Miss Congeniality’s Mishegas

By Gabrielle Birkner

Published March 10, 2010, issue of March 19, 2010.
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In the category of “Latest Yiddish Word To Find Crossover Appeal,” the March 7 Academy Awards telecast produced a dark-horse winner: mishegas, which roughly translates to “madness or folly.” While introducing this year’s Oscar nominees for cinematography, actress Sandra Bullock — who took this year’s leading actress Oscar for her role in “The Blind Side” — dropped the word to describe the esoteric techniques employed by directors of photography.

Bullock’s Oscar-night Yiddish got a thumbs-up from Yiddishist Michael Wex, author of, most recently, “How To Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck).” “The idea of mishegas as picky details about things that don’t really interest you is, more or less, correct,” he said.

That mishegas would make it into the Oscar spiel of a non-Jewish actress like Bullock is emblematic of “just how much Yiddish has entered the argot of the film business,” Wex said.

Other Hollywood favorites, according to Wex: Chaim Yankel, which is used to mean “a nobody,” “a what’s-his-name,” as in, “We can’t get George Clooney, so get me Chaim Yankel” — and the Yiddish word for “pins and needles,” shpilkes, as in “I’m sitting on shpilkes, waiting to hear from my agent.”


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