The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Tchotchke

There are gaps in the English language. They are easy to find, because we try to fill them with existing words, and then pedants complain that we are misusing the word. Take "ironic," as an example. We don't have a word that means "novel coincidence," so we've shoved "ironic" into that spot, and it doesn't really belong there. Critics may carp endlessly about Alanis Morissette's song "Ironic" -- and their carping does seem endless, because the song is 26 years old -- but the singer was using the word the way a lot of people do, because it's the word that fits, even if it isn't the right word.

"Kitsch" is another word that acts as a placeholder for a word we're missing. Technically, kitsch refers to bad taste that people mistake for good taste, like Thomas Kindade paintings. There are also objects that are tacky but people love ironically, and the word for that is "camp." But we have no English word for objects we know to be tacky but love anyway and without irony, like Pet Rocks or velvet clown paintings or lawn ornaments.

People often use "kitsch" to refer to these objects, but it's a poor fit, as these small things rarely pretend to be great art and their owners rarely mistake them for great art. I'd like to offer a Yiddish word to fill the gap: tchotchke.

Properly, the word is pronounced tzatzke or tsatske, depending on its spelling, and comes from a Slavic word meaning trinket. In Yiddish, it typically refers to little baubles or toys, but often with a hint of affection -- there's an idiom, tsatske der momma's, and it translates approximately as "mother's favorite" or "mother's pet."

What qualifies as a tchotchke? Any little geegaw or doodad, I suppose. My grandfather's longtime partner Florence loved little statues of elephants and filled their apartment with them. These were tchotchkes. Snow globes are tchotchkes. Collectable plastic figures from popular television shows are tchotchkes. Plastic jewelry are tchotchkes. Party lights are tchotchkes.

Tchotchkes should be small, decorative, and relatively valueless. And this brings us to a second, and more troubling, use of the word: According to Leo Rosten, the word also refers to cheap or trashy women. I'm going to go ahead and say English already has plenty of words for such people, too many, really. We could do with less. We could do with none. So we don't need tchotchke for this purpose, and let's mutually agree not to use it for this purpose.

Here are some examples of tchotchke being used in a sentence:

"The Seduction by and the Abduction of Marilyn Monroe Or Tchotchke! Tchotchke! Tchotchke!," Harold Cohen:

AGATHA: I have other collectibles to show you. 
DUPREY: If they're just tchotchkes, don't bother. 
AGATHA: I have Mickey and Minnie. (Bringing them to her) 
DUPREY: A tchotchke.

"I'll take it: a novel," Paul Rudnick: "Aunt Ida's home was furnished in a clean, modern style, with a dense overlay of tchotchkes. Tchotchke was a Yiddish word; Joe's mother had told him it meant "'little things' or 'junk.'"

"My Last Splurge," Alicia Bones: "Grandpa thought we were saying Chulla's name was 'Tchotchke,' and he couldn't get over what a terrible name that was for a little girl. He kept saying, 'Caroline, tchotchke means a tacky little thingamabob! Tchotchke! A tacky thing!'" 

"Cooking Jewish," Judy Kancigor: "For as long as I can remember I have always loved old things. My mother knows that the quickest way for her to move a tchotchke from her house to my house is for her to tell me that it's old. Even faster if she tells me that it belonged to my grandmother, and faster still  is she tells me my grandmother brought it with her from the Old Country."