Jews with roots in Eastern Europe, where Yiddish once flourished, make up only a tiny percentage of the U.S. population, and very few speak the language today. Yet Yiddish has had a major impact on American English. That’s because of the oversized role of Yiddish-speaking and Yiddish-influenced Jews in media — starting with vaudeville and extending to radio, newspapers, magazines, books, theater, stand-up comedy, movies, TV, and ultimately the Internet — where Jews have sprinkled their performances, writings, and songs with Yiddish phrases.
Words like nu, shlep, nosh, chutzpa, klutz, shpiel, mentsch, kibitz, meshuge, macher, maven, gonif, yente, kvetch, kvell, plotz, and naches, just to mention a few, have become everyday words in American English. Most Jews can tell you the difference between a shlemiel and a shl’mazel. And of course you do not have to be Jewish to know a bisl Yiddish. Some goyim (gentiles) can shmooze (converse) with the best of us.
Yiddish is so prevalent in English that the winning word in the 2014 National Spelling Bee was knaidel (matza ball) and the kid who spelled it correctly is the child of Indian immigrants. Gey veys! (Go figure!) In fact, more than 100 Yiddish words can be found in standard English dictionaries.
Yiddish is written in Hebrew letters, although it is more and more common to see it in English transliteration. The language is mainly derived from middle German, with many Hebrew and Aramaic words (up to 20 percent), some Slavic words (up to 10 percent), and a smattering of words from old Romance languages. It is essentially, like English, a fusion or hybrid language.
Yiddish words have been used in American English since about the turn of the 20th century, introduced through popular entertainment. Remarkably, it received a major boost from an unlikely source. H.L. Mencken, the non-Jewish journalist and social critic, included dozens of Yiddish loan words in his influential study The American Language, first published in 1919 and reissued three times during the 1920s and ’30s. Mencken received assistance in this project from his friend Abraham Cahan, the well-known editor of the Forverts, a mass circulation Yiddish daily newspaper that achieved a peak circulation of 250,000 during the 1920s and known today for most of the English-speaking population as the Forward.
Two great Yiddish writers have helped disseminate the language in America: Sholem Aleichem, the author of the stories that form the basis of the hit musical and movie Fiddler on the Roof, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose novels have been made into movies, including Yentl. Barbra Streisand, who directed and starred in Yentl, has incorporated many Yiddish words in her other films as well.
The popularity of Yiddish in English owes much to Jewish comedians who performed in the Jewish hotels of the Catskill Mountains, known as the Borscht Belt. Mickey Katz, who achieved nationwide fame, made a career out of writing and performing half-English, half-Yiddish parodies of popular American songs. His many comedy albums introduced Yiddish expressions to thousands of Jewish families. During the 1990s, performer Avi Hoffman put on a one-man show and issued a film and two CDs in this genre, titled Too Jewish? and Too Jewish Two!
The literary source that is credited for being most responsible for popularizing Yiddish is Leo Rosten’s book The Joys of Yiddish, first published in 1968, revised in 2001, and still in print.
Credit for keeping Yiddish and its tam (flavor) alive in English also goes to novelists Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, and Bernard Malamud; MAD Magazine; comedians Jackie Mason, Jerry Seinfeld, and Gilda Radner; and comedians/film makers Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. Who can forget the Yiddish-speaking Native Americans played by Brooks in Blazing Saddles? Or the dance hall girl, played by Madeline Kahn, named Lily Von Shtup? Do I have to tell you what shtup means? Outrageous humor is Brooks’s shtik.
Among non-Jews, premier black entertainer Cab Calloway stands out for singing in Yiddish, in particular his renditions of “Ut Azoy” (“That’s How”) and “Abi Gezunt” (“As Long As You Are Healthy”). The Andrews Sisters had a huge hit with “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” (“You Are Beautiful to Me”). Thanks to Mike Myers (imitating his Jewish mother-in-law) on Saturday Night Live, millions of Americans know that farklempt means choked up.
Yiddish has been rendered into English for decades in a haphazard manner. The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has provided standards for transliteration that have been widely accepted by Yiddish scholars. (According to their system, chutzpa would be khutspe; knaidel, kneydl; kibitz, kibits, etc. The judges for the 2014 National Spelling Bee accepted knaidel.) So you know more Yiddish than you think! Mazel tov and zay gezunt.