15 English words you probably didn't know came from Hebrew and Yiddish

From cider to jacket...

I'm sure you can think of words that come from Hebrew or Yiddish — religious words like rabbi and torah, food words like bagel and latke, cultural words like chutzpah and verklempt. But there's a very good chance that, without even knowing it, you regularly use other words that come from them, too.

It shouldn't be too surprising that English was influenced by Hebrew — it's thanks to the Bible. Early translators took many words straight from Hebrew because European languages didn't have a good equivalent (or the translators weren't completely sure what the word referred to). And many of our personal names are taken from the Bible, too, sometimes greatly changed (like James).

Yiddish words, on the other hand, have mostly come into English through more recent cultural contact. Yiddish isn't Hebrew — it's a Germanic language, like English and Dutch, and many of its words have related equivalents in English — but since it's culturally Jewish (that's what Yiddish means), it borrows a lot from Hebrew. Many words we think of as Yiddish are originally Hebrew. And Yiddish is written with the Hebrew alphabet (though also often rendered in the Latin alphabet).

How many of these English words did you realize wouldn't exist without Hebrew or Yiddish?

1. Amen

You probably know this one. It's Hebrew a-men, "certainty, truth," used adverbially. You may think because it usually comes at the end of a prayer that it means "the end" or "that's all, folks," but it really means "that's a fact" or "so be it."

2. Hallelujah

This is another church word taken directly from Hebrew. It means "praise the Lord" or "praise God." The j is there instead of a y because of Latin influence and because when the word was borrowed into English, j and i were treated as two ways of writing the same character, which could be said two ways.

3. Cherub

You know what a cherub is — it's one of those fat little angels, right? Not originally. Those little figures owe more to Greek and Roman mythology: you know, Cupid. The Biblical cherubs were attendants on God and not necessarily angelic. They might have even had four faces — human, ox, lion, and eagle. The original Hebrew word is keruv; we got it filtered through Greek and Latin.

4. Sabbatical

One of the perks of some jobs — such as university professor — is that you get to take a sabbatical every so often: a paid year off. This year of rest has its origins in Judaism and gets its name from the day of rest, the sabbath. You probably know that's from Hebrew — the original word is shabbat, also transliterated shabbath, but the pronunciation of th as in path is an English imposition.

5. Jubilee

If we're having a year off every seven, why not have a really great year off every 50? That's what a jubilee originally was: a year to stop working the fields, go home, give back leased property, free slaves. Sort of like 365 days of Thanksgiving plus emancipation. It was proclaimed by blowing on a ram's horn, and that's the source of the name — Hebrew yubal comes from a word for "ram."

6. Nosh

If you go to a jubilee event now, it's more like an evening off to celebrate a big anniversary, maybe with a feast or at least lots of nosh — finger foods and light eats. Did you know nosh comes from Yiddish? Its source is the verb nashn, which is descended from Middle High German naschen, "eat dainty food." Like canapés. Or bowls of macadamia nuts. Or maybe some lox.

7. Lox

This word, which we use for smoked salmon, could have been our normal word for salmon. After all, salmon in Swedish is lax; in Danish and Norwegian, it's laks; and in German it's Lachs… and they're all pronounced pretty much the same as lox. But we didn't get the word from them. We got it from Yiddish laks.

8. Macadamia

Yup, we owe the name of those nice tropical nuts to Hebrew. But not just to Hebrew. Also to Gaelic. Macadamia nuts are named after one John Macadam; his name Macadam means "son of Adam." Mac is Gaelic for "son," and Adam, as you should know, is the name of the first man in the Bible — in Hebrew it means "human."

9. Cider

What shall you have to drink with your lox and macadamia nuts? How about some cider? Be careful, though. If the cider doesn't make your head spin, the origin of its name might. English got it from French sidre, which came from Latin sicera, which came from Greek σίκερα, which came from Hebrew shekar, "strong drink." It's not clear exactly how the k/c became d, but perhaps by way of z. And perhaps by way of quite a few glasses of strong drink.

10. Schmooze

What do you do at your jubileee while you're noshing and drinking? You probably schmooze. In English we tend to use this word to mean "chat someone up," but in Yiddish the verb shmuesn just means "chat." It doesn't have any Germanic relatives — Yiddish got it from Hebrew shemu'oth, "rumor."

11. Jacket

When you go to a jubilee to nosh and schmooze, you may put on a jacket. You are probably not aware of the debt your outerwear owes to Hebrew. The garment got its name from French jacquet, which came from the name Jacques — because a jacket was clothing for an ordinary Jack, not a rich Louis. Jacques is the French version of Jacob, which comes — via Latin and Greek — from Hebrew Ya'akov. Through a very interesting etymological trail winding through Italy and Spain, the same name also managed to become James. (James is one of a few names that English renders differently depending on whether it's referring to an Old Testament or New Testament person. Another is Miriam, which is Mary in the New Testament; and then there's Joshua, which in the New Testament is anglicized as Jesus.)

12. Schmaltzy

There are a few schm– words that English got from Yiddish, so it may not surprise you that this is one. Well, it's a modified one. The –y ending is pure English. And the meaning — "excessively sentimental, trite," often used for music or other art — is not the original. In Yiddish it's what you call rendered chicken (or goose) fat, which can be eaten spread on bread. It's also a German word, though in German, Schmalz refers to any rendered fat. (Meanwhile, schmaltz herring is really fatty herring.)

13. Glitch

If you're listening to a schmaltzy band playing and their amplifiers suddenly cut out, they might call it a glitch. Our word glitch, which started being used in English by American astronauts, is probably from Yiddish glitsh "slippery place." It's a Germanic word, related to glide.

14. Bedlam

If there's a glitch and everything goes meshugah — well, I'm sure you know that meshugah is a Yiddish/Hebrew word. An English equivalent for a situation of utter madness would be bedlam. But guess what! Bedlam is an alteration of Bethlehem, from Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, the name of an insanse asylum in London. And I trust you know that Bethlehem is in Israel — its name is from bet lehem, "house of bread" (the Arabic name for it, Bayt Lahm, means "house of meat").

15. Schwa

Okay, one more. What shall it be? Uh… Yeah, "uh." Schwa is the vowel sound represented by ə (yes, an upside down e). It's a relaxed, reduced, neutral vowel sound, such as the a in bedlam. It may look like a German word, but the philologists who first started using it to refer to that sound borrowed it from sheva or shewa, which in Hebrew is a mark put under a letter to indicate there is no vowel sound following it. Its origin is apparently shaw', which means "emptiness" or "vanity."

So, uh… how many did you know?


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