Everybody Knows a Little Yiddish

First, a very brief history lesson. What is Yiddish you may ask? Yiddish is a language that originated in the 9th century, used primarily by Ashkenazi (European) Jews. It is a German-based vernacular that has elements of Hebrew, Aramaic and traces of Slavic languages. Yiddish was widely spoken in European countries until the end of the Holocaust. This is because 85% of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were native Yiddish-speakers.

Now that you’ve read all the textbook stuff about Yiddish, we can get to the fun part. This is the part where you realize that you already know some Yiddish words! You might be thinking, “Good try, Marlee. I’ve never even heard of Yiddish so there’s no way I know any words”. Well my friend, you thought wrong. Here are some commonly used Yiddish words, and what they mean in English:

Oy Vey

This is a Yiddish classic that means “ugh” or “yikes” or “It sounds like you’re in a terrible predicament”! Oy Vey can also be shortened to a convenient “Oy”.

Used in a sentence:

“I have four finals on Monday, and I have work on Sunday night until 11:00pm”.

“Oy Vey… you’re going to have no time to study”.


Pronounced ‘shh-peel’, Spiel is used to describe a speech that you’ve given 100 times. It can also be used when complaining about a rant that your friend always goes on.

Used in a sentence:

“I know I’ve given you my spiel before but I seriously can’t deal with the slow drivers here!”


A piece of lint on your sweater, or a little black dot on your computer screen. Schmutz is used to point out to other people, for all intents and purposes, that they missed a spot.

Used in a sentence (What Hermione Granger COULD have said to Ron Weasley):

“You’ve got schmutz on your nose, by the way. Did you know? Just there”.


When you have to make a trip that sounds really exhausting, or have to carry something heavy for longer than you’d like.

Used in a sentence:

“I really don’t want to schlep all the way across campus if they don’t have any free pizza left”.


This Yiddish word, also used as “schvitzing”, is used to describe the sensation of sweating profusely. It is often used while fanning oneself with one’s hands.

Used in a sentence:

“Why did I wear long sleeves today? It’s 70 degrees out and I’m schvitzing”.


Seemingly random items or trinkets. Often household décor that does not really serve a purpose, or serves a bizarre purpose. For instance, a piggy bank that makes a noise or moves when you insert coins. Also, if you bought it from the As Seen on TV channel, it’s a tchotchke. Don’t argue this one.

Used in a sentence:

“It’s probably taking you forever to pack because you have so many tchotchkes”.


Small talk, or chat about nothing that is incredibly pertinent. Growing up, this is what your parents did at a party when all you wanted to do was go home, but they just kept talking to different people instead.

Used in a sentence:

“Before the meeting starts, try to schmooze with the client a bit to see if she’s in a good mood”.


Wow! Look at that. I bet you knew one or more of these words without ever realizing they were in a different language. Pretty neat if I do say so myself. What’s your favorite Yiddish word? Let me know in the comments below!


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