Yiddish Words Gain Recognition in American Dictionary’s New Edition

By Ross Schneiderman

Published July 04, 2003, issue of July 04, 2003.
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It may mean bubkes to some, but oy, does it mean a lot to others. This week, a major force in the American dictionary establishment recognized two of the Yiddish language’s most common slang words.

Merriam-Webster released the 11th edition of its dictionary on Tuesday, and many readers were delighted to find in it the Yiddish words “oy” and “bubkes,” along with other slang terms such as “def,” “phat” and “McJob.”

The revisions are part of an update that includes 10,000 new words and more than 100,000 new meanings and modifications. Although updates occur every year for typographical errors and some readily accepted words, fully revised editions appear only once a decade.

For many years, “oy” and “bubkes” were restricted primarily to speech, according to said Kathleen Doherty, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster. According to the dictionary, “bubkes,” defined as “the least amount or nothing,” first appeared in writing in 1942, while lexicographers say that “oy” made its print debut all the way back in 1892.

The words, she said, “could have been popping up here and there sporadically but that means that they still weren’t widely established.” That is, until recently, as “oy” and “bubkes” found their way more and more into the written word.

“Some words are accepted really fast, but those are the minority,” said Doherty, who explained that this had a lot to with Merriam-Webster’s process for selecting new entries.

“Every editor reads through lots of different material and when they see something interesting, they underline that particular word and analyze the context,” Doherty said. The words are then put into the computer and go on three by five cards in print form. “On print form we have 15 and a half million words, and the online [database] is growing as we improve more of our sites,” she added.

While new words like “dot-commer” point to the advent and hegemony of the Internet in the last 10 years, others — including “collateral damage” and “burka” — gained prominence during the nascent stages of the war on terrorism.

The appearance of “oy” and “bubkes,” on the other hand, may lie in the changing face of popular culture. Doherty agreed that the success of television programs with Jewish protagonists, like Jerry Seinfeld, might have propelled such shtetl slang into the mainstream lexicon. Whatever the case, bubbe and zayde were just waiting for the rest of us to catch on.

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