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February 13, 2015  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

In other words: Don’t sweat it

By Rabbi Leah M. Herz Director of Spiritual Care, Menorah Manor

At the end of every secular year, television and print media like to bombard us with a summary of everything that has transpired over the previous 12 months. There are retrospectives on just about every topic: music, sports, world events, fashion, weather and so on. TIME Magazine began publishing its Man (now Person) of the Year issues in 1927 and along with many other publications, it offers a broad selection of articles and photos of events of the past year. One of my favorite lists that comes out each December, is the one that contains all of the new words added to the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED. I am fascinated by how these words “make the cut” and what the editors believe to be worthy of addition to the world’s most prestigious lexicon.

The list actually comes out quarterly and there are many more words than the few that are highlighted in the media. In 2014, close to 2,000 new words and phrases became part of the official English language. It goes without saying, that most of the new entries are related to technology and medicine, two disciplines that just by virtue of their rapid advances are constantly coining new words. Other inductees are words that are already in existence, but perhaps take on a new definition as a different part of speech. For example, the word camouflaging which was previously a verb has now been added as a noun as well. Then there are the slang words that, by virtue of their overuse, become part of our basic language, words like, bestie and selfie and upcycling. I always test my “coolness factor” by seeing how many of the words in this category I know. So far, I am doing pretty well!

Still other words come into being simply by adding a prefix to an already-existing word. For example, just by adding ”un” to the beginning of many words, we create an entirely new adverb and adjective. “Not medicated” becomes “unmedicated,” “not manicured” becomes “unmanicured,” and “not mature” becomes “unmature.” Yes, I promise you I am not making this up!

One additional category is words of international origin, which are accepted in the English language. It goes without saying that this is the smallest of all the groups. At this writing, there are approximately 115 Yiddish words that have been accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary or the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. I do not know for a fact, but I would venture to guess that this represents a huge percentage of foreign words in the English dictionary, and given the tiny size of the population for whom Yiddish was their native language, (or who speak/understand Yiddish today), it is quite remarkable that so many words have made it into common, everyday speech. Words like schmear, shlep, yenta, tush, shnoz, kvetch and maven, are known and used by Jew and non-Jew alike. We are comfortable throwing around a “klutz” here and a “chutzpah” there and rarely does someone bat an eye or ask for a definition. I think we have Laverne and Shirley to thank for introducing us to schlemiel and schliemazel and Jon Stewart of the Daily Show for everything else!

As Jews have achieved greater assimilation, the Yiddish language has gained greater acceptance as part of our rich and varied American vernacular. That’s a good thing. Jews in the United States enjoy more freedom to express themselves than ever before in our history, and that includes introducing others to our very colorful language.

I am happy to announce that for 2014, one more Yiddish word was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary as both a noun and a verb. The word is schvitz. And if because of some rare circumstance you don’t know what it means, just wait until summer in Florida. It will become abundantly clear!

The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned on a rotating basis by the board.

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