Yiddish, a language once spoken throughout vast areas of Central and Eastern Europe, is likely one of the most fascinating linguistic laboratories of all time. Its amazing creative potential can be admired in these strange words and expressions mixing German, Polish and sometimes Hebrew.
When Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe began settling in America, the English language experienced a new surge of linguistic influence. Many of the Yiddish words brought by migrants have enriched English; nowadays Yiddish words like shmuck, chutzpah, or glitch are part of the global English lexicon.
While most of these popular Yiddish words featured German or Hebrew roots, there was also a significant contraband of Slavic - and Polish - word roots which have made their way into English. These are words like: schmatta, schlub, tchotchke, bupkes or nudnik. Find out more about them here.
The syncretic nature of the Yiddish language spoken in Eastern Europe guaranteed that the Yiddish of Polish Jews was full of words that would amaze linguists. Since we think that there’s still potential for amazing Yiddish words with Slavic roots, here’s a couple that really deserve to make it into English after all.
Blondzen – to wander while being lost; to err not aimlessly, but mistakenly.
Somehow Yiddish seems to like all these Slavic words for confusion and disorientation (compare blonken; see plontern below).
This word does not exist in English, right? Right. However there's a good chance that this Slavic word – disguised and transformed – can actually be traced in today's English. As a matter of fact, it can be found in a rather popular colloquial phrase probably known to everyone, that is: 'Get lost!' Linguists suggest that this phrase which appeared in English for the first time in the 1940s may actually be a calque from Yiddish which used phrases like Ver farblondzet! (or Ver farvalgert!) in pretty much the same impolite situation.
Etymology: Blondzen goes back to the Polish verb błądzić - to err (błąd - error)
Busheven – to rage, storm, run rumpant;
The Slavic word root invokes a sense of being lost in something dense, especially vegetation. Imagine a dog frolicking wildly in a field of corn – this is pretty much what busheven means.
Etymology: from Polish buszować - to scour, rummage, also plunder (Pol. busz - bush).
Drimlen/dremlen [zich] – to fall asleep for just a little while, to power-nap (potentially full of dreams).
Often Yiddish would use a phrase gebn/ton a driml – for a one-time snooze ‒ the structure itself being a reflection of the perfective aspect of verb found in Slavic grammar.
Etymology: The original Polish verb is drzemać (zdrzemnąć się) - to nap, doze, or be half asleep. Drzemka is a noun for short nap.
Dzhamdzhen – 'to speak incomprehensibly, to mumble, mutter or murmur incessantly', especially while eating –
The meaning of the Polish word root carries also a sense of 'complaining or gumbling about something', actually this is pretty much the same as in Yiddish English word qvetch.
Etymology: the word goes back to Polish dziamdziać, which has an onomatopoetic tinge of this irritating habit.
Pempik ‒ something small, unimportant and possibly cute.
Yiddish uses this word for brat. One gets a feeling the Yiddish word almost speaks what it means – one could almost gather it from the way it sounds.
Etymology: the word goes back to Polish pępek - 'belly button'.
Plontern (zich) – to muddle, to become entangled in something;
Yiddish likes this word a lot and uses it in many variants, like farplontern or araynplontern, which can mean also to implicate someone in some unclear affair. The noun is plonternish – use it for any kind of messy situation.
Etymology: the Polish word is "plątać [się]" - to tangle, mix up, confuse.
Plutsem – suddenly, abrubptly, all at once.
This word starts like the German word plötzlich but ends - suddenly indeed - with the -em, likely taken from the Polish word raptem, an adverb meaning also 'suddenly, abruptly'. The linguists have a term for this kind of words – contaminations.
Etymology: German plötzlich + Slavic raptem
The words used in the article were gleaned from Professor Ewa Geller's book Jidysz. Język Żydów polskich (Warsaw, 1994). The words come from the oeuvre of the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, where they are listed as Polonisms (Slavisms) in Yiddish.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 9 December, 2015