So look who’s talking in Yiddish!

How Yiddish entered the mainstream

There are many non-English words, currently held hostage in a purgatory of orphaned words, begging to be admitted to the English vocabulary. But since there are no admissions committees authorized by Washington – or even a friendly rabbinical council – how then may an alien word manage to enter the standard English vocabulary? Should there be, perhaps, formal entrance requirements with a judicial court of language savants then sitting in rigorous judgment? Or, alternatively, can one pay an admission fee?

There exist, of course, those zealous guardians of Truth and Purity who resist any expansion of mother English, particularly if the candidate word does not possess an unqualified Latin or Greek heritage. The origin of the candidate word, perhaps more than its current utility, may sometimes determine whether it will join the ranks of acceptable verbiage. Thus, if the foreign word had once been deemed jargon, cant, gutter-tongue, slang or abusive argot, its admission is not a foregone conclusion. Only the insistent voice of the many will overcome the negative decisions of the rhetorical purists. The acceptance by the anonymous hordes of users keeps English an eminently democratic tongue, eventually satisfying the expressive needs both of the sages and the street-folk.

So, if there is no one official entrance to the domain of acceptable English, what pathways may then be employed to transform, e.g., say an Inner Mongolian term into a word unconditionally inhabiting a standard English dictionary?

The sole criterion of viability remains the public survival of each candidate word. Imagine now that each such word is shouted into an echo chamber called the marketplace; and if the word resonates persistently, if there are echoes lingering well after the initial shout, then democracy has prevailed and a new entrant is joyously welcomed into the unabridged dictionaries of the English language.

The most evident mechanism to facilitate the transfer of a foreign word into the ranks of English is foreign people moving here. This movement might take the form of an invading army, an immigrant family seeking refuge or even a human surrogate such as a motion picture or some other cultural embassy.

The millions of Ashkenazi Jews – immigrants principally from Russia, Poland and the Baltic and Balkan communities of Europe – arrived in America during the interval of 1880 to 1910. They settled mainly in the larger cities of the east coast; and, in their zeal to assimilate, they rapidly learned English but not without a lingering touch of the Yiddish language to add emphasis and even nuance to their thoughts.

Use of the mother tongue – whether Italian, Spanish or Yiddish – was one of the last things to be relinquished by the newly-arrived immigrants of that era. And so, isolated Yiddish nouns and adjectives necessarily intruded into the daily conversations in a variety of industries; and with time they were incorporated into the mainstream vocabulary of the workplace as well as in places of public assemblage.

For a multitude of reasons – opportunity, exploitation of old-world skills, ethnic tradition – many immigrant Jews at the turn of the 20th century sought employment in the business of entertaining others. And so, audiences rather than isolated listeners became accustomed to hearing Yiddish words; they were incorporated into monologues and comic routines of the world of entertainment as well as into the daily discourse of the many mercantile businesses, both wholesale and retail.

Eventually, and regardless of their religion, those in the food industry became familiar with alien nouns such as bagel, blintz, kasha, latke and knish.

In general street discourse, such words as gonif, klutz, noodge, litvak, mensh, nudnik, yenta, and golem; and such endearing or felicitous attributes as chutzpah, haimischkeit and kvelling.

The day has finally arrived when a Texas cowboy, weary after a lengthy horseback ride, might stagger into an Abilene saloon and declare: “I’ve been shlepping a load of bupkis for days and I’m still shvitzing; so give me a cold beer and maybe add a bagel, some lox and a shmear of cream cheese.” The bartender would reply without pausing: “Sure thing, boychik.”

Stanley M. Aronson, M.D., may be reached at