Getting a grip on the “Yinglish” language
by Faith Schuster
Feb 14, 2013 | 1754 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Faith Schuster
Words of  Faith
Faith Schuster Words of Faith
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While listening to one of the many talk-show panels during the inauguration weekend, I heard some “experts” saying that the reason President Obama was having a hard time getting things done is that he doesn’t shmooze enough. Both Republicans and Democrats seemed to agree that President Obama would accomplish more if he were a shmoozer, like President Clinton.

Although I agree with the “experts” that shmoozing can have great results, I wondered if everyone (especially everyone who is not Jewish) knew what they were talking about. This led me to think about the many words and expressions, mostly from Yiddish, that have entered the English language and enjoy fairly common usage, even in Vermont.

First I must explain that there’s no such thing as a Jewish language. Jewish people may speak English, French, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, or any other recognized language, but they don’t speak Jewish, any more than Catholics speak Catholic or Lutherans speak Lutheran. The official language of Israel is not Jewish – it’s Hebrew! Yet many people in Israel (and elsewhere) speak Yiddish.

What, then, is Yiddish? It was the spoken language of the uneducated Jewish population in Europe, written in Hebrew letters but with a vocabulary and grammar independent of Hebrew. Yiddish vocabulary was taken mostly from German but it also took from the languages of the many countries in which Jews lived. For Jewish people in those times, Hebrew was the holy language of prayer, while Yiddish was the language of everyday speech in the household and the community. Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish” calls it “the Robin Hood of languages” because “it steals from the linguistically rich to give to the fledgling poor. Yiddish lends itself to an extraordinary range of observational nuances and psychological subtleties. Steeped in sentiment, it is sluiced with sarcasm … it adores irony, because the only way Jews could retain their sanity was to view a dreadful world with sardonic, astringent eyes.”

So now, back to shmooze, which means friendly chitchat, gossipy conversation, warm prolonged heart-to-heart talk, informal conversation in a friendly and persuasive manner, friendly exchange of ideas through conversation. Shmoozing is like “shooting the breeze,” but perhaps at times with a goal of expressing opinions about a controversial topic in a friendly, informal way. (Hmmm, you can see how more shmoozing might help President Obama resolve some conflicts with the legislature!)

Here is a random list of a few other words that, like shmooze, might be called “Yinglish”-- Yiddish words and constructions that have made their way into colloquial English.

Shlep – to drag or pull or lag behind, to carry something heavy or hard to move. I had to shlep the tools into the garage by myself. Since the Mountain Park Cinema closed, we have to shlep all the way to Brattleboro to go to the movies.

Chutzpah (rhymes with “foot spa.” Pronounce the “ch” like the “ch” in Bach or just start with an “h” sound.) – brazen nerve, shamelessness, audacity, boldness, gall, supreme self-confidence, utter fearlessness. Chutzpah has layers of meaning and can be viewed as good or bad, depending on degree and circumstance. Perhaps the best-known example of chutzpah is the young man who, having killed his father and mother, expected sympathy from the court because he was an orphan! She told her writing group that she was a better writer than Shakespeare—what chutzpah! Ronald Reagan had the chutzpah to tell Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

Oy vey (from “oy vey iz meir,” which means “oh, woe is me”) – “oy” is an all-purpose exclamation that can express joy, dismay, regret, surprise, pain, fear, relief, shock, and more. Oy, I’m so excited--I got a raise! Oy, there’s a leak under the sink! Oy vey, my computer crashed! “Oy” can be used with “gevalt” as a cry for help or an exclamation of fear, astonishment, or amazement. Oy gevalt, someone stole my car!

Kvell – to beam with intense pride and glow with pleasure, usually over the achievement of a loved one. She’ll kvell when she sees the bonus in her paycheck. You can’t blame me for kvelling—my son just scored the winning goal! There’s also a negative usage of kvell, meaning to enjoy or gloat over the humiliation or defeat of someone you don’t like. That creep lost the election—I’m kvelling!

Megillah (rhymes with gorilla)—actually means “scroll” and most often refers to the Scroll of Esther, which is read in its entirety in the shul during the festival of Purim. (Shul, by the way, is the Yiddish word for school, synagogue, house of assembly.) Megillah has taken on the slang meaning of a very long explanatory story, usually complicated, boring, overly long. The phrase “the whole megillah” has come to mean an annoyingly long detailed story. Just tell me the main facts, not the whole megillah. If I ask Aunt Fanny how she’s feeling, she goes into a whole megillah.

Mazel tov –Mazel means luck and tov means good, but mazel tov means more than good luck. It means congratulations, it is said when you want to wish a person well, it celebrates happy occasions, it means Thank God. Most of the time it is used in a sincere, positive way, but it can be used ironically or even as an insult: “Honey, I just finished doing the taxes.” “Mazel tov—do you know that today is April 16th already?”

This column may be long, but it’s not the whole megillah. There are many Yinglish words yet to explain, perhaps in the future. Until then, zie gezunt (good-bye; stay well).
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