Alt-Yiddish: Yiddish as Underworld Cant, part 1

The shadow of antisemitism is so profound that it destroys any pleasure we might take in what otherwise might be delightful. For instance, there was, as far as anybody can tell, a sizable Jewish criminal class in Europe. How big or significant it was is unsure, because, of course, antisemites latched onto this and used it to demonize Jews in general. As a result, the Jewish criminals of Europe are still rarely discussed or researched, because when something was used as a weapon against you, you don't necessarily want to give people the blueprints to rebuild the weapon.

It may be that Jews are somehow nobler people that we don't have a tradition of celebrating our European outlaws, but I think not. There were Jewish-American gangsters, and American Jews seem to get a real kick out of them. I suspect we suppressed our outlaw history in Europe out of self-preservation. But not entirely. Jews were often regarded as being behind white slavery in Europe, and both playwright Sholem Asch and author Sholem Aleichem addressed this, in Asch's 1909 play "God of Vengeance" and Aleichem's story "The Man from Buenos Aires."

The presence of Jews in the underworld left its mark elsewhere: In the language of the underworld. Ever since authors started putting together dictionaries of criminal cant, they have noted that many of the words were borrowed from Yiddish. I have put together a sampling of these words, in part because I do not believe antisemties should be able to dictate what history I can comfortably research, and also because I don't think antisemites should have a vote in what I find delightful. And when I discover that thieves used the words "dingbat" and "hokey pokey" as criminal terms in the Victorian era, as in the examples that follow, and they thought both words were Yiddish, well, that's delightful.

All the following are edited from "A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant," published in 1889 by Albert Barrere and and C. G. Leland. I don't know how skilled Barrere or Leland were at linguistics, how familiar they were with Yiddish, or how much they knew of the underworld, and so I can only present this as a curiosity, rather than as a document of unassailable scholarship. That being said, there is a lot of fun to be had with old curiosities, and so I will likely follow this up with other slang dictionaries in the future.

Yiddish Words from "A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant"

Adonee (old cant), the Deity. Evidently Yiddish, from Adonai, Lord. Martin Luther uses the word as a cant term among beggars for God. A tramps' toast says : —" May the good Adonee/ Soften the strong; Lighten our loads / And level our roads."

Autem or autum, a church. This word, which is of the oldest cant, and is given by Harman, is probably the Yiddish a'thoumme, a church, which in ordinary conversation would be pronounced autem. It seems to have been at first always associated with clerical marriage, and as in cant Adam and Eve are terms for husband and wife, it is possible that Autem also owes something to Outem or Oudem, as Adam is pronounced in Yiddish.

Baldower (Yiddish), head-speaker. One who conveys information ; a spy. Connected with this are baldowern, to direct, plan, spy, lurk, observe (in Dutch slang baldoveren), also baldorer, a spy or traitor.

Bark (popular), an Irish man or woman. Hotten says that no etymology can be found for this. In low Whitechapel Yiddish the term would at once be understood to mean a wanderer or vagabond, based on barkolis, or bargolis, one who goes about in misery and poverty, and batches, "further," as barches holchen, "to go further." It is, however, probably derived from the Celtic barrag, scum, or dirty scum. Scum, as an abusive term, "scum of the earth," is originally Irish, vide Barkshirk. (Common), the skin, to "bark one's shins" is to get the skin off one's shins.

Barney — Barnum. and bharna, to fill or satisfy. Barney, a swindle, a sell, or a cross, is probably from the Yiddish bai-niss or barnoss, which becomes a Jewish proper name in Barnet, popularly Barney. (Dickens gives this name to a young Jew.) Bamiss means a leader of a multitude, or head- man of any description. Remote as the connection between a "swindle" and a "captain" may seem to be, it is direct enough according to the lowest form of Yiddish or German thieves' slang, in which a leading, a clever, a swindling man are all united in cochemer, "a wise man," and also "a leader of thieves."

Callithumpian, Calliathumpian serenade (American), a serenade after the fashion of a cha- rivari, in which old kettles with sticks, gridirons, cows' horns or tin horns, penny trumpets, or anything that will make a horrible and discordant sound is employed. It is possibly from the Yiddish calle, a bride, and means bride-thumping or mak- ing a noise at a bridal, or from "call" and "thump."

Cocum (common London slang, also Yiddish). In Hebrew chochum, chochem, or cochcm, crafty, learned, wise, or a wise man. According to Hotten the English slang term means shrewdness, ability, luck. "Jack's got cocum," he's safe to get on. Among themselves German thieves call one another by this name. Mr. Hotten does not recognise any Hebrew origin for the word, and suggests that it is "allied to the Scottish keek and German gucken, to peep or pry into." In Yiddish cochemer or cochem, pronounced almost like cocum, means wisdom ; cochum- wirth, a thieves' landlord ; coch-mas Schlaumauch, the wisdom of Solomon.

Cuffer (military), a lie ; spinning a cuffer, telling an exaggerated, grossly improbable story; one that cuffs or beats any story. (American thieves), a man, rustic. From old English cant cofe, or the Yiddish kaffcr, a stupid fellow; kaffori, Hebrew for a peasant.

Deaner (thieves), shilling. It has been suggested that deaner is from denier, but more probably it is a corruption of the Yiddish dinoh, a coin.

Ding-bat (American), money.  The word din or ding seems to indicate value in several languages. E.g. , in Yiddish, dinoh mimaunaus, money questions.

Dolly-shop (common), a pawnbroker's shop of the poorest and lowest description. From the Yiddish dal or dol, poor, which suggested the hanging up a doll as a sign for such places.

Duffer (common). This word has two opposite meanings. A rank swindler, a clever cheat — "a word in frequent use in 1701 to express cheats of all kinds." n Yiddish every word which means clever or wise also means roguery ; and in Yiddish doffer is a shrewd, clever, very crafty man (adjective doff, from tov or toff, good) ; Dutch thieves' slang doffer, a tramp, a seller of forged pictures.

Hokey-pokey (common), good-for-nothing, cheated, done. This word seems as regards both meaning and sound to have a relation to the Yiddish orche-porchem, a vagabond, a tramp. It is from " hocus-pocus."

Jomer (popular and thieves), a mistress, a sweetheart ; literally a kiss, either from the gypsy ckumer, a kiss, or the Yiddish joma.

Joskin. Generally used to denote a dull rustic or greenhorn. It would seem, however, to be derived from the Yiddish or German - Hebrew joschen, to sleep, sleepy {i.e., stupid), or from joscJien, old ; ein joschenisch, an old man.

Kaffir (popular and Yiddish), a prostitute's bully. Yiddish and Arabic, kafir, an infidel, a country boor.

Kibosh (English and Yiddish), nonsense, rubbish, or humbug.

Mace (thieves), to give it on the mace, or strike the mace, to obtain goods on credit without any intention of paying for them ; to sponge an acquaintance, beg or borrow money. Formerly mace grieffs were men who wittingly bought and sold stolen fish. Several Yiddish words may have contributed to this term, such as inasser or meser, a betrayer, hence "masse-stapler," which see; mas-chomet, a blackguard. Also moser or moser, a cheat ; mos, money, hence to make money.

Magsman (common slang), the Tuagsman is at the very head of the profession of roguery. He is the great man, the Magnus Apollo among thieves and swindlers, or what the French call de la haute j'egre. He is a first-class confidence man who selects his victims in the street, in the smoking-rooms of hotels, in stylish bars. Probably from the Yiddish mochas or magas (to which mann maybe arbitrarily added), meaning a great swell, a great man or highly honoured lord ; or from to mag, to talk persuasively.

Moshkeneer, to (common), to pawn an article for more than it is worth. There are watches and articles of jewellery made for the special purpose of swindling, and which appear to be of solid gold or silver, but which are only covered with thin rolled metal. Probably from the Yiddish or German-Hebrew mos, money, and kenner, one who knows, one who is " fly," as in the word kenner-fetzer, a thieves' butcher. The word moss, it may be observed, has in slang taken a wide range, and is quite applicable not only to money or gold coin, but also to any kind of valuables.

Nab, to (old English), now used n a slangy sense, properly to take, seize. In thieves' lingo, to receive or take in stolen goods. It is possible that as the "fences" or receivers were once generally Jews, the word in this sense is derived from the Yiddish. (French thieves use the word ne'p for a rascally Jew, a receiver, or dealer in sham jewellery.)

Shake-lurk (old cant), a letter prepared for a vagabond stating that he has incurred a great loss, such as sickness or shipwreck. As it is a lying letter, it is probable that the term owes its origin to the Yiddish shakar, a falsehood. Also scheiker. But it is quite as possible that shake is the provincial "shack," a vagabond.

Shakester, shickster (popular), a female. "Amongst costermongers this term is invariably applied to ladies or the wives of tradesmen, and females generally, of the classes immediately above them" (Hotten). In America a shakester is a lady, and shickster a woman. Derived from the German-Hebrew shigsel, shixen, shichsle, a girl. In Yiddish vocabulary it is defined as a Christian girl.

Shicer, shyster, the lowest and vilest kind of a man. The term is supposed to have been first used in England among the lowest order of Jews. It is said to be derived from the German scheisser {hat. cacator), but maybe influenced by the Yiddish sheiker, a lie, falsehood, or liar (Heb. shakar). " Sheiker we kisun," lies and falsehood. In New York the word shyster is specially applied to the lowest type of criminal lawyer — "a Tombs lawyer."

Stook (thieves), pocket-handkerchief. Probably Yiddish, from the German stuck, a piece. Stook-hauler, a pickpocket who steals pocket-handkerchiefs.

Toff (popular), a dandy, a swell, one who appears well. Also toffer, a well-dressed gay woman. Derived from the Yiddish or Hebrew toff, tov, tuw, literally good, and used in an extended sense which perfectly warrants its application to good or a fine appearance.

Usher (thieves), yes ; from the Yiddish user, it is right, it is so.

Zoyara (American), an effeminate young man, a lady-gentleman, a "Molly." In 1860-61 there was a young fellow whose name "on the slangs " was Zoyara, a circus-rider, who affected the dress and airs of a girl so well that it was the town-question in New York for some time as to Zoyara.  what the sex of the "phenomenon" really was. Of course every circus in the United States had for some time after a Zoyara.

The London Globe having inquired why the stage names of female acrobats and circus- riders so generally begin with Z, a correspondent (C. G. Leland) remarked that they are, as in Zazd, Zaniel, Zoes, derived from Hebrew or Yiddish words meaning devil or goblin.