Green Prophet informs you about enviro-issues, sheds light on other cultures, and keeps you hip to current green building news. Our effectiveness comes down to making nice with the words – like sustainability. Words help us hop cultural fences. Look to anyplace with a “melting pot” street cred: cities along the old Spice Road or places popular with conquering hoards. Their languages bend to become more accessible. Adopting each other’s words brings us all a step closer. I’ll paint my point with a bit of the Yiddish I absorbed as a non-Jewish American:
In Manhattan, Muslims, Jews, Protestants and atheists all schlep to work, grab a coffee and nosh. We rub schmutz off our bubkes after sitting on a subway, and schmooze in the elevator with the schlemiel with the big schnoz.
The Marx Brothers can be credited with nudging Yiddish words into American mainstream, taking their Lower East Side vaudeville act to motion pictures in the early 20th Century. The films of Jewish Brooklynites Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand further schmeared the fun-to-say vocabulary far beyond the city’s shoreline.
Yiddish is written using the Hebrew alphabet, but it’s not Hebrew. It’s a fusion of Aramaic and Hebrew and German, flavored with input from both eastern and western European tongues. So did the formal language of the Jews and Samaritans also seep into American English vernacular? Oy vey, did it ever.
- Cherub – (כרוב) – winged toddler darlings of Catholic stained glass windows grabbed their name from the Hebrew kerubh, or celestial angel.
- Satanic – (הַשָּׂטָן) – supremely evil Yin to chubby cherubic’s Yang, this comes straight from the Hebrew word for adversary: satan.
- Bath – (בַּת) – pours forth from its Hebrew homophone (bath) which is a liquid measure – about ten gallons.
- Brouhaha – (אשרי מי שבא)- likely sourced from the Hebrew phrase barukh hab-ba, meaning “blessed is he who comes” (makes sense today only of “he who comes” is the loud, Life-of-the-Party).
- Sabbatical – (שׁבת ) – no stretch to see how a break from work stems from shabbat, or ceasing.
- Maven – (מבין) – describes a pro in any field, an off-shoot of the word mebhin which means “someone who understands”. Think Oprah, or insert your favorite schmaltzy TV “expert”.
- Leviathan -(לויתן) - liwyathan, meaning coiled or twisted, was used to describe a Biblical sea monster: the whale of a word continues to describe “immensity”.
- Jot – (יד) – probably from “yodh” which means hand. But in this age of computer keyboards, the art of “jotting” may soon be as quaint as the art of “wooing”.
- Jubilee – (ובל) – did Queen Liz realize that her summertime celebration was named after a ram’s horn? Yobhel is the word behind today’s term for big party.
- Cider – (שכר) – shekhar means strong drink, which is what I’ll need when true Hebrew scholars drop comments to correct me on all of the above.
Modern languages are as fluid as the people who speak them and the places where they’re spoken. It’s always sound advice to think before we speak: but if we think on the origins of words we use, we’ll discover that we all share more than we might’ve guessed.
Key to Yiddish words: mensch = good guy; schlep = drag oneself; nosh = snack; schmutz =dirt; bubkes = bum; schmooze = chat; schlemiel = dopey guy; schnoz = nose; nudge = push; schmear = spread; oy vey = oh my; schmaltzy = cheesy
If you like this, read our post on the Arabic Roots of 10 English Words
Image of Hebrew + English sign from Shutterstock