Yiddish, that wonderful admixture of German and Hebrew, is a deeply subtle, yet demonstrably practical, language. No amount of translation can perfectly denotate the connotations of its most derisive words. Still, a little practice can make even the most obvious goyim seem like a member of the tribe. Here are a some, fabulous, insightful and insulting Yiddish insults that have enriched the English vocabulary.
The original “talk to the hand” comment, To be most effective, “Feh” should always be uttered with a dismissive wave of the hand. It is, at once, utterly derisive and consummately blasé. It conveys, in one syllable, that your comment is so banal and beneath contempt that the listener will not even bother to form an appropriate insult. Instead, a mere grunt will suffice as condemnation.
While predestination is a foreign concept to Judaism, many Yiddish terms like “klutz” seem to indicate that the person has a birthright to the term. The term “klutz” denotes a person who cannot manage the simplest of mechanical tasks without some sort of gaffe, minor or major. It is the slightest of Yiddish insults. In fact, in most cases, it is simply meant as a gentle admonition and a forewarning to be careful.
In the annals of derisory words, “schmuck” must stand out as one of the finest and most insightful.
It is somewhat contradictory that most cultures hurl insults at an enemy by deriding them as the appendage that is the that most prized portion of the male anatomy, the penis.
While every man is quite fond of his manhood and enjoys its workings, most would not part with it on pain of death. Still, most cultures regularly deride their enemies as some variation of “dick.” The uninformed may conclude that Yiddish falls into the same camp but it is not so. “Schmuck” actually refers to the little piece of foreskin excised during a circumcision. So, while technically, “schmuck’ is part of a “dick,” it is the most unwanted and unnecessary part.
Kish Mir in Tuchas
Gaelic Irish has a wonderful phrase, póg mo thóin, that, wonderfully and almost exactly, translates this Yiddish phrase. Both cultures enjoy inviting the object of their derision to have a good smack when and where necessary. While the Gaelic is certainly a dare and a taunt, the Yiddish phrase, ever practical, seems to invite compliance as if the recipient thinks it will do some good.
The wordliterally translates as "crazy" but its connotation is far deeper for the true believer in Judaism. While the word by itself is often used to mean an impractical or precipitous person, its use in the phrase, “Does it hurt to be crazy?“ is meant to connote senselessness and resonates with scorn and pity. It is, indeed, the most hurtful phrase in the Yiddish arsenal of insults. The implication is that you are senseless and therefore unaware of the existence of God.
Schlemiel & Schlimazel
Garry Marshall, the creator and producer of the series, reveled in his Jewish roots with the opening sequence of the TV show, Laverne and Shirley. The two girls would hopscotch every week to the words,
"Schlemiel, Schlimazel, Hasenpfeffer Incorporated."
Most Americans, despite watching the show week after week, would remain blissfully ignorant of the beauty of the first two words. A schlemiel is simply a clumsy person. Unlike a klutz, however, the schlemiel’s ineptness will always involve an innocent person.
Stubbing a toe is one thing and indicates a klutz. Spilling a bowl of soup over another person in a crowded restaurant defines a schlemiel. The victim, no matter how innocent, is the schlimazel. In other words, a schlimazel's buttered toast always falls topping-side down but, before dropping it, the schlemiel will always butters his toast on both sides.
The delineations of incompetence are simply delicious in Yiddish. A “putz” is neither a klutz nor a schlemiel. Instead, his ineptitude stems from a lack of motivation or intentional ignorance. Much as the Spanish use the word “nescio,” to describe an unknowing fool, the Jews abhor those who “do not know” on purpose. In the simplest terms, Judaism demands that one recognize, understand and manipulate the world around him. To the contrary, a putz merely coasts and lets events simply happen. To his immortal peril, a putz’s theme song is, “Que Sera, Sera.”
This word is another seemingly innocuous insult that has much deeper undertones. In Jewish circles, a “nebbish” is generally considered a timid, fearful or ineffectual person. No quarter is given to anyone who will not demand respect. For the Yiddish speaking population, there is certainly a pecking order in the world and the nebbish, through his own indecisiveness, will remain close to the bottom.
In that the speakers of Yiddish are usually self-deprecating, this phrase is unusual as it only pertains to non-believers in the Jewish faith. To call the Jews “insular” is an understatement, but their solidarity as a community has served them well. Certainly, there is no shame in supporting your family, friends and community. Nevertheless. this particular Yiddishism encapsulates a wanton disregard for the goyim neighbors that goes well beyond the pale.
Jewish custom requires that certain practices be suspended on the Sabbath. This proscription does not apply to non-believers and so, Jews use a Shabbas Goy to do things such as turn on the lights, press elevator buttons and the like. Jews recognize that the Shabbas Goyim are acting in contradiction to the Lord’s will but accept the practice. The literal shame is that the practice is not necessary for their own salvation but merely for their creature comfort and diminishes the Shabbas Goyim in the eyes of God. It is a hypocritical and abominable practice undeserving of such an admirable people.
Never has a language had such a panoply of playful sounding yet earnestly insulting terms. Nudnik, schnook, yutz, noodge, schmendrik, schlub, schmo, and dozens of others offer a variety and very clearly defined set of insults. “Temper the insult to the man” has never been more assiduously followed than in Yiddish. If you are looking for that particular insult, look no farther than the vocabulary of Yiddish.