The Yiddish Radio Project
Yiddish Words: An Audible Glossary of Familiar Terms
Click on the speaker icon or the word to hear actor David Rogow and Pearl Sapoznik (mother of series producer Henry Sapoznik) define and pronounce the following Yiddish words, and use them in the correct context:
"Kibbitz" is a verb, not to be confused with kibbutz. To kibbitz means to stand around talking and making wisecracks, and it can also mean to give someone advice and commentary when they are trying to work. A kibbitzer is a person who likes to kibbitz.
"Kvetsh" is to make a fuss and complain. A kvetsher is a person who is always complaining and making a fuss. Literally, to kvetsh means to squeeze -- for example, like a tight shoe kvetshes your foot. A kvetsher is a person who is pleasant like a tight shoe is pleasant.
A "luftmentsh" is a person with his head in the clouds -- in Yiddish, "luft" means air, and "mentsh" means person. In common usage, a luftmentsh is generally overly optimistic, dreamy, sensitive and impractical. Usually, things do not work out the way the luftmentsh expects.
"Makher" literally means "maker." A makher is a person who makes things happen. A makher cuts deals, makes connections and hatches plots. In the Yiddish language, a makher is a dynamic personality -- and for this reason, he is both exciting and dangerous to be around.
"Mamaloshn" is the word for Yiddish -- or literally, "mother tongue." Before World War II and the Holocaust, an estimated 12 million Eastern Europeans spoke Yiddish. A common Yiddish expression, "lomir redn mamaloshn," literally translates to "let's talk Yiddish." But the subtext means, "let's stop the double-talk and get to the heart of the matter."
"Mamzer" literally means illegitimate child. The word is commonly used to refer to an untrustworthy person. For example: "That mamzer overcharged me for fixing my icebox." But mamzer can also be a term of endearment for someone who is clever. For example: "My grandson, that mamzer, he is going to do great things."
"Maven" is an expert, a person who can offer advice about specific subjects. The word has entered the English language lexicon and is commonly used to describe a person who has mastered a specific area of expertise.
"Nu" is a word used to express expectation. At the doctor's office, for example, you can say, "Nu, so how does my heart sound?" At a restaurant, you can say, "Nu, when is our food coming already?" At a friend's coffee table you ask, "Nu, nu, so what's the news with the family?"
To "shvitz" is to sweat. The literal translation of "shvitzer" is someone who sweats. But figuratively, a shvitzer is a person who runs around a lot, acting like a big shot, but gets nothing done.
Browse more NPR stories on Yiddish culture.
Visit the official Web site of the Yiddish Radio Project.
Yiddish Radio Project producer Henry Sapoznik is also the executive director of LivingTraditions.org, supporting education in "community-based traditional folk culture."
The Yiddish Voice, a radio show based in Boston, Mass., features live Web audio on Wednesdays.
Learn more about the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.
Read about the Spoken Yiddish Language Project at Columbia University.
Make Yiddish online with the virtual Yiddish Typewriter.
Web site for the Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture.
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