From Leo Rosten's "The Joys of Yiddish"
The Influence of Yiddish on English
It is a remarkable fact that never in its history has Yiddish been so
influential among Gentiles. (Among Jews, alas, the tongue is
running dry.) We are clearly witnessing a revolution in values when a
Pentagon officer, describing the air-bombardment pattern used around
Haiphong, informs the press: 'You might call it the bagel strategy.' Or
when a Christmas (1966) issue of Better Homes and Gardens features:
'The Season's Delightful Jewish Traditions and Foods.' Or when the London
Economist captions a fuss over mortgage rates: 'HOME LOAN HOOHA.'
Or when the Wall Street Journal headlines a feature on student
movements: 'REVOLUTION, SHMEVOLUTION.' Or when a wall in New York bears
this eloquent legend, chalked there, I suppose, by some derisive student
Marcel Proust is a Yenta
Or when England's illustrious Times Literary Supplement, discussing
the modern novel, interjects this startling sentence: 'Should, schmould,
shouldn't, schmouldn't.' Or when a musical play about Jews in the Polish
shtetl of fifty years ago, Fiddler on the Roof, scores so
phenomenal a success.
Yiddish phrasing and overtones are found in, say, the way an Irish
whiskey advertises itself:
Scotch is a fine beverage and deserves its popularity
But enough is enough, already...
Colloquial Uses in English of Yiddish Linguistic Devices
But words and phrases are not the chief 'invasionary' forces Yiddish has
sent into the hallowed terrain of English. Much more significant, I
think, is the adoption by English of linguistic devices, Yiddish in
origin, to convey nuances of affection, compassion, displeasure, emphasis,
disbelief, scepticism, ridicule, sarcasm, scorn. Examples abound:
(Often an underlying Yiddish syntax, but using English words)
- Blithe dismissal via repetition with an sh
play-on-the-first-sound: 'Fat-shmat, as long as she's happy.'
- Mordant syntax: 'Smart, he isn't.'
- Sarcasm via innocuous diction: 'He only tried to shoot himself.'
- Scorn through reversed word order: 'Already you're discouraged?'
- Contempt via affirmation: 'My son-in-law he wants to be.'
- Fearful curses sanctioned by nominal cancellation: 'A fire should burn
in his heart, God forbid!'
- Politeness expedited by truncated verbs and eliminated prepositions:
'You want a cup coffee?'
- Derisive dismissal disguised as innocent interrogation: 'I should pay
him for such devoted service?'
- The use of a question to answer a question to which the answer is so
self-evident that the use of the first question (by you) constitutes an
affront (to me) best erased either by (a) repeating the original question
or (b) retorting with a question of comparably asinine
"-NIK" (Example of Yiddish-stereotype suffixes, and subsequent
This multipurpose syllable converts a verb, noun or adjective into a word
for an ardent practitioner, believer, lover, cultist or devotee of
something. Thus, a nudnik is someone who nudzhes or pesters. An
alrightnik is someone who has done so well that he is prosperous.
We are all familiar, of course, with beatnik and peacenik.
The New York Times recently referred to Bachniks, and a
friend of mine, dieting, wailed that it was especially hard for her
because at heart she was a noshnik.
- -nik, or -nick (Pronounced "NICK": a suffix from the Slavic
-Nik lends itself to delightful ad hoc inventions.
A sicknik would be one who fancies sick or black humor. A
Freudnik would be an uncritical acolyte of the father of
psycholanalysis. And recently homosexuals have begun to refer to
heterosexuals, with some amusement, as straightniks.
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Last Updated 06 November 2011