May 10, 2010
Yiddish for Business
Contrary to popular belief, Yiddish isn’t “Jewish slang” (I hear that a lot). According to Wikipedia, Yiddish is a basically a High Germanic language with Hebrew influence of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, spoken throughout the world. It developed as a fusion of German dialects with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages. It is written in the Hebrew alphabet.
I don’t speak Yiddish. Like many American Jews whose families came to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, my grandparents spoke it somewhat, or at least had a ton of phrases they wove into everyday speech. Presumably their parents spoke it fluently before coming here and Americanizing their families. My own parents have a handful of stock phrases down. My brother and I have even less.
What I like best about Yiddish is that I find it to be a very descriptive and also onomatopoetic language. I can never verbally describe a Yiddish word without a lengthy description and some examples, and usually some level of gesticulation. I’ll try to be more succinct below. But in the end, words mean a lot like what they sound like they should mean. A lot of New Yorkers who aren’t Jewish end up knowing a handful of Yiddish words because they’re pretty prevalent in the City, but many people outside New York don’t. So I thought I’d have a little fun here and do something different on the 6th anniversary of launching this blog (today) and list out some of my favorite Yiddish words and describe them with a business context. In no particular order…
– Schmooze – to chat someone up, work them, frequently with some kind of hidden agenda in mind. Business application: “She showed up at the charity event just to schmooze Alice, who was a potential client.”
– Chutzpah – nerve, as in “wow, he has some nerve.” My dad always said the classic description of chutzpah was the kid who murdered both of his parents, then pleaded with the judge for leniency because he’s an orphan. Business application: “He missed all his goals this quarter and asked for his full bonus and a raise? Now that takes real chutzpah!”
– Spiel (pronounced schpeel) – a monologue or lengthy pitch. Business application: “I’m raising money, so I have to really organize my spiel before I go talk to the VCs.”
– Schtick – someone’s standard song-and-dance. Business application: “I stood up in front of the room and gave my usual schtick about our values and mission.” Kind of like Spiel.
– Schlep – to make a long, pain-in-the-ass kind of trip. Business application: “I had to schlep all the way to Toledo for a meeting with that guy, and he didn’t even end up signing the deal.”
– Mazel tov – literally means “good luck” but usually used in regular conversation to mean “congratulations.” Business application: “You got a promotion? Mazel tov!”
– Noodge – someone who inserts himself into a conversation in a somewhat unwelcome manner. Related to Kibbitz – to give unsolicited advice from the sidelines. Business application: “Sally is such a noodge. She kibbitzes about my unit’s strategy all the time and just stirs up trouble.”
– Maven – an expert, even a self-styled one, in a very niche area. Business application: “You want to figure out what smartphone to buy? Ask Fred – he’s the maven.”
– Kosher (a Hebrew word as well) – completely by the books, originally referring to dietary laws that religious Jews follow. Business application: “Ask Marketing if it’s kosher to use our partner’s logo like that.”
– Verklempt – choked up, overcome. Business application: “When I got my review and promotion and raise, I was so verklempt that I couldn’t speak for a minute or two.”
– Schlock, Dreck, Chazerai, Bupkis – all have slightly different literal meanings (apparently Bupkis means “goat droppings”), but I use all of them somewhat interchangeably to mean junk or something of limited or no value. Business application: “That presentation was nothing but chazerai. What did I get out of it? Bupkis.”
– Kvell – to beam or burst with pride, related to Nachus – warm “gooey” feeling of pride. Business application: “I had so much nachus when my company won that award for being the best place to work, I was just kvelling.”
– Mishegas or Bubbamyseh – craziness or self-imposed silliness. You might have heard the word Meshugenah before, which means crazy. Business application: “I can’t get all caught up in his mishegas. I’m going to make my own decision here.”
– Kvetch – either a noun or verb meaning complain, in a harpy kind of way. Business application: “Frank is such a kvetch. He is just never happy.”
– Mensch – a good guy. Business application: “Michael is such a mensch. He always helps his colleagues out even when he doesn’t have to or doesn’t get credit for it.”
– Fercockt (pronounced Fuh-cocktah) – crazy, messy. Business application: “John’s project plan is totally fercockt. No one can follow it even when he tries to explain it.”
– Mishpochah – family. Business application: “Welcome to the company – we’re happy to have you in the mishpochah.”
– Tsuris – heartache or sadness. Business application: “Boy that’s one client that gives me nothing but tsuris.”
– Tchotchke (pronounced chach-kee) – a trinket or little toy. Business application: “What kinds of tchotchkes are we giving away at our booth at the upcoming trade show?”
Pull one of these out in your next meeting – see what it gets you!