Monday, November 18, 2019

Yiddishisms

On November 18, 2013, NASA launched an atmospheric probe to Mars, which initiated the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission. Its mission was to gather data to determine why Mars’ atmosphere and water supply were lost over time. A little over 10 months later the probe reached Mars’ atmosphere. A year later, NASA announced that the probe found that solar storms were the cause for the transformation of Mars’ atmosphere from a carbon-dioxide atmosphere to a cold and barren surface. According to NASA’s findings, this transfer occurred between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago.

Why would this tidbit of scientific history be worthy of inclusion in Jewish Treats? Because of the name of the Mars probe! The “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission” was nicknamed MAVEN, which in Yiddish means someone with expert knowledge. The acronym MAVEN was given to the probe to deliberately connote the Yiddish term.

Maven, however, is not merely another Yiddish term derived from the original Hebrew. It’s a Yiddish word that is well known in the English vernacular. Some call such words “Yiddishisms.” Non-Yiddish speakers, and even non-Jews, will invoke many of the following terms: a busy-body who is a yenta; a child kvetching too much to their parent; two people schmoozing, or perhaps, kibbitzing and catching up on old times; someone acting with such audacity that they are called out for their chutzpah. Some call such words “Yinglish” or “Ameridish,’ while others will use the formal non-Yiddish term, neologisms, which means new words, usages or expressions.

Yiddish terms that enter the English language occur in various categories. There are the words associated with food such as blintzes, kishke, latke, nosh, schmaltz, a schmear and even the word kosher, as a synonym for appropriate or acceptable. Some words entered via the entertainment industry: yenta and l’chaim (Fiddler on the Roof), megillah (Gorilla) and schlemiel and schlemazzel (Laverne and Shirley). Mike Myers’ Saturday Night Live Jewish character Linda Richman, brought us the terms farklempt and shpilkes. Most Americans know the difference between one who is a mentch and another who is meshugah. For some reason, many Yiddishisms begin with the “sh” sound, such as shlepp, shmutz, shpiel, shtick, and shvitz. Even one-syllable Yiddish expressions such as oy and nu are pregnant with meaning. There is also a litany of colorful terms that can’t be mentioned in Jewish Treats.

So boychiks and maydelehs, be proud of the Yiddish language and culture, whose terms have entered and truly enriched the melting pot of American life.

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