Get to the Point
What? You Want I Should Stop Using Yiddish?
Caution: Mature Content. Yes, yes, I do want you to stop. A recurring theme of “Get to The Point” is that even if some of your listeners or readers are fine with your language usage, if a speech mannerism will offend others, don’t use it. That issue dominated the national news recently when Donald Trump stated that Barack Obama “schlonged” Hillary Clinton in 2008.
They tell me that due to an early childcare situation, I spoke Yiddish before I spoke English. Though I’ve forgotten most of it now, I still know a noun from a verb, and I certainly know when I hear a synonym for the male sexual organ. Some people think they sound clever by throwing in a Yiddish word. The problem is if you don’t fully understand what you’re saying or how to say it, you could sound insulting or stupid. Unfortunately, it seems most of the words that non-Yiddish speakers like to use are insults.
Yiddish is a language using the Hebrew alphabet, not “Jewish slang.” Fluent Yiddish speakers are dying out. At the same time, certain Yiddish words have permeated our vernacular, hence the movie “Dinner for Schmucks.” The nouns “schmuck”, “putz”, “shvantz”, and, yes, “schlong” do not translate to “jerk” as many think. These terms of abuse are akin to a Brit calling someone a “wanker” or a “tosser.” That’s not a direct translation, but these words direct the listener to the same body part.
When the defendant angrily reacts to the plaintiff’s settlement demand, he (it’s typically a man) could yell, “He has some nerve!” Or “What balls that guy’s got!” He might also say, “That guy’s got “chutzpah!” But I wish he wouldn’t.
A non-Yiddish-speaker with whom I was conversing recently called a male non-Jew a “shay-GETZ,” accent on the second syllable. “Shagetz” is accented on the first syllable. What’s more, the word is derogatory. The root word comes from the Hebrew for “unclean.” In context, this person thought the use was affectionate. Coupled with the mispronunciation, it just sounded wrong.
Recommendation: Stay away from “shiksa” and “goy,” too.
More benignly, recently someone invited me for coffee to “kibbitz.” The translation is “to chat.” The invitation sounded weird because the person extending it pronounced the word with the accent on the second syllable. So, no, I don’t want to “kib-BITZ,” whatever that means. But I’d be glad to meet you for coffee to chat.
Maybe all New Yorkers, including Donald Trump, think they have a license to use Yiddish. If Yiddish does come naturally to you and the people you are doing business with, you have my blessing to use it in conversation so long as you stay away from the insults. Even then, avoid Yiddish in your writing. If you lack fluency, you may achieve the opposite effect of what you were going for. You could even set off a national news furor.
Theda “Teddy” Snyder mediates workers compensation cases throughout California. She is also available for legal freelance writing assignments. An attorney since 1977, she has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and the author of four books published by the American Bar Association, including "Women Rainmakers' Best Marketing Tips, 3rd Edition." Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at WCMediator.com and on Twitter @WCMediator.
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