There’s a Word for That

August 7, 2014
BY Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic

We recently read a funny article in Business Insider —  “14 Untranslatable Foreign Words We Should Use in English.” These are words with no corollary in English.

Yiddish is filled with untranslatable words, too — words such as mishpachah, which means the whole family, the whole clan; it includes relatives by blood and marriage and even close friends. It conveys a warm feeling; you’re happy to see the whole mishpachah at cousin Lenny’s bar mitzvah. To cover the same ground in English, you would have to specify aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, children, etc.

Nosh is another example of a useful all-inclusive Yiddish word that has spread beyond the deli counter. You don’t have to confess that you ate cheese and crackers, a handful of pretzels, a leftover knish from the frig and some baby carrots before dinner. You can just say, “I had a little nosh.”

We realized long ago that sometimes you just need a good Yiddish word. In fact, when the College of Cardinals met in Rome in 2013 to choose a new pope, more than one journalist described the papal conclave as including “meetings, lunch and a lot of shmoozing.” Really? Catholic cardinals were shmoozing?

As self-described word mavens, we couldn’t resist taking a closer look at some of these farkakteh foreign words:

Badkruka is a Swedish word that means someone who is reluctant to jump into the water outdoors. No wonder they are reluctant; in Scandinavia, there are all those freezing-cold fjords. In Atlantic City, we’re only badkruka when the ocean temperature dips below 68 degrees.

Zapoi is Russian for two or more days of drunkenness usually involving waking up in an unexpected place. There’s no Jewish equivalent for this kind of drunkenness; we like to wake up in our own cozy beds. The only thing comes to mind is custom on Purim, when Jews are supposed to drink until they can’t distinguish between Haman and Mordecai.

Uitwaaien is Dutch for going out for a walk in the countryside in order to clear one’s mind. Our uitwaaien is going down to the basement to put the wet clothes in the dryer and realizing that it’s so nice and cool and quiet down there that there’s no reason to hurry back upstairs.

Ikigai is the Japanese term for a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to live. We’re Jewish mothers. Our word for that is “children.”

Then there’s the Inuit word iktsuarpok. It’s described as the feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’ve arrived yet. It’s curious that the Inuits, the native people of the Arctic Circle, coined this word. Isn’t it too cold to leave the igloo and stand out on the tundra waiting for the dogsled?

We iktsuarpok all the time — waiting for the school bus to drop off the kids, the UPS guy to deliver the coffee we ordered and the plumber to show up. We love this word so much that we have adopted it. Since the English language has appropriated so many Yiddish words, we think it’s only fair that we take one word back in.

Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic are the authors of the “Dictionary of Jewish Words.”

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