Just Say 'Nu?': How Are You, cont’d.

A monthly column on making your daily life more Yiddish

By Michael Wex

Published January 16, 2008, issue of January 18, 2008.
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The usual responses to general questions about your welfare are:

nishKOOsheh
Not bad

E-E-H
A less confident “not bad”

FRAIG NISHT
Don’t ask

AF MEIneh SONim geZUGT
It should happen to my enemies.

E-e-h and nishkoosheh are two of many Yiddish words with a pronounced physical component. In order to use either of them effectively:

  1. Raise the right hand to mid-chest level, palm parallel to the floor.

  2. Give the wrist a quarter-turn to the left (toward you), followed immediately by a half-turn right (i.e., a quarter-turn from the starting position), followed immediately by a half-turn left.

  3. Repeat if needed with an extended e-e-h or every time that nishkoosheh is said.

A truly fantastic “greeting” that asks “How are you,” provides a negative response on behalf of the person asked, and leaves them more room than ever to bend your ear with complaints is:

Epes geFELstee MEER NISHT
I somehow don’t like you, [i.e., there’s something about you that displeases me; i.e., I can see that there’s something wrong with you, so why don’t you tell me about it?]

The word heint, “today,” is often appended to the phrase (“Epes gefelstee meer nisht heint”) just to make sure that the person to whom it’s addressed doesn’t get the wrong idea. As mentioned above, this phrase is an invitation to kvetch and should never be used unless you really, really care.

Meeting

VEE HAYST EER?
What’s your name? [formal]

VEE HAYstee?
What’s your name? [informal]

MAH SHMAIkhem?
What’s your name? [from the Hebrew. Faux formal; characteristic synagogue usage]

IKH HAYS…
My name is…

MEH RIFT MIKH…
Everyone calls me…

HAYSN HAYS IKH MAURICE, NOR RIFN RIFT MEN MIKH “THE SPACE COWBOY.”
My name is really Maurice, but people call me The Space Cowboy.

baKEN ZAKH MIT MEIN MAN/FROY
Meet my husband/wife

LOmikh EIKH FOORshteln MEIN BREEder GEORGE
Let me introduce you to my brother George

ZAYer OONgeNAIM
Nice to meet you [lit., “very pleasant”]

ZAYer EINgeNImen
Nice to meet you [lit., “very welcome”]

DRIKN DEE HANT, “the shaking of hands” (literally, “pressing the hand”) usually follows.

Simple Conversation: The Weather

Mendel: S’IZ SHAYN IN DROYSN?
Is it nice out?

Mindel: VEN SEH RAIGNT NISHT
If it doesn’t rain.

Mendel: S’IZ HAYS, HUH?
Hot, isn’t it?

Mindel: NISHT aZOY HAYS VEE FAYKHT
It ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity.

Mendel: aZOY ZUGT MEER DER reMAtehs
My rheumatism tells me that.

Mindel: MEER OYKH. IN HEYkher
Mine, too. And louder.

In order to discuss the weather effectively, it helps to be able to be able to identify the following:

Day and Night

TUG
day

NAKHT
night

LIKHtik
light, bright

FINster
dark

MEER IZ FINster geVORN IN DEE OYGN
It went me dark in the eyes [i.e., I was greatly dismayed.]

Heavenly Bodies

HIML
sky

ZEEN
sun

leVOOneh
moon

SHAYN VEE DEE leVOOneh
Beautiful as the moon [i.e, pretty as a picture]

SHTERN
star

VOLKN
cloud

VOLKN-KRAtser
skyscraper [lit., “cloud scratcher”]

ZEI MOYKHL, IKH KISH DAIM HIML ITST
Excuse me while I kiss the sky [lit., I’m kissing the sky now.]

Basic Precipitation

RAIGN
rain

ES RAIGNT
It’s raining

SE PLYUkhet IN DROYSN
It’s pouring out there

DIner
thunder

BLITS
lightning

BLITS-POST
e-mail [lit., “lightning post”]

SHNAY
snow

ES SHNAYT
It’s snowing

AN aVAYreh A HINT aROYStseTREIBM
Not fit for a dog outside [lit., “It’d be a sin to put a dog out”]

EIZ
Ice

GLITSHN ZAKH
to slip, slide, skate

A distinction that shouldn’t be overlooked:
MEER IZ HAYS
I’m hot

MEER IZ KALT
I’m cold

but

IKH BIN HAYS
I’m horny

IKH BIN KALT
I’m frigid

There’s nothing more embarrassing than sitting in a stuffy room and saying, “Am I the only one here who’s horny?” without even knowing that you’ve done so.

Common Courtesy

Those who think of Yiddish-speakers as rude will be shocked to discover that Yiddish has two ways of saying “please” that people who speak the language use all the time:

ZEI/ZEIT aZOY GIT
[lit., “Be so good”]

and

IKH BAIT DIKH/EIKH
[lit., “I beg you, I pray you”]

Many of the same people are, however, just as likely to point at something that they want and grunt, generally from somewhere behind the nose (grunting of this sort seems to be a male prerogative), or else shout out the name of whatever it is that’s wanted, for instance, “ZALTS, Salt!” or “GATkehs, Long johns!” with a strong if unspoken sense of “now.”

No one reading these words will be able to get away with such behavior until the generation just described has been gone long enough to be remembered by no one else. Until then, it’s best to observe the proprieties and ask nicely:

ZEIT aZOY GIT IN…
Please…[perform some action]

ZEIT aZOY GIT IN derLANGT MEER DEE MIlekh
Please pass me the milk

HER SHOYN OYF, IKH BAIT DIKH
Please stop already

HALTS MOYL, le-MAN-a-SHEM
Shut up, for God’s sake

TEE MEER NISH’ KA’ TOYvehs
Don’t do me any favors.

It’s also considered good form to say “thank you”:

A DANK EIKH
Thanks/thank you

YAsher KOYekh
Thanks [lit., “may your strength increase”]

A GROYSN DANK
Thanks very much; thanks a lot.

And let’s not forget “you’re welcome”:

adeRAbeh baKIMen
You’re welcome [lit. “on the contrary”]

nishTOO FAR VOOS
You’re welcome [lit., “there’s nothing to thank me for”]

ZOL ES DEER VOYL
Enjoy it; use it in good health [lit., “may it be very agreeable to you.”]

Forgiveness*

ZEIT MOYKHL, which has a very literal meaning of “forgive me,” really means “excuse me, I beg your pardon” or “please.” If you want to ask a stranger for directions, you approach with ZEIT MOYKHL, “excuse me”; you say the same thing if you’re pushing your way through a row of seated theater-goers with a box of popcorn in your hand. If you want someone to pass you the milk and you don’t feel like using ZEI(T) aZOY GIT, you could say ZEIT MOYKHL, DEE MIlekh, “milk, please.” It gets more interesting, though, when you find yourself in the usual Yiddish situation of not getting what you want: you’ve tried a couple of ZEIT aZOY GIT’s and the damned MIlekhis still at the other end of the table. You can then say IKH BIN DEER MOYKHL DEE MILEKH —literally, “I forgive you in regards to the milk.” What it really means is “You can take your stinking milk and pour it through a funnel where the sun don’t shine.” Or you can reach over, invade the personal space of the yutz who’s ignoring your request, take the milk yourself and say MOYKHL, “Don’t flanken bother.”

You can use MOYKHL even more ironically to indicate how little you want something that’s been offered you: VILST ESN BAY MEER KREPlakh, “Want a knuckle sandwich?” (Literally, “Would you like me to give you some dumplings to eat?”) Just hold up your hands and say, MOYKHL, “[No] thanks!”

meKHEEleh, the noun derived from MOYKHL, means “pardon” or “forgiveness,” what you ask for on Yom Kippur. It’s also used to mean [TUkhes or] “rear end”:

VILST A KOpeh IN meKHEEleh aREIN?

Want a kick right up your you’ll-pardon-the-expression?

MOYKHL
No thanks!

Adapted from “Just Say Nu,” by Michael Wex. Copyright (c) 2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.


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