On June 5, 2024

Prig Latin and Goy Vey Yiddish

By Bruce Bouchard and John Turchiano

Editor’s note: Bruce Bouchard is former executive director of The Paramount Theatre. John Turchiano,  his friend for 52 years, was formerly the editor of “Hotel Voice,” a weekly newspaper on the New York Hotel Trades Council. They are co-authoring this column collaborating to tell short stories on a wide range of topics. 

Latin has been described as a “dead” language because, they say, it’s not in use anymore. No one speaks it, they say. But it actually is in use. After all, where would MGM’s lion be without the words Ars Gratia Artis above its head? [Translation: “Art for Art’s Sake.”] And Clarence Thomas, who has accepted a fortune in travel, gifts and forgiven loans since being named to the Supreme Court, where would he be without quid pro quo? [Translation: “something for something.”] But still, many say Latin is dead, done, finished, unused, et cetera. Wait a minute. Et cetera is Latin, meaning “and so on.” So is video, memorandum, data, emeritus, minimum, media, alumni, stadium, audio, and many other words used in English. And Latin expressions abound: semper fidelis, carpe diem, mea culpa, caveat emptor, in vino veritas, sic transit gloria, cui bono, quo vadis, ipso facto, bona fide, ad hoc, corpus delecti, fait accompli. prima facie, pro forma, pro rata, pro bono, pro tem, per diem, per capita, per se, persona non grata, ad nauseam. And some of us would like to believe that the U.S. still exists under the motto “e pluribus unum.” By the way, the word “motto” comes from the Latin muttum. 

It should also be noted that lawyers and doctors use Latin frequently. The cornerstone of American law is Latin: Habeus Corpus. Then there’s inter alia, certiorari, ex parte, non compos mentis, and for doctors fibula, tibia, sternum, tarsus, and much more. And we use Latin abbreviations all the time: ad lib, et. al., i.e., e.g., a.m., p.m., A.D.

Former vice president Dan Quayle figures into this theme as well. Boomers remember Dan Quayle, who famously on camera corrected a child’s spelling of “potato.” But the kid spelled it correctly, it was Quayle who had it wrong. After a tour of Latin America in 1989 the then vice president returned to the U.S. and said he enjoyed the people he met there. He allegedly also said he only wished he could have communicated better with the Latin Americans he met, but he had never learned to speak Latin… Apparently, Quayle didn’t realize that if he had spoken Latin to the people in Latin America they wouldn’t have understood a word he was saying.

And this calls for comment about the Romans, the people who gave us Latin: Legend has it that a Roman centurion walked into a restaurant, held up two fingers [in a V] and said, “Table for five.” 

One student of Roman history said, “I hate the misuse of Latin phrases and vice versa.” 

A priest asked a fellow priest, “What’s the Pope’s phone number?” The answer? “Et cum spiritu tuo.” 

A teacher asked, “Who knows how to write Roman numerals?” A student answered, “I, for one.” The teacher then said, “That makes II of us.”

But while Latin is the source of so many English words and expressions, there’s another language that has made its way into our language big time, even here in Vermont. It’s Yiddish. We have lots of words we use in English that are actually Yiddish, so much so that we inevitably have people who in speaking English use Yiddish incorrectly.

Politician Scott Walker is a good example. When he was governor of Wisconsin in 2014 Walker issued a response to a Jewish constituent by writing, “Thank you again and Molotov.” Presumably, Walker meant to say “mazel tov,” Yiddish for congratulations or good luck, but instead he wished the voter a homemade bomb… oops!

Remember that bagel with a schmear of cream cheese? You can nosh on that — yes, “nosh” is Yiddish, and if you don’t like bagels try a knish or blintz, also Yiddish. That glitzy show —  yes, “glitzy” is Yiddish — you saw when you were in Las Vegas? It was pure schmaltz. 

Walker isn’t the only one. A former U.S. Senator from New York, Kenneth Keating, once accused his opponent of issuing a “political schmear.” Keating obviously meant smear, a schmear being Yiddish for, say, an application of cream cheese to a bagel.

There’s more. In his best selling disco song, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” Barry White sings the lyric, “I’m never ever gonna quit ‘cause quittin’ just ain’t my stick.” White probably meant schtick, which is Yiddish for one’s routine or, if you’ll excuse the Latin we don’t use anymore, one’s M.O., their modus operandi.

Jerry Orbach once told of a man who claimed to be totally out of sorts. The man said he had “tisuris,” pronouncing it like the book that has all the synonyms. Orbach suggested that if the man had difficulty saying Yiddish word “tsuris,” meaning “woe,” he could use an Italian version and say he had agita.

Don’t know any Yiddish? Oy vey, let’s get you started. After all, while plenty of Yiddish words have made it into the English language, especially in cities like New York and Los Angeles, some are even spoken here in Vermont. 

An example of Yiddish in Vermont? How about “bagel?” Yup, it’s Yiddish. So is klutz. And putz. A half-mile walk to buy milk, bread and eggs in Vermont is an errand. But if it’s snowing hard outside it’s a schlep. There are others. Did you ever tell someone who was getting excited, “Don’t have a have a kanipshin?” Kanipshin is Yiddish. When you see a friend you haven’t seen in a while you may stop to schmooze, or, if it’s a group of friends, perhaps kibbitz. Remember that bagel with a schmear of cream cheese? You can nosh on that — yes, “nosh” is Yiddish, and if you don’t like bagels try a knish or blintz, also Yiddish. That glitzy show —  yes, “glitzy” is Yiddish — you saw when you were in Las Vegas? It was pure schmaltz. Did you stop at the casino on the way to the show? You probably won bubkes. Yes, bubkes is Yiddish for “nothing.” Someone who has a lot of nerve is often said to have chutzpah, an often loud word with a silent “c.” And people with chutzpah are often schmucks, schmos, or schnooks, all Yiddish words often used in English. Do you know someone who persistently annoys or who always points out things that they believe are being done wrong? That’s a noodge. When told noodge is Yiddish for someone who persistently annoys and always points out things that they think are being done wrong, one Vermonter said, “I get it. Noodge is Yiddish for Judge Judy.” 

There are lots of other Yiddish words commonly used in English. Examples? Kvell, Nudnick, Schlimiel, Gonif, Schlub, Nebbish, Schnorrer, Mensch, Schlump, Spiel, Plotz, Schlimazel, Gesundheit, Schmutz, Meshugenah, Mishegas, Yenta, Schlock, Shlumperdik, Kvetch, Shande, Tuchus, Schmootz, Schmendrik, Verklempt and lots of others. And while we’re at it, let’s explain the difference between a schlemiel and a schlimazel. A schlemiel is a klutz who spills a bowl of soup. The schlimazel is the nebbish (or poor thing) the soup lands on. Further exploration of the language can be found through the most replete repository of Yiddish in the U.S., Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

One of the great things about Yiddish is that it sounds so good coming off the tongue. It’s often guttural and frequently humorous sounding. Let’s face it, saying “schlemiel” is such a satisfying way to describe an inept or incompetent person. Calling a mooch a schnorrer works, too. Referring to a stupid person as schmendrik with a smile may have the pleasant result that the stupid person doesn’t realize you’re calling him brainless.

Yes, Latin and Yiddish are definitely useful as components of 21st Century English. Want to be smart and hip at the same time? Be a mensch! Remember, don’t be a schlumperdik and futz around. Instead, carpe diem!

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