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How Yiddish survives in Europe - through German

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How Yiddish survives in Europe - through German
The festival "Yiddish Summer" in Weimar in 2011.
15:43 CEST+02:00
There are over 1,000 German words, originally from Yiddish, which are actively used today. We look at the 10 of the most frequently used ones.

Wednesday marks the European Day of Languages, which counts German among its 225 major and minority languages. While Yiddish is no longer actively spoken in Europe, several words are still kept alive through German speakers - whether they realize it or not.

Yiddish, the language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews, is an amalgam of many different languages itself, mixing Hebrew, West Germanic, Aramaic, Romance and Slavic components. Thus, Yiddish was the lingua franca among European Jews living in various countries, including Germany, before World War II and the Holocaust. 

Scholars assume that Yiddish has been around for some 1,100 years and probably originated in German cities such as Aachen, Mainz, Worms, Speyer.

A synogogue in Worms. Photo: DPA

Even following the Shoah, several expressions such as “dufte” (“great”) are still frequently used in colloquial German. The “Kleine Lexikon deutscher Wörter jiddischer Herkunft“ (“The small dictionary of German words of Yiddish origin“) lists 1,100 words and phrases of whom 30 are still in heavy rotation today, according to linguist Dr. Ane Kleine-Engel.

Dr. Kleine-Engel, hailing from Luxembourg, specializes in phonetics and Jiddistik. To assess how frequently used Yiddish is, she fed a database with 18 million pages of newspapers, 90 debates in German Bundestag and additionally crawled 830 online forums between 1990 and 2012.  

In order to measure the relevance of Yiddish in German today, we included the number of hits these Yiddish words score when entered into Google, and ranked them by occurrence.

The Internet has voted and the results are in:

1) koscher. Search engine results: 1,640.000

Germans do not apply that term merely to dietary rules but if something is not done by the book and thus involves foul play, it's not koscher.  

2) Schlamassel, der. Search engine results: 1,630.000

Trailing “koscher” is “Schlamassel”. In German “Schlamassel“ is strangely used much more often than its exact opposite, “Massel“. “Massel“ means “Glück“ or “luck“, it's part of the Hebrew phrase “Masel tov!“ (“Good fortune!”).  

“Schlamassel", on the other hand is “Pech“ or “bad luck“. The term is mainly used in the phrase "im Schlamassel sitzen" which translates to “sitting/bathing in bad luck." It's similar to its sister Yiddish word “vermasseln“ (“to screw up“). 

When in the 1990s a far right-wing political party called Die Republikaner gained some steam in Germany, they used the slogan "Schluss mit dem Schlamassel" for a campaign in Berlin. If they knew about the Yiddish origin of this term is unclear, could have been ignorance or flat-out chutzpah (“Chuzpe” has 158,000 hits).

3) Stuss, der. Search engine results: 937,000

The German word for malarkey is “Unsinn“ (which translates to “nonsense“) or “Quatsch“ but another Yiddish term is pretty popular, too: “Stuss“. Usually, someone talks Stuss. There is also the adjective “bestusst“.

4) Tacheles reden. Search engine results: 795,000

In German, if someone is very blunt with you, he speaks “Klartext“ or “Tacheles“. You get straight to the point and this is what the Yiddish term “tachles“ means: aim or purpose.

5) Schmock, der. Search engine results: 737,000

Someone who constantly talks “Stuss“ more often than not turns out to be a “Schmock“, a snobbish fool or idiot. Although the etymology is still debated, it seems clear that German novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag helped popularize the term in 1854 when he introduced a character by the name Schmock in his play “Die Journalisten“ (“The Journalists“).

This Schmock works for the fictitious newspaper Coriolan but the opportunistic man that he is would not mind to jump ship and hire with “Union“, another newspaper. This is why the term “Schmock“ in German is also applied to turncoats behind typewriters or keyboards. In 1999, Germany's top-selling hip hop band, Stuttgart's own Die Fantastischen Vier, released the album “4:99“ that featured the hit single “Schmock" - which might have helped the term climb the ranks.

6) malochen. Search engine results: 331,000

A German word that even entered the Japanese language is “Arbeit“ which means “work“. If you happen to work very hard physically though, you would use the word “malochen“ in German.

 

A man hard at 'malochen' in Munich. Photo: DPA

7) Ganove, der. Search engine results: 161,000

A man whose behavior is anything but koscher is a Ganove (Yiddish: “gannew”), a crook or petty criminal. These outlaws along with other outcasts even came up with a secret language, or Ganovensprache, called Rotwelsch, which has been around since the Middle Ages.

Rotwelsch features lots of Yiddish terms and although the purpose was to use a language the majority of (law-abiding) folks could not decipher, Rotwelsch as a sociolect is not as twisted and complex as verlan in France or regional idioms like Cockney rhyming slang.

8) Techtelmechtel, das. Search engine results: 154,000

Since long before the days of Tinder, the proper German-by-way-of-Yiddish expression for a fling has been “Techtelmechtel." The word itself rhymes, and it sounds better than the old-fashioned German term “Stelldichein“.

It is safe to say that the search engine rank does not properly reflect the popularity of the concept of Techtelmechtel, but hey, this made-up word is based on the Yiddish term “tachti“ which means “secret“.

In order to keep the Techtelmechtel undercover, you need to act “stiekum“, secretly (the Yiddish “stieke“ means “quiet“). “Stiekum“ scores 249,000 hits, significantly more than the Techtelmechtel. Hush, hush!

9) Mischpoke, die. Search engine results: 108,000

The word “Mischpoke“ describes your next of kin as the Yiddish word "mischpocho“ means family. However, in German “Mischpoke“ is often used in a rather negative sense as the word is applied to a group of shady characters. Watch out, there might be Ganoven among them!

10) meschugge. Search engine results: 102,000

This adjective describes people that regularly check in at the loony bin. The German words “verrückt“ or “geistig umnachtet“ (mentally deranged) are pretty accurate but “meschugge" sounds much nicer.

 
 
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