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Among the social dialects of Yiddish are the argots or slangs of various professions. Unlike regional dialects, which may differ from the standard language in pronunciation, grammar, and lexicon, argots are distinctive primarily in their vocabulary. The best documented Yiddish argots are those of musicians (klezmer-loshn) and of the underworld (ganovim-loshn [thieves’ language] or hentshke-loshn [lit., glove-language]), but in the linguistic literature on Yiddish there are accounts of, or at least references to, the slang of wagon drivers and coachmen (balagole-loshn), actors, cantors, typesetters, tailors, shoemakers, merchants, butchers, jewelers, barbers, and soldiers.

For each such group, private language serves both as an expression of group solidarity and a means of concealment from outsiders. Some terms from these argots can also be found in Nahum Stutchkoff’s Der oytser fun der yidisher shprakh (Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language; 1950) and they appear in literature (for example, musicians’ slang in Sholem Aleichem’s novel Stempenyu) and folklore (for example, in songs of the underworld). There is some overlap of vocabulary: The word yold, for example, is used by musicians to refer to a Jew who is not a musician, while in the underworld it designates someone who is not a criminal.

Klezmer-loshn includes, among other words, terms for musical instruments (for example, vorsht [lit., sausage], clarinet); money and numerals (baker smalyer, two rubles); food (okril, bread); people (shekhte, girl or daughter; botshkar, a Hasid); body parts (birgolen, female breasts); various verbs (labern, to play [an instrument or cards]; baryen, to eat) and occasional adjectives (loybish, Polish).

Ganovim-loshn includes names for various criminal specialties (for example, maravikher, pickpocket; akhsanik, hotel thief; khevre-man, pimp); tools of the trade (feder [lit., feather], knife; shpayer [lit., spitter], revolver); the police (mente, policeman; behelfer [lit., helper], police spy); objects of criminal interest (bash, money; masematn, a purse full of money; bimber, pocket watch); and numerous verbs (aroysrufn [lit., to call forth], to lead a horse out of its stall; boytsn, to be afraid or to flee; fardinen [lit., to earn], to steal).

Other argots are not as well represented in the linguistic literature. Balagole-loshn, which is especially colorful, naturally has terms for horses (odler [lit., eagle]; khaye [lit., animal]; neveyle [lit., carcass]), and their varieties or combinations (eyerman [lit., testicle-man], stallion; baleboste [lit., lady of the house], mame [mother], shvester [sister]—all words for mare); a lulev mit an esreg [referring to the two ritual objects for the holiday of Sukkot, the combination of branches—palm, willow, and myrtle—and the citron], a large and a small horse harnessed together). Other terms include fuksnland (lit., foxland), someplace far away; tsholnt (lit., stew prepared on Friday for the Sabbath), servant girl; geyen vi a frantsoyz (lit., to walk like a Frenchman), to have crooked feet.

Butchers (or ritual slaughterers) use a number of Hebraisms in their Yiddish argot (katsoves-loshn). The slaughtering knife is a khalef, not simply a meser (the Germanic-origin word for other kinds of knives). An oyfes-khalef is used to slaughter oyfes (chicken, ducks, geese, and turkeys); a dake-khalef is used for dakes (or beheymes-dakes, thin animals such as sheep or goats); a gase-khalef is used for gases (or beheymes-gases, fat animals such as cows or oxen). Badkenen (from the Hebrew root meaning “examine” or “inspect”) means to check the internal organs of a slaughtered animal to make sure there are no defects that would make it not kosher. Among the various regional designations for a moribund cow are the Hebraic dibek (dybbuk), the Slavic mukhe (perhaps from Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian mucha, fly), and bronbozhe (from Polish broń Boże, God forbid).

Barbers’ argot (sherer-loshn) is quite inventive. Among the ways for the boss to tell a barber to work faster are flik federn, flick feathers, and fidl di kotke, fiddle the cat. Hameven (lit., to restrain or put on brakes) means to steal from the boss, and khale nemen, to take khale (a reference to the ritual practice of burning a small portion of dough with the appropriate blessing before baking), refers to stealing in general. Tips can be called zisinke (lit., something sweet). A barber cutting the hair of a young woman might throw hair on her to “see the game” (farvarfn di hor tsu kukn di shpil), to make sure that some of the shorn hair fell on her breasts, which he would then have to brush off.

Actors’ slang includes such terms as shmirer (lit., scribbler) for a bad playwright; patryot (lit., patriot) for a devotee of a particular performer, bulbenik (from bulbe, potato, and the expression makhn/khapn a bulbe, to make a blunder), an actor who misses lines; redn fun arbl (lit., to talk from the sleeve), to improvise lines; and the Americanism travlen af der vaybs/dem mans tiket, to travel on one’s spouse’s ticket, meaning to be hired only because the theater needs one’s husband or wife.

A list of words and expressions from the Yiddish argot of soldiers in the French army, published in 1942, included such examples as oysputsn zikh vi Khavele tsum get (lit., to get all decked out like Khavele for her divorce), to put on all one’s equipment (used in general Yiddish, with various female names, for example, Taybele, to mean “dressed to kill”); eyer (lit., eggs), hand grenades; vayb (lit., wife), rifle—perhaps from the prerevolutionary Russian soldiers’ song that referred to loaded rifles as soldiers’ wives; and skarpetke-yoykh (lit., sock-bouillon), bad coffee.

Suggested Reading

Robert A. Rothstein, “Klezmer-loshn: The Language of Jewish Folk Musicians,” in American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots, ed. Mark Slobin, pp. 24–34 (Berkeley, 2002); Yale Strom, The Book of Klezmer: The History, the Music, the Folklore (Chicago, 2002); Nokhem Stutshkov, Der oytser fun der yidisher shprakh (New York, 1950); Avrom-Yitskhok Trivaks, “Di yidishe zhargonen,” in Bay unz yuden, ed. M. Vanvild (pseud. for Moses Joseph Dickstein), pp. 159–173 (Warsaw, 1923).