English Words Derived from Yiddish

Yiddish is an amalgam of German, Russian, Hebrew and many other languages that has persevered even though the fate of the people who speak it has been consistently in danger for centuries. The fact that English, the most popular language on the planet, contains words that are recognizably derived from Yiddish is something of a linguistic miracle, considering many of the 13 million native speakers of Yiddish were wiped out during World War II. Many of these 15 words may be familiar, but the routes they took to get to English, and the literal meanings of many of them, are surprising. Here are 15 common English words derived from Yiddish.

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definitions & notes only words
  1. schmaltz
    (Yiddish) excessive sentimentality in art or music
    The schmaltz and sentimentality that often clog this concerto were largely cleared away.
    —New York Times (Jan 10, 2013)
    From the Yiddish shmalts, "melted fat," which is another one of the word's meanings. In the context of food, schmaltz refers specifically to rendered chicken fat.
  2. pastrami
    a highly seasoned cut of smoked beef
    This is a nice, normal plate of fettuccine, except that it tastes exactly like a Katz’s pastrami on rye with mustard.
    —New York Times (Jul 9, 2013)
    The Yiddish is pastrame, coming from either a Turkish word for "dried meat" or the Greek postono, which means "I salt." Either way, the -mi spelling is probably the influence of salami.
  3. pogrom
    organized persecution of an ethnic group, especially Jews
    The Jewish people faced persecution for millenniums: the 1190 massacre of the Jews at York, the pogroms of tsarist Russia, the Dreyfus affair of France.
    —The Guardian (Jul 20, 2014)
    The Yiddish is also pogrom, from a Russian word pogromu, which means "devastation." When divided into its component parts, po + gromu literally translates as "after thunder."
  4. dreck
    merchandise that is shoddy or inferior
    But it’s also true that interesting movies of all kinds still manage to fight through the dreck — to be produced, seen and appreciated.
    —New York Times (Mar 11, 2011)
    From drek, "filth, trash." A popular theory connects this word etymologically to the Greek and Latin words for "dung, excrement," although there is no concrete proof of such a link.
  5. glitch
    a fault or defect in a computer program, system, or machine
    One big stumble came last month when a computer glitch sent invalid licenses to hundreds of those who thought they had navigated the difficult process.
    —Los Angeles Times (Oct 17, 2014)
    From glitsh, "a slip." In Yiddish, this came to mean a literal slip, as on icy ground.
  6. mensch
    a decent responsible person with admirable characteristics
    Mencken described a mensch this way: “an upright, honorable, decent person” and “someone of consequence.”
    —Time (Aug 13, 2014)
    From Yiddish, mensch, from the German for "man, person."
  7. shtick
    (Yiddish) a prank or piece of clowning
    They’ve all been encouraged to show off their goofiest shtick like so many peacocks spreading their tails for public admiration.
    —New York Times (Sep 28, 2014)
    From shtik, "an act or gimmick," but literally "a piece, a slice."
  8. schlock
    merchandise that is shoddy or inferior
    The movie is exploitative schlock; both its stars — particularly Meester, who has something, although she herself has perhaps not yet figured out what — deserve better.
    —Time (Feb 7, 2011)
    Either from shlak, which means "dregs, dross," or shlogn, "to strike."
  9. kvetch
    express complaints, discontent, displeasure, or unhappiness
    Twitter has long been the kvetching board of the Internet, with users constantly complaining about everything from geopolitics to One Direction fans.
    —Time (Sep 3, 2013)
    From kvetshn, literally to "squeeze or press."
  10. schlep
    pull along heavily, like a heavy load against a resistance
    Then he had to stand in line, waiting for up to a further three hours to be seen, before finally making another two-hour schlep home.
    —The Guardian (Oct 27, 2014)
    From shlepen, "to drag." The first appearance in print in English is in James Joyce's Ulysses: “Across the sands of all the world, followed by the sun’s flaming sword, to the west, trekking to evening lands. She trudges, schlepps, trains, drags, trascines her load."
  11. zaftig
    (of a female body) healthily plump and vigorous
    We’ve learned enough not to call the fat lady “fat” in her own hearing, but when she’s merely zaftig, it seems, she’s fair game.
    —Washington Post (June 5, 2014)
    From zaftik, which literally means "juicy." Through the Middle High German saft, this word is related to the English word sap.
  12. glitz
    extravagant showiness that is tasteless or superficial
    People think “Cosmos” and picture glitz, glamour, and grandiose.
    —The Guardian (Oct 21, 2014)
    From glitz, "glitter."
  13. nebbish
    (Yiddish) a timid unfortunate simpleton
    Kerry himself was labeled “ nebbish,” a Yiddish word for a timid, ineffectual individual.
    —US News (Jul 29, 2014)
    From Yiddish nebbich or nebbech. The word or its close relative is widespread in Slavic, and all the words indicate "poor, unfortunate." The ne- element is a negation, so the literal meaning is "without portion."
  14. schmooze
    talk in a friendly way, especially to gain an advantage
    Instead of buying ads based on fancy presentations and schmoozing from ad executives, brands are increasingly buying ads based on automated data.
    —Forbes (Oct 9, 2014)
    From Yiddish shmuesn, "to chat." This word likely ultimately derives from Hebrew shemu'oth, "news, rumors."
  15. schlemiel
    (Yiddish) a dolt who is a habitual bungler
    Now they were fascinated with the idea that comedians were what they called “ schlemiel children,” kids who’d become class clowns because of stressful home lives.
    —Slate (Apr 2, 2014)
    From shlemiel, "bungler." Shlemiel was the last name of the title character in a 1813 German fable by A. von Chamisso. This was probably derived from the biblical character of Shelumiel.
Created on November 1, 2014 (updated September 6, 2019)

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