones.
Click here for an on-line dictionary of Yiddish.
And for more on languages, don’t miss our review of Pimsleur – where you can learn any of 50 languages including Hebrew.
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How many of the Yiddish slang words did you know?
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