The German for 'Oy Gevalt!'

  • November 20, 2009
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On a trip to Worfelden, Germany, where my great-grandparents once lived, local residents welcomed my mother and me with a specially compiled pamphlet for our visit that told of the town’s Jewish history. In addition to the copies of the original blueprints for the synagogue and brief biographies of the Jews who once lived in the town, the pamphlet listed Yiddish words commonly used in Germany today.

Under the heading, “Mundartausdrücke aus hebräischem oder jiddischem wortstamm,” which means “dialect expressions derived from Hebrew or Yiddish word,” are these examples:

  • Mischpoche – riffraff; clan
  • Chuzpe – chutzpah, brazenness
  • koscher -kosher
  • Malocher – drudge
  • Macke – kink, loose screw
  • miese – wretched, miserable
  • Schmusekurs – schmoozing up
  • betucht – well off

Turns out, about 1,100 words of Yiddish origin are listed in linguist Hans Peter Althaus’ Lexikon deutscher Wörter jiddischer Herkunft (Encyclopedia of German Words of Yiddish Provenance).Yiddish became known in German in the 19th and 20th century as German writers sometimes used the words with anti-Semitic intentions to characterize Jewish figures. During the Nazi period, Yiddish words were prohibited or exploited for purposes of anti-Semitic propaganda. Consequently, the post-war German generation never learned Yiddish words. But since the 1980’s, a handful of Yiddish words have become part of everyday German language.

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