The day after Christmas in the year 2004 proved to be a fateful Sunday. It was the day of the tsunami, the deadliest natural disaster in history.
The word tsunami became part of the core vocabulary of English. Linguists noted that the word has an initial consonant cluster, ts-, which is not native to English. While some speakers dropped the -t- and called it sunami, others retained the ts- combination. With the spread of English as a world language, the adoption of un-English sounds has become common. In many German words beginning with sp- st- and sm-, the initial s- tends to be replaced by sh-. German stadt “city” is pronounced shtadt. This pronunciation has been passed on to Yiddish and English has borrowed some of these words.
Yiddish was originally the language of the Ashkenazic Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Its vocabulary comes mainly from German, Hebrew and some Slavic languages. The language is identified with Jewish culture, particularly by orthodox Jews. Jewish migrants in other parts of the world speak Yiddish too. The name Yiddish comes from German judisch, which means Jewish. There were some 11 million speakers of Yiddish before World War II; approximately half of them were killed in the Nazi holocaust. There are several million Yiddish speakers today, concentrated in the US and Israel.
There are many online sites where we find glossaries of between 60 and 100 Yiddish loan-words in English. Some words like chutzpah, glitch, kosher and maven have wide currency, especially in American English.
Chutzpah is defined as effrontery, audacity, nerve. The initial sound is not the ch of chuck, but a strong initial h-. The word can be transliterated as hoot-spa. Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan” (Wikipedia).
Glitch in Yiddish means a “slip”. From its use for a minor error or problem in electronics, it has become a generalized word for similar situations in other areas.
A maven is an expert; the word can be traced to Hebrew mebhin, “understand”. Thus we can speak of an “investment maven” or “a martial arts maven”.
Schmaltz (initial sound is shm-) is often used in writing about music and art. It refers to being weak, mushy, drooling with sentiment. The literal meaning is animal fat.
Foreign words borrowed into a language sometimes serve a euphemistic purpose, and native words that the speaker is embarrassed to utter are replaced by foreign words. When you want to call somebody names, a foreign word can come in handy.
A schlemiel is a clumsy awkward person; he mishandles everything, spills soup on guests, and wears his shoe on the wrong foot. A schlimazel invites bad luck as a born loser. A schmendrik is a nincompoop, a stupid person. A customer who is gullible and easily gets fooled is a schnook.
Mensch carries a complimentary meaning. It refers to a person of sterling character, worthy of adulation and emulation. Another positive word is kosher, used for food that is ritually pure and acceptable to orthodox Jews. It has the general sense of genuine, correct and legitimate. Shalom means deep peace, absolute harmony; it is a common form of greeting, at meeting and parting.
Though Yiddish is not the official language of any country, it is spoken widely where there are Jewish communities in the diaspora. In 1978, the Yiddish novelist, Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize in literature. On 17 October 2007, there was a panel discussion in New York on the present state of Yiddish and its future. The members were optimistic on both counts.
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.