A Book of Insults — Exploring Yiddish Curses

By Teddy Wayne

Published February 11, 2009, issue of February 20, 2009.
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If the classic Yiddish imprecation has an inverse, it is the Irish blessing. While the Gaelic bards gaily start benedictions with “May…” before politely wishing their recipient good fortune (“May the wind be always at your back; May the sun shine warm upon your face”), the Yiddish curse is a spell of invective, typically cast with the conditional “You should…” prior to the litany of ill tidings (“You should get windburn and a melanoma”).

As a compendium of these and other such Yiddishisms, “Talk Dirty Yiddish” by Ilene Schneider (Adams Media, 2008), who is one of the first six female rabbis in the United States, has a somewhat misleading title that may disappoint a gutter-minded Hebrew-school vonts (a bedbug; figuratively, a mischievous child). The series — there are “Talk Dirty” books for French and Spanish — is actually a primer on general slang. And except for one chapter in the Yiddish installment, there is very little schmutz (physical or metaphorical dirt).

Instead, the book surveys subjects integral to the Jewish experience: food, the body, public life, celebrations and tragedy (the last of which, not surprisingly, fills up one more page than celebrations). Additional chapters cover proverbs, names, ethnicity, insults, profanities and, perhaps most interestingly, words that have bled into English.

If “Talk Dirty Yiddish” serves a larger purpose, it is as a reminder of how much everyday English usage is either rooted in or lifted entirely from Yiddish. Many people know that “schmaltz” is rendered chicken fat, and therefore they can figure out the connection to “schmaltzy” (something dripping with chicken fat is akin to dripping with excessive sentiment), but do error-prone Silicon Valley geeks realize that in Yiddish, “glitch” means “slippery” (therefore, a glitch is when something has “slipped up”)?

The glossary of Yinglish words and other hybrid phrases is similarly enlightening. For example, “gunsel” in common usage is “an armed gangster,” but the original definition is “a young homosexual hobo who was partners with an old tramp.” I’ll be sure to bring up the latter connotation at the 2009 conference for Etymologists of Cross-Generational Gay Vagrant Lifestyles.

The brief chapter on Jewish names includes the fictional “Moishe Kapoyer,” coined by humor columnist B. Kovner of the Forverts to describe backward everything does who someone — sorry: someone who does everything backward.

In fact, Schneider discusses the Forverts at length, sounding a somewhat melancholy — though not schmaltzy — note when relating the dissolution of Yiddish culture in the United States over the 20th century. The Forverts’s circulation is now roughly one-tenth of the Forward’s, and since the Forverts worked to Americanize the new Jewish immigrants, the Yiddish paper’s decline in circulation is, by a bizarre turn of logic, “a testament to its success,” Schneider writes. (All across America, print newspaper stockholders must be likewise rejoicing over their drastic successes.)

Schneider peppers the vocab lists with historical and cultural sidebars, but the book could have benefited from more of these and fewer examples of usage, which follow every single word and tend to state the obvious. A more detailed approach to etymology would be appreciated, as well; there is a sidebar on schmaltz, but it’s about Crisco’s replacement of chicken fat in the Jewish kitchen, not about the link between chicken fat and Nora Ephron movies.

A complete index for quick alphabetical access might also be helpful to take us from ayngefedemt (literally, to thread a needle; a euphemism for sexual intercourse) to zaftig (see: Knightley, Keira, opposite of). Then again, I’m sounding like a kvetching knaker (know-it-all). Such a breezy, engaging book, I should be so lucky to write. Ilene Schneider, mazel tov.


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