Darf Min Gehn In Kolledj?

A Brief Lesson in Yiddish

Dick and Jane learn Yiddish
Dick and Jane learn Yiddish

Who doesn't love Yiddish? I know I do! The millennium-old language combines German and other Slavic languages with Hebrew, and it's a real hoot to hear (and attempt). Hanukkah's approaching faster than a sub-atomic dreidal set to "spin," so I thought I'd take a moment to bone up on the old mother tongue.

The thing about Yiddish is, inflection is all. Watch any Mel Brooks movies recently? Half the humor is based on linguistic devices like sarcasm through innocuous diction. (It's good to be the king!) That's because, according to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, the meaning of the same sentence can change completely, depending on where the speaker places the emphasis, as in this little exercise:

I should buy two tickets for her concert?

Meaning: "After what she did to me?"

I should buy two tickets for her concert?

Meaning: "What, you're giving me a lesson in ethics?"

I should buy two tickets for her concert?

Meaning: "I wouldn't go even if she were giving out free passes!"

I should buy two tickets for her concert?

Meaning: "I'm having enough trouble deciding whether it's worth one."

I should buy two tickets for her concert?

Meaning: "She should be giving out free passes, or the hall will be empty."

I should buy two tickets for her concert?

Meaning: "Did she buy tickets to our daughter's recital?"

I should buy two tickets for her concert?

Meaning: "You mean, they call what she does a ’concert'?"

At its apex it's estimated that about 11 million people worldwide spoke Yiddish. Post WWII, that number shrunk to about 1/10 of that.

It's a dying language, but certain words (e.g., "maven" is an expert) and phrases live on through "Yinglish." (Work, shmork ... so long as I'm learning something here!)

An excellent resource for common and surprisingly useful Yiddish words and phrases is at [link]. Here are a few of my favorites.

Bist meshugeh? - Are you crazy?

Der mensch trakht un Gott lahkht - Man thinks (plans) and God laughs

Darf min gehn in kolledj? - For this I went to college? Usually said when describing a menial task.

In drerd mein gelt! - My money went down the drain! (Lit., My money went to burial in the earth, to hell.)

Gai feifen ahfen yam! - Go peddle your fish elsewhere!

Az di bobe volt gehat beytsim volt zi geven mayn zeyde! - If my grandmother had testicles she would be my grandfather.

A lung un leber oyf der noz - Stop talking yourself into illness! (Lit., Don't imagine a lung and a liver upon the nose)

Er drayt sich arum vie a fortz in russell - He wanders around like a fart in a barrel (aimless)

Er zol vaksen vi a tsibeleh, mit dem kop in drerd! - He should grow like an onion, with his head in the ground!

Ess, bench, sei a mensch - Eat, pray, don't act like a jerk!

Du kannst nicht auf meinem rucken pishen unt mir sagen class es regen ist. - You can't pee on my back and tell me that it's rain!

Nifter-shmifter, a leben macht er? - What difference does it make as long as he makes a living? (Lit., nifter means deceased.)