English is a complicated language. It's this great mess of a thing, a Germanic dialect that has demonstrated an omnivorous appetite, devouring new words from a terrifying number of languages. And of course English did, It was the language of the British Empire, which once contained 458 million people and a quarter of the total land area of the planet, and so English absorbed words from the people Britain had colonized. It is also the dominant language of the United States and Canada, two great immigrant nations, and so English absorbed words from waves of new immigrants.
Yiddish was one of those languages. Perhaps some of it came from first generation East European Jewish immigrants whose sometimes created bilingual businesses, and whose patrons, both Jewish and non-Jewish, referred to using Yiddish words -- I suspect this is how "schmatta" entered English. Other words entered through the next generation, the children of immigrants, who peppered their English with Yiddish words, sometimes transforming the word or inventing new words inspired by Yiddish.
Whatever the process, English wound up absorbing a fair number of Yiddish words. I spent a few days working through a list of these words to see how common they are in English. Some are remarkably common, while others appear infrequently, sometimes in an exclusively Jewish context.
Below is my list of the 10 most common Yiddish words in English, based on how frequently they appear on Google. If you have an interest in Yiddish, this list is a good starting point, as these are the words you are likely to hear first and the most, and are the words that it will probably be easiest for you to make use of, as you can just drop them into an English sentence and they will be comprehensible to most listeners. In fact, you probably already know these words, and may not know that they originated in Yiddish.
The Top 10 Yiddish Words You Need to Know
SchmuckHoo boy, this is it, the most popular Yiddish word in English according to Google. There are probably some false positives in there, since schmuck is also a German word for jewelry, but even still this word towers above other Yiddish words that have entered English.
The word's linguistic origins are disputed, possibly coming from the German, possible derived from the Yiddish word for stick, and possibly from the Old Polish for snake or dragon. Wherever it's from, it's meaning nowadays is clear. Penis. It means penis.
It's also a word you use to describe someone you find foolish, or obnoxious, or contemptible. Anybody irritating can be a schmuck. You can call your dog a schmuck if he poops in your house. You can call yourself a schmuck for yelling at your dog. It's a very flexible word.
Note: Some people still think the word is vulgar. Those people may be schmucks.
KlezmerI'm a bit surprised to discover this word is as popular as it is, as it is a relatively new term to describe a relatively modern musical revival. The earliest use of the word dates back to the 16th century or earlier, a portmanteau of Hebrew words, k'li zemer, describing a tool for making music, or, in simpler terms, an instrument. But the word klezmer wasn't applied to a musical genre until the 1970s, when musicians rediscovered earlier Jewish musical genres that were performed at dances and social events. These performers formed new bands to explore this music.
Modern klezmer is inspired by and derived from these earlier genres of (largely) East European Jewish music, in the same way that the bluegrass revival of the 1940s looked to the folk music of Appalachia (in fact, some of the early American klezmer musicians got their starts in bluegrass). And klezmer is also like bluegrass in the both have evolved into a modern genre. Should we just go ahead and say that klezmer is the Jewish equivalent of bluegrass?
No we should not.
KlutzThe word we use for a clumsy person, klutz, derives from klotz, a Yiddish word meaning a wooden beam, and I don't know why. I know that Jews like to compare things to wood if there is some contempt involved: We call somebody with no personality a "shtick holtz," meaning a piece of wood, but that makes sense. Pieces of wood have no personality. Wooden beams are not especially known for being clumsy.
But, then, a klutz is clumsy without personality. We have other words for the world's bumblers and lummoxes, such as the schlemiel, whose clumsiness is directly related to their general misfortune, and the Kuni Lemel, an awkward simpleton. The klutz isn't a character. The klutz doesn't stumble with personality. The klutz is about as interesting as a block of wood, and just about as entertaining when it fall on you.
SchmaltzIf I had to guess at a Jewish food that is likely to make a comeback nowadays, in this time of local butchers and nose-to-tail use of an animal, it would be schmaltz. This is rendered fat, taken from a chicken or a goose, and was used as the kosher alternative to butter or pork-based lard. Schmaltz was used to fry meat, but also was loved as an ingredient itself, often just spread on bread.
But schmaltz has a second meaning: In Yinglish, it is used to mean something that is excessively emotional or sentimental. Esquire used it that way all the way back in 1940, writing of a music act that "there's a lush, schmaltzy violin all over the place." It's not surprising a Jewish word was used for this phenomenon, as Jewish performers could really pile on the schmaltz, like when Al Jolson just starts blubbering about his mother.
It's worth remembering that people loved it. They loved the schmaltz, both from the bird fat and from Jolson. It's Jewish to like something that's a little too much, a little too strong, a little too sweet, a little too flavorful. My feeling is that in dining as in life, maybe we need to start to pile on the schmaltz again.
ChutzpahIt's popular to say that this is a word that has dramatically changed definition from Yiddish to English usage. In Yiddish, if you accuse somebody of chutzpah, it's a pretty damning charge. You're complaining that they have a hell of a lot of nerve, where do they get the cheek, the gall!
But in English, we tend to use chutzpah admiringly, as somebody with perhaps more daring than discretion. He just walked up to the boss and said it was time he got a raise! The chutzpah! And he got it!
I don't know that the uses are all that different. I just think Americans admire somebody who has a sort of crass verve. We like big, noisy blowhards, and we interpret their temerity as gumption. We live in a weird place, full of noxious go-getters, and we're told the nation was built on this sort of thing. And so we hear the word chutzpah and can't believe it is a complaint. Who wouldn't want to have chutzpah?
It's the same word. We just took an insult and made it a compliment, which is a perfect example of American chutzpah.
ShtickThis may not be the most common Yiddish word in English, but it is probably the most common in the world of comedy. In Yiddish, shtick means "piece," and in the world of comedy, it's the comedian's bit, the thing they do. Gallagher's shtick, such as it was, was smashing watermelons. Carrot Top's shtick, such as it was, was prop comedy. Jeff Foxworthy's shtick, such as it was, was making fun of rednecks.
In retrospect, perhaps we should not have used the Yiddish word shtick, but, if a comedian has some identifiable comic bit, just call it a "such as it was."
SchlockThe etymology of this word is disputed. It might have originated with a German word meaning "dregs," but it also might have originated with the Yiddish word for "to strike," shlogn. Presumably, if the latter etymology is correct, it is because something is so awful you want to hit it.
Schlock refers to some sort of inferior good, anything crummy. It can be a literal piece of merchandise: A cheap plastic watch can be schlock, and there used to be electronics stores in New York that were called schlock shops that sold this sort of trash. But nowadays, schlock is frequently used to refer to movies, thanks to a vogue for Yiddish that hit Hollywood in the late 60s. Trashy movies are schlock, which is funny, because you used to see them in the grindhouse theaters of Times Square, right next to the cheap electronics stores.
So there, in a few blocks in Midtown Manhattan, was the schlock capital of America. I know Times Square has rebranded itself as the Crossroads of the World or the Heart of the World or whatever they are calling themselves nowadays, but, honestly, I preferred the schlock.
ShtetlIt's not surprising to discover this is one of the most popular Yiddish words in English, even though it is probably mostly used by Jews. A shtetl was a small town in Eastern Europe; if you've seen "Fiddler on the Roof," the town they live in is a shtetl. Ninety percent of American Jews are Askenazi, and most of our ancestors came from Eastern Europe, and, for us, the shtetl looms very large in our imaginations.
In fact, the story of the Jews of Eastern Europe is pretty complicated, and there was a vast urban population of Jews that had nothing to do with the shtetl and sometimes made fun of it in literature and plays. But the sad fact is that most American Jews learn very little about their Eastern European background, and so just sort of assume we all lived on shtetls. I suspect "Fiddler on the Roof" probably influences the American conception of European Jewry more than we would like to admit.
It could be worse, I suppose. Sholem Aleichem, who wrote the stories "Fiddler" was based on, also wrote a story about white slavers called "The Man from Buenos Aires," and, had that been adapted, American Jews might all be wearing Panama hats and dancing the Tango.
Although, now that I think about it, I'm not sure that's worse.
SchmoozeSchmooze comes from a Hebrew word meaning "gossip" or "slander," but that's not really how it is used in Yiddish, which has a different word for the same purpose: rekhiles. There is a gossipy quality to schmoozing, but rekhiles is the gossip that can hurt -- from rekhiles and secrets flee like they are demons, a Yiddish Proverb advises.
Nobody flees from schmoozing. No, it typically refers to the sort of casual, idle chit-chat shared by friends or coworkers, when you talk about nothing in particular and nothing particularly important. Were you talking with Bob? Oh sure. Did he tell you about his surgery? No, we were just schmoozing for a minute.
Sometimes schmoozing has an agenda, however. Because it is friendly and intimate, it can be useful for those who socialize with purpose, for whom every social interaction is an opportunity for social climbing. If you want something from somebody, it helps to schmooze them a little.
Do not do that to me. I always know when somebody wants something from me, and I will flee you like a demon.
NuI am thrilled that nu is one of the most used Yiddish words in English, although perhaps I am stretching things a little, as nu isn't a word so much as it is a useful noise. In English we have things like this, like when we say Hm? in response to something somebody has said. Nu is like that, but with a lot more mustard.
I can't give a sense of the incredible flexibility of nu in this short space, but its main function is to forcefully send a discussion over to another person. Let's say your sister has gone on a date and you want to know how it went, but she is not being forthcoming. You might say, so, nu, do you like him? And if she doesn't want to respond, she might say, nu, when did it become your business? And the ball is right back in your court.
You can actually start of an entire conversation with just this noise. Try it. Just look at a Jew, raise your eyebrows, and say "Nu?", and they will be forced by some subconscious programming, buried deep inside them, to provide some sort of response. It's primal. Even the most secular Jew, one who eats bacon they cooked on shabbos, will feel obligated to respond.
Of course, he or she can always respond with "Nu?" Two Jews can do that all day.