If you grew up in a Jewish household, then it’s likely that you already use Yiddish words in everyday conversation; in fact, words like kvell and schvitz are probably just as much a part of your everyday vernacular as hello and goodbye. And if you’re not part of The Tribe and don’t know your keppies from your punims, then it’s never too late to learn a few basic words and spice up your vocabulary. Whether you’re a goy or a bar mitzvahed boy, keep reading to discover some of the best Yiddish words and phrases.
Pronounced “buh-bee,” this Yiddish word is used to address your grandmother.
The word bupkis means nothing. No, seriously. This is one of the Yiddish words you can use when, for example, you want to emphasize that you (or perhaps other people) know zip, nada, zilch about a subject matter. Wherever you can use the word nothing, you can use the word bupkis. So, the next time someone asks you how much you know about, say, outer space, just tell them that you know bupkis!
Being told that you have chutzpah isn’t always a compliment. According to Merriam-Webster, this noun is synonymous with nerve and gall and is used to describe someone with the utmost confidence and audacity. Though the Yiddish word originally had an entirely negative connotation, it is now used as a slang word in everyday conversation both positively and negatively.
Quite simply, a goy is just someone who isn’t Jewish. And when there are multiple non-Jewish people in a group, you refer to them not as goys, but as goyim.
Jewish mothers love to kiss their kids’ keppies. And keppie, in case you didn’t grow up in a Jewish household, is just a much sillier way of referring to the forehead.
Do you have two left feet and tend to trip even where there’s nothing in front of you? Then the Yiddish word that most accurately describes you is probably klutz. As you might’ve already deduced, this noun is simply just a concise way of referring to a clumsy person.
Bubbes always kvell over their grandkids’ soccer matches and good grades. You yourself might even kvell without knowing it whenever someone close to you gets a promotion or overcomes a big hurdle. This verb, taken from the Yiddish language, is used to indicate that one is bursting with pride over the actions and accomplishments of someone else. It’s good to be a kveller!
You really don’t want someone to call you a kvetch or telling you that you’re kvetching too much. As a noun, this word describes someone who complains far too frequently, and as a verb, it refers to the act of said complaining.
Attend any bar mitzvah or Jewish wedding and you’ll hear the phrase mazel tov used in every other sentence. That’s because in Yiddish, this is what people say when they want to congratulate someone or wish them good luck. Any time there is something to celebrate, it is appropriate to shout out a mazel; just don’t use it when a woman is pregnant, as superstitious individuals believe that this might cause something to happen to the baby.
Thanks to the popularity of the Shark Tank-famous Mensch on a Bench, it’s possible that you’re already somewhat familiar with the Yiddish word mensch (pronounced “mench”). However, the Hanukkah product hardly makes it clear what the noun actually means. To call someone a mensch is to call them an honorable and admirable person—and using the word to refer to somewhere, therefore, is considered to be a huge compliment!
Meshuggeneh can be used as an adjective to describe someone as insane or as a noun to refer to a crazy person. In a sentence, you might see something like, “He must be meshuggeneh to think that he can get there in under an hour.”
Sometimes spelled meshugas or mishegoss, this Yiddish word is synonymous with insanity, silliness, and craziness. As a parent, you can use this word to refer to your kids’ antics, saying something like, “You all need to stop this mishegas!”
Mishpocheh—or mishpokhe or mishpucha, depending on who you’re talking to—literally means “family.” However, the Yiddish word doesn’t refer to your blood relatives like you’d think; rather, it’s meant to be used when talking about those close friends that are like family, even though they aren’t blood relatives.
The verb nosh probably means what you think it does. When you are noshing on something, you are snacking on it.
Oy Vey Ist Mir
Here’s a fun fact that even some Jews don’t know: the phrase oy vey is actually short for oy vey ist mir, though you can say it either way. You can use this expression when you want to express dismay or frustration—as in, “Oy vey, this traffic is never going to end!”
Someone or something can plotz both in a literal and figurative sense. Literally, this verb means “to crack, collapse, or explode,” and you can use it when referring to someone or something that has actually crack or burst, like an overfilled balloon. Figuratively, you might hear someone say that they’re about to plotz—or collapse—from exhaustion or laughter.
Literally speaking, the word punim means “face.” However, you wouldn’t use it simply to refer to someone’s visage. This Yiddish word is more specifically used, most often by grandparents, to endearingly talk about someone’s sweet face. Things you might hear at Passover dinner include “What a punim!” and “Look at that adorable punim!”
Places you’ll find schmutz include on the sidewalk, inside the vacuum, and on a soiled T-shirt. So what is schmutz, exactly? It’s just a very Yiddish way of referring to a dirtying substance like dust, dirt, or—in the case of a dirty garment—tomato sauce.
As a verb, the word schlep means “to move slowly, awkwardly, or tediously” or, when used with an object, “to carry or lug.” In a sentence, you might see something like, “I really don’t feel like schlepping this water bottle everywhere, but I guess I don’t have a choice.” As a noun, schlep is most often used to refer to a journey that is never-ending and tedious; an example of how you’d use it as a noun would be, “Man, my morning commute is such a schlep.”
A schmatte, literally, is a rag. Yes, as in the kind of rag you’d use to clean. In a less literal sense, you can also use the word schmatte to refer to tattered clothing that looks well-worn, though you shouldn’t actually do this unless you want to get smacked.
It’s not exactly the nicest thing in the world to call someone a shmendrik. This Yiddish word, popularized in the 1970s by the sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, is used to call someone a jerk or a stupid person.
Even if you didn’t know the Yiddish word for it at the time, you’ve probably schmoozed your way through quite a few networking events. According to Merriam-Webster, this Yiddish verb means “to chat in a friendly and persuasive manner especially so as to gain favor, business, or connections.”
Summer is the season of schvitzing. No, schvitzing isn’t swimming or even eating ice cream. Quite simply, it means “to sweat.”
When referring to an actor or performer of some sort, a shtick is a particular routine or gimmick associated with that person. In reference to an everyday individual, it refers to their talent or areas of interest.
A spiel is a lengthy speech or story, primarily used as a means of persuasion. You’ll often hear salespeople giving spiels about their brilliant new products.
The word tachlis is basically the Yiddish way of saying “brass tacks.” It’s the essence, substance, and practicalities of a matter.
Tchotchkes are the tiny trinkets you find on vacation in overpriced souvenir shops. They’re small objects that, while aesthetically pleasing, serve zero function.
Pronounced “tuh-kiss,” this word is just the Yiddish way of referring to someone’s, er, behind.
When you say that you’re verklempt, it means that you’re feeling overwhelmed with a myriad of emotions. You might be verklempt, then, after a round of applause or at a close friend’s funeral.
Just like bubbe is the Yiddish word for grandmother, zayde—pronounced “zay-dee”—is the Yiddish word for grandfather.
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