The languages of the Jewish and black ghettos have enriched the wider American vernacular, according to this pop-linguistics book.
Foster (Ribbin’ Jivin’ and Playin’ the Dozens, 2012, etc.), an emeritus professor of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, explores the mainstream success of two minority verbal cultures. After a fun but pretty hard vocabulary test—“NOSH is to FRESS as NEBBISH is to: a) shtchav b) shnuk c) shmatte d) baleboss”—the work’s centerpiece is a lengthy glossary of selected Yiddish and Jive expressions that have entered common parlance. The former include such essential Yiddish-isms as “kosher,” “bagel,” “tush,” and “chutzpa,” along with more exotic concepts like “farklempt”—agitated or depressed—and the arcane anatomical terms “putz,” “schlong,” “schmuck,” and “shvantz,” all of which denote a feature of the male reproductive system. Jive entries include the classics “bling-bling” and “booty call”; the somewhat dated “playin’ the dozens” (meaning competitive yo’-mama insults); locutions that most people don’t know came from the ghetto, like from the “get-go” and “24/7”; and arcane terms for white people, such as “Mr. charlie” and “ofay”—the latter said to come from the pig Latin for “foes.” The author’s entries give dictionary definitions along with extensive usage examples gleaned from books, movies, newspaper articles, ads, and even license plates. “ISHLPKDS” (I SCHLEP KIDS) declares the plate on one mom’s minivan. Additional chapters offer a miscellany of information and historical background. These include sections on gentiles who spoke Yiddish, including novelist Ralph Ellison and actors James Cagney and Michael Caine; “Shabbos goy,” gentiles who performed chores forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath, among them Colin Powell, Harry Truman, and Elvis Presley; the Harlem Renaissance; the “Green Book” guide used by black motorists and travelers to find accommodations in the segregated South under Jim Crow; and “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s famous anti-lynching protest song. It’s all a bit random and jumbled, but Foster offers a tasty feast of curious and intriguing lore for readers (and writers) looking to spice up their language.
An intriguing romp for word and trivia mavens.