abbi Jonathan Gerard of Easton, Pa., writes:
“One often hears Americans using the term ‘kosher.’ Hearing it on National Public Radio recently prompted me to wonder what the speaker actually meant by it. In Hebrew it means ‘fit; proper; according to [Jewish] law.’ Could it be that in English the term is used in the same way to denote something as being both legal and proper, or legal and moral? There is probably no other word in English to designate such a concept, which is very much a biblical value. Has ‘kosher’ found a home in the English language where no one lived before?”
It is certainly true that “kosher” is a much used word among Americans at large. In fact, according to a 2003 survey conducted by the Internet’s Kernerman Dictionary News, it occupied second place among all Jewish contributions to American English. First place went to “glitch,” with 232,000 Internet hits. “Kosher,” a close runner-up with 222,000, ran far ahead of “bagel” (145,000), “maven” (70,800) and “mensch” (42,600). “Chutzpah” finished last in the top 12 with 32,700.
Quite apart from the question of whether “kosher” fills a previously unaddressed need in the English language, it is not surprising that it should be one of the best-known words that have a Jewish history. (What does seem surprising on first glance is that “glitch,” a relative newcomer propelled to the front by the electronics age, leads the list, but this is only because American Jews do not commonly think of it as a Yiddish loan word.) “Kosher,” after all, is a term that, starting with the late 19th century, was displayed prominently in the windows of many butcher shops in the immigrant neighborhoods of large American cities, where it appeared in both Hebrew and English characters, and thus it had far more public exposure than any of its competitors. As far back as the 1890s, it was described by Farmer & Henley’s Slang and Its Analogues as a “common adjective” meaning “fair” or “square,” and it heads the list of some two-dozen Yiddish words mentioned by H.L. Mencken as familiar to “almost every New Yorker” in the first (1919) edition of his book, “The American Language.”
And yet I doubt that the popularity of “kosher” has to do with English having had no previous word to designate behavior that is legal and moral at the same time. What about “legitimate”? It derives from the Latin lex (“law”), and although its earliest use in English was the narrow sense of designating a child born in wedlock, by the 17th century it had come to signify anything that is both legally sanctioned and/or proper or acceptable.
At most, one might argue that “kosher” was attractive as a slang alternative to “legitimate.” But here, too, there were other options, starting with “legit,” which was already in use before 1910, and including such colloquial expressions as “above board” and “on the up and up.’ Today “kosher” is not in the same league as the last two. While it now has 3,520,000 hits on the Internet (the steep rise from 2003 presumably reflects the vast growth in the number of Web sites), and outpolls “legit,” which has a mere 1,280,000, it’s still small-time compared with “above board,” which has 47,100,000. And it’s a mere speck on the chart next to “on the up and up,” which has 1,050,000,000. Moreover, a large number of hits for “kosher” show it being used not in its slang sense but in its literal sense, pertaining to the Jewish dietary laws.
And yet there’s no doubt that “kosher” is a slang term that has penetrated every corner of American life. Here, scanning the Internet again, are three examples of how far from its Jewish origins it has strayed:
1. This is an excerpt from an article about an evangelical campaign in Massachusetts to convince teenagers to abstain from premarital sex: MassNews asked [Deb] Ott [an activist in the campaign] how schools react to the program. She said schools wish they could have it, but the Christian message poses a problem. “I’ve had a lot of schools say, ‘We want you here, but there is just so much red tape we have to go through to make it all kosher….’”
2. A Caribbean blogger complains about her dislike of cats and the liberties they take: “Man, that stuff ain’t right. And for the highfalutin among us, it ain’t kosher etiquette wise.”
3. This comes from an advice column on photographic equipment: “Even the product description lists the lens as an included item…. I’ve put together an entire digital studio from sites like USA Photonation, and it looks kosher to me.”
What appeals to many English speakers about “kosher,” I think, is a certain raciness that the word has in their eyes. It is the slangiest of the available colloquialisms for “legitimate,” which is the reason that its use is more limited and that some speakers or writers are attracted to it in particular. However, with the exception of the Christian pro-chastity campaigners, they are not especially concerned with biblical values.
Questions for Philologos can be sent to email@example.com.