Hayi wena, don’t be a schmuck, be a mensch


Hayi wena, don’t be a schmuck, be a mensch

No need for a kanipshin, but that alterkaker MAX DU PREEZ had the chutzpah to draw up a list of precious Yiddish words that will enrich your language. Don’t worry, it’s not a megillah, he’s just futzing.


LANGUAGE puritans do contribute to the survival of original words and sayings, but as often they stunt a potentially rich cross-pollination and interchange of words between languages.

I grew up in the mostly Sesotho-speaking Free State. I remember as a child using ha ke tsebe (said as one word) when I wanted to say I don’t know or have no clue, or tsamaea to tell someone to go away but avoiding the f-word. We were taught always to address older black men as Ntate (mister, or father) and the minister as moruti. I still often use wena instead of you, as in hey, wena.

Colleague Anneliese Burgess wrote about “Xhosafringlish” in her letter last Sunday, referencing Xhosa words used by English and Afrikaans speakers, such as gwala (coward) and tshotsho (told you so). 

Not many Afrikaans speakers realise that they often use words from the Nguni languages as their own, such as babelas, impi, tollie (young ox), donga, or that very Afrikaans word aikona, from haikona, meaning no, no way.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Afrikaans was enriched by the Malay languages of the erstwhile slaves and Muslim teachers, and today words like blatjang (chutney), bobotie, borrie (turmeric), piesang (banana) and sosatie are regarded as pure Afrikaans. And, of course, baie (much).

Other South African languages have also borrowed from Afrikaans, like voesek/fusek, from the Afrikaans voertsek (short for voert sê ek), while fokol no longer has any relationship with the English fuck all and has even become parliamentary language.

Of course, no South African languages, not even English, talk about pick-up trucks. It’s bakkie, or in Zulu, baki.

And then there’s the Afrikaans word that most people in the world know: apartheid. (It means separateness but is understood by many, rather appropriately, to mean apart-hate.)

But no other language in history has done as much borrowing, shifting,  shaping, adapting and giving as Yiddish. And after thousands of years, Yiddish still gifts us with uniquely expressive terms; words and expressions I think should be used a lot more in Afrikaans and other indigenous languages, also in South African English.

Yiddish was the language spoken by the Ashkenazim, the Jews living in eastern and central Europe. It was broadly based on German, Hebrew and Aramaic but influenced by local languages such as Polish and Russian.

Most Yiddish speakers were murdered during the Holocaust and the language nearly died. Today, it is spoken as a primary language only by small communities of Hasidic and ultra-orthodox Jews.

It is a rich, colourful and expressive language, full of humour, but with a bite; a reflection of the history of the people who spoke it over millennia.

In this video, the author Erica Jong is quoted as saying: “Yiddish wasn’t just words, you see, it was an attitude. It was sweet and sour. It was a shrug and a kiss. It was humility and defiance in one.”

Many Yiddish words have crept into especially American English, but not every user realises they're Yiddish: chutzpah, mensch, schlep, schmaltz and spiel are examples.

Here’s a short list of memorable words.

Kanipshin: a tantrum or a fit.

Meshuggeneh: an adjective or noun describing someone who is silly, crazy or a troublemaker, mostly a term of endearment.

Chutzpah: nerve, arrogance, attitude.

Klutz: a clumsy person, someone who falls over his/her feet, drops things.

Zaftig: a full, rounded body shape, a plump woman, but complimentary, as in sexy. (From zaftik, meaning juicy.)

Shemozzle: a quarrel, brawl, kerfuffle.

Kvell: an expression of pride in someone else or their accomplishments. (I’m kvelling, my son made the first team.)

Mensch: a decent, compassionate human being. The ultimate compliment.

Kvetch (noun or verb): complain, bitch, moan incessantly.

Alterkaker: an old fart.

Shmendrik: a fool, a jerk.

Mishpacha: family, blood, chosen.

Nosh (noun or verb): a small portion of food, to snack or nibble.

Oy Vey / Oy Gevalt: an exclamation for when you’re surprised or when something goes wrong.

Plotz: to crack up, to collapse. (When I came face to face with Siya Kolisi, I almost plotzed.)

Schlep: to go somewhere or take something somewhere that is an inconvenience. (I had to schlep all the way to his house.)

Schmooze: small talk, informal, friendly chat.  

Yenta: a talkative woman; a gossip.

Schvitz: to sweat (or a spa).

Shepping naches (or just shepping): to feel proud of someone or something they achieved. (I’m shepping, my Dave got five distinctions.)

Schlub: a sloppy dresser. 

Shpilkes: restlessness or impatience, like “ants in your pants”. (I have the shpilkes, can we go home now?)

Shtick: something a person is known for; a quirk or characteristic. (He always plays the fool at parties, it’s his shtick.)

Spiel: a long story or speech.

Tuchus: butt/bum. (You can kiss my tuchus.)

Verklempt: feeling overwhelmed with emotions. 

Bubuleh: sweetheart, darling; term of endearment. Afrikaans: skat/skattie/bokkie.

Bubkes/bupkes: nothing, zilch. (Short for kozebubkes, meaning goat droppings.)

Glitch: a minor malfunction (from glitsch, a slippery place).

Schmaltz: overly sentimental art or music. (The literal meaning is chicken fat used in Jewish cooking.)

Megillah: an overly long, tedious story, presentation or production. (From megile, scroll, referencing the reading out from a scroll on Jewish religious days. Also used as “the whole megillah”.)

Futz: to fool around. (From the Yiddish phrase arumfartsn zikh, to fart around.)

Kibitzer: someone always offering unwanted comment or advice.

Schnorrer: a beggar, especially a manipulative one, a parasite. (Comedian Jerry Seinfeld defined schnorrer as “someone who picks the cashews out of the mixed nuts”.)

Schlemiel: an inept or clumsy person, a bungler.

Schlimazel: a consistently unlucky person.

Verkakte/farkakteh/vakakte: shitty, messed up, bad, crappy.

Boychik: boy, or young man. (South African English: boykie.)

Dreck: terrible, worthless, distasteful material. (Drek is commonly used in Afrikaans.)

Ganef/Gonif: a thief, scoundrel, rascal.

Haimish/Heimish: friendly, home-like.

Mamzer: bastard.

Maven: aficionado, expert.

Schtup: to have sex.

Mazal tov: congratulations!

Nebbish/Nebbich: an insignificant or pathetic person; a nonentity.

Noodge/Nudzh (verb or noun): to bitch, nag, whine, pester.

Schnook: a gullible or meek person, also a cute or mischievous child.

Schnoz/Schnozz/Schnozzle: a nose, especially a large one.

Narrischkeit: foolishness, nonsense.

Shtum: quiet, silent.

Tchotchke: a trinket.

Yutz: a fool.

Pisher: a nobody, an inexperienced person.

Potch/petch: smack, slap. (Afrikaans: snotklap.)

Putz: dickhead, a loser, an incompetent. The word literally means penis.

Schlock: an inferior, cheap item.

Schlong: penis. (From German schlange, snake.)

Schmuck: a jerk, a contemptible person; a jerk (from shmok, penis, from old Polish smok, grass snake.)


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