An upbringing by a secular Jewish mother meant that the my quotidian vocabulary, and that of of my sister, came to be smattered with a handful of Yiddish words, many of which we did not consciously realise belonged to another language until later in life, often when we used one of these words in the course of a conversation and our interlocuteur asked for clarification about the meaning of the term used. Furthermore, we came to notice that the lexicons of our goy (Gentile) acquaintances were not sprinkled with such wonderfully expressive terms as ‘schmuck’, ‘schlep’, ‘schamltz’ and ‘chutzpah’.


These words seemed to us to contain nuances not found in English equivalents (and finding such shades of nuance and hints of meaning in different words is the joy of language-learning). What word other than ‘schlep’ could more accurately convey the disgruntled effort involved in heaving box after box of your sister’s possessions up four flights of stairs as she moved into university halls? (Admittedly my parents were lumbered with the bulk of the schlepping, but that’s beside the point.) What word other than ‘schmaltz’ could be more apt for conveying the cloying sentimentality of many American films? There are many people who cannot be labelled anything but ‘schmuck’. In addition to the shades of meaning conveyed by these words, there’s always something very satisfying in the sounds of those syllables. The sounds of certain syllables, the nuances not found in equivalents in other language, and the emotional attachment and sense of history entrenched in different languages (something which will be subsequently discussed in relation to Yiddish) are all problems professional translators must battle with when dealing with the slippery problem of conveying the same sense and meaning of a text in a different language.

The Wikipedia article entitled ‘English words of Yiddish origin’ shows are prevalent such words are in the English language; many Anglophones probably do not even realise when they are using words from Yiddish: ‘schnook’, ‘schnoz’, ‘shpiel’, ‘schmooze’ and ‘shtick’ are words that no doubt embroider most native English speaker’s vocabularies, while ‘glitch’, ‘Kitsch’, ‘klutz’, ‘nosh’, ‘schnaps’ and ‘tushie’ are other words of Yiddish origin which no doubt pepper many an Anglophone lexicon.

The use of Yiddish words as part of an English vocabulary also provide a link to a common and individual past: the mainstream use of many Yiddish words show the influence of Jewish culture on contemporary society, and for many are also attached to memories of parents, grandparents or more distant relatives. My occasional use of Yiddish words reminds me my childhood, and no doubt reminds my mother of her own mother and childhood. They resonate with a depth of semantic and emotional meaning. The use of these words links back to the turn-of-the-century immigration of our great-grandparents and thousands of others fleeing Eastern Europe pogroms for the refuge of Britain or America. While we can conjure up only a smattering of Yiddish, they had only a few words of English. This Teutonic addition to our vocabulary is a link with the past, identifying us with distant relatives and what is now seems distant history.

What about when it comes to professional translation of such terms? An illuminating study might be to find out whether, in a French translation of an English book containing Yiddish words, the Yiddish terms are retained in their original language, or transposed. What I do think the example of the proliferation of Yiddish words in English demonstrates is that despite the cries of the Academie Française, Academia della Crusca and other language watchdogs pained by what they see as the invasion of their Romance tongues by the English language and its nefarious influence, one language can enrich another, rather than impoverish it.

For those hungry for more information about the Semitic aspect of modern English, read Leo Rosten’s glossary of Yiddish words collected in Hooray for Yiddish! A Book About English, The New Joys of Yiddish, and The Joys of Yinglish. Or watch Annie Hall.