Imagine if a quiz on a popular website asked “How Much Spanish Do You Know?” and then proceeded to provide its readers with a list of words alternating between misspelled Spanish curses, some real words that weren’t actually Spanish and pure gibberish. It’s hard to imagine such a quiz being published outside of the realm of some very marginal comedy sites, let alone remaining online for days on one of the internet’s most highly trafficked pages.
But Yiddish speakers on Thursday found themselves in just such a situation when Buzzfeed published a quiz titled that promised to be “a total mishegoss (sic).” The questions were accompanied by Buzzfeed staffer Dan Meth’s original illustrations — to get a sense of their tone, see above.
Since I actually speak Yiddish fluently and have a good understanding of the culture (I work at a Yiddish newspaper after all) I could write a detailed analysis of the numerous linguistic goofs in this quiz. But so as not to bore you, I’ll stick to some of the more noteworthy lowlights.
Question 2: “Boychick” is not a Yiddish word. “Boy” in Yiddish is “yingele.” This would be like writing “boyito” as a way to make a Spanish word out of the English “boy” using a diminutive instead of the real Spanish “niño.” The word “boychick” was used in the English of American Jews as one of many Yiddishified English words of the era, a few of which have remained with us in American English (e.g. peacenik). But it’s not a Yiddish word.
Question 3: Much like “boychick,” “schnoz” is not a Yiddish word. The Yiddish word for nose is “noz.” “Schnoz” is perhaps a mispronunciation of a Yiddish regionalism for “snout” (the word is just as likely to have come from German). But it’s not a word any Yiddish speakers unfamiliar with 20th-century English would understand.
Question 4: Why is “mamzer,” the Yiddish word for “bastard,” mixed in with the answers for a question that has to do with eating a cookie? Furthermore, while “nosh” means “a snack,” it most certainly does not mean “to snack.” Yiddish verbs end with a nun, hence “nashn.” Nash by itself presented as a verb in the infinitive is gibberish.
Question 9: Does throwing in the Yiddish word for “shit” really add anything?
Question 10: “Alte Kaker” (in correct Yiddish “Alter Kaker”) does not in any way mean a “lecherous old man.” It’s a fairly offensive term for an old person but it literally refers to someone who is incontinent, not someone who is a pervert.
The appearance of such quizzes and “comedy” pieces on Yiddish (and they appear with depressing regularity) reveals far more about the biases of those who create them than they do about the Yiddish language itself. It’s clear that anyone who would dare to quote words from a language they don’t actually speak without consulting a dictionary or a native speaker has no respect for the language or culture in question.
While no self-respecting website (or in the case of Buzzfeed, no semi-self-respecting website) would ever allow such a piece to run about nearly any other language, Yiddish is considered to be a joke by most Americans, who see the historical language of tens of millions of Jews as nothing but a collection of funny off-color words to be butchered in American English.
In reality, this is a language with a Nobel-Prize winning literature and a rich history of use as a language of theater, religious scholarship and political organizing (among numerous other domains). And it was the language spoken by the majority of those murdered in the Holocaust.
The fact that American Jews themselves by and large treat Yiddish as a joke and are ignorant of the language’s history or cultural importance outside of a few kitsch-words used by aging comedians certainly plays a role in setting the tone for how the wider American community thinks of the language.
And the fact that such a quiz on Spanish would have elicited outraged letters and petitions from numerous Latino and Hispanic organizations and nary a peep is ever raised by a Jewish organization when a national media outlet makes fun of Yiddish is emblematic of just how little the language is held in esteem by most American Jews. In fact it is often Jewish media outlets themselves who release such pieces and it is left to Yiddish scholars, writers and cultural figures to raise our voices in protest. Most of us are simply too weary of the incessant deluge of stupidity to respond.
Jordan Kutzik is the deputy editor of the Yiddish Forward. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How Much Yiddish Do You Know? Hopefully More Than Buzzfeed.