The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Kishke

I spend a lot of time fighting the idea that Yiddish is an inherently funny language. It's a fun language, sure, but just because a word is said in Yiddish doesn't make that word funny. Lazy comic writers will often just have a character say a Yiddish word or two, especially if the character is an overbearing Jewish mother, as though Yiddish were so natively hilarious that no other work need be done. Mike Myers couldn't even be bothered to speak real Yiddish for his "Saturday Night Live" character Linda Richman, often just making Yiddish-sounding noises, which seems especially lazy when he based the character on his own mother-in-law, who could have given him some actual Yiddish words to use.

That being said, sometimes Yiddish actually is a funny language, as demonstrated by the word "kishke." It didn't start out funny -- the word is Slavic in origin and simply means "intestine," and still means that in Yiddish. But it wound up funny.

Aside from being a loan word for guts, kishke is also the name of a food. Most cultures have a long and, if you think about it too hard, frankly disgusting history of stuffing things into animal intestines and then eating them. I mean, one Eastern European version, called kaszanka in Poland and a variety of similar names elsewhere, is a pig intestine filled with pig's blood, offal,  and buckwheat, which sounds less like a meal than an accident in a butcher shop. I hear it is actually delicious, but for religious Jews of Eastern Europe, there is almost nothing here that could be eaten except perhaps the buckwheat, and even that would get the side eye.

Jewish kishkes, which sometimes shows up on delicatessen menus with a Germanic name, as "stuffed derma," as though that were an improvement, uses kosher ingredients: The intestinal casing comes from a cow, and is filled either with flour or matzo combined with chicken or goose fat. It's long been a popular dish, especially paired with cholent on the sabbath, and remains popular.

Here's where it becomes funny, at least for me: Although kishke means intestines, it's not used that way by polite society; thanks to its Slavic origins, to Yiddish ears it sounded a little coarse. When somebody is talking about intestinal trouble in Yiddish, they typically call it a boykh-veytag, a pain in the abdomen. As a result, the word kishke is now more associated with the food than the body organ, in the same way that pretzel originates from the Latin word for arms, but if a dog bit your forearm, you wouldn't cry to your mother that your pretzel hurt.

But the thing of it is, people did still use kishke to mean intestines, even though it was considered a bit indelicate. And if you primarily associated the name with the food, as did most second-generation American Jews, hearing somebody say "He punched me right in the kishkes" sounds as delightfully odd as "he punched me right in the hot dogs." So kishke continued to be used, with users taking real pleasure in both the word's coarseness and the inadvertent hilariousness it had developed.

Samples of "kishke" being used in a sentence:

Harlot's Ghost: A Novel, Normal Mailer: "It could fry my kishkes if read by the wrong eyes. Do not bother about the meaning of kishkes. That is argot from Yiddish and will advance nothing you're interested in."

Art Tropo, Jay Raymond: "Benny laughed out loud and then said thoughtfully: 'Women have a different view of life because of their kishkes.' 'Kishkes?' Jack repeated. 'Kishkes. Their insides. Don't you understand English? They get messed up when they have babies.'"

The Making of Henry, Howard Jacobson: "Kishkes another one. A hard-working man shleps his kishkes or his gederem out. And Izzi Nagel worked hard. At his upholstery, at his fireeating, at being married — well, who can say? — and certainly at being Henry's father."

Soma Blues, Robert Sheckley: "He took a clumsy off balance swipe at the stranger, but the man was already out of range, dancing on his toes, coming at the smaller man, moving past him and catching him in the kishkes with a vicious elbow blow."