No matter how little is generally known about Yiddish, there’s one aspect of the language that pretty much everyone can agree on: Yiddish really delivers on the swearing. In fact, it has a startlingly vivid and at times highly specific array of insults, profanities and curses that bring joy to even the most jaded shouter of obscenities. To be fair, Jews have had plenty to swear about, so the sheer variety of options should be no surprise. What is surprising, though, given my own love of swearing, is that I’ve not chosen to talk about this before now. You see, my desire to share as many appalling Yiddish curses as possible has been tempered by a growing awareness that there has been a tendency for popular culture to cast Yiddish as nothing more than an amusing series of dirty words. In fact, on several occasions, people have told me that they themselves have considered learning Yiddish in order to swear better, which is a sentiment I can admire, albeit one which misses so much of what Yiddish actually has to offer. So, in the spirit of having a good swear, it’s possible to look at what Yiddish curses are all about without just reducing the entire shprakh to this single register of meaning.
The problem is that the popular view of Yiddish is still dominated by its capacity for inventive insults. A surprising proportion of recently published books on the language tend to focus on this aspect, which is undeniably entertaining, and does clear up the question of how a shlemiel differs from a shlemazel, but these all tend to break Yiddish down into a handful of individual words and phrases rather than discussing it as a full language. This wouldn’t be a problem if there were other, more comprehensive representations of Yiddish, but without the backdrop of the wider culture, Yiddish is perceived as a zshargon rather than a shprakh.
This focus on swearing in Yiddish is so persistent that it’s worth asking where it could have come from. I can’t remember ever hearing anyone tell me they were thinking of learning Russian or Italian purely for the cursing, although I did have a school friend who tried to learn French to impress girls, which was an unexpectedly enterprising, if ultimately doomed plan. However, Yiddish has a long history of usage as “secret” communication, a way of speaking under the radar in the UK at least. Alas, the growing prevalence of US comedy on UK television in the 1990s meant that I could no longer insult my university acquaintances with the same impunity I had enjoyed during secondary school. As soon as everyone knows what putz and shmuck mean, you need to reinvent your code. Part of the issue is that Yiddish has never been a language associated with power or authority. Despite its millions of pre-WWII speakers it was never a national language, and since then it has needed to be flexible in order to survive. Perhaps focusing on swearing is a way of engaging with a marginalized language, since this gives it “purpose” for a wider audience; or perhaps, given the turn of twentieth-century history, this is the least painful way of talking around all that has been lost.
All this means that I am reluctant to go full-throttle on the Yiddish swearing here, at least in terms of just listing individual words. However, proper curses in complete, grammatical sentences are another story. These give a much clearer picture of how spoken Yiddish actually works; plus they have the advantage of being more difficult for non-speakers to actually follow. My cursing sourcebook is The Dictionary of Yiddish Slang and Idioms by Fred Kogos, and while I might take issue with his transliteration, I can’t fault his dedication to the cause of profanity. As well as the old standards, like Gey kakn aufn yam (“Go shit in the sea”) and Kush mir in tokhes (“Kiss my ass”), this collection reveals some unexpected trends in Yiddish insults. For a start, onions are a curiously popular point of reference. Er zol vaksn vi a tsibele, mit dem kop in drerd (“May he grow like an onion, with his head in the ground”) makes sense, since it taps into a recurring theme in Yiddish insults of effectively finding imaginative ways to wish your enemy dead. I have more difficulty with Zol dir vaksn tsibeles fun pupik (“May onions grow in your bellybutton”), because it’s so random and yet so revoltingly corporeal. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture all those little roots twining round your kishkes. Geese are another common feature, with Gey strashen di gendz (“Go threaten the geese”) being a particular favourite. Having witnessed numerous goose attacks on unwary students, I can say that this is an insult you wouldn’t take lightly.
While geese and onions paint a charmingly pastoral picture of Yiddish life, there are several insults that speak to a less wholesome existence, like Er krikht vi a vantz (“He crawls like a bedbug”); while there is also a disturbingly precise set of physical curses, like Zol er tsebrekhen a fus (“He should break a leg”) and Zol dikh khapn beym boykh (“May you get a stomach cramp”). Others are more random, such as Zolst geshvollen veren vi a berg (“May you swell up like a mountain”) or Gey fayfn aufn yam (“Go whistle in the ocean”). The more insults I read, the clearer the picture of the world in which they were coined, full of unexpected ailments, market gardening and angry wildfowl. As wonderful as it is to translate English swearwords into Yiddish, the unpredictable inventiveness of these “home-grown” insults is where the real pleasure lies. Calling someone a momser is a good start (especially if they don't speak Yiddish), but even the most inveterate swearer will recognise that this doesn’t even come close to the glory of Ikh vel makhn fun dayne kishkes a telefon (“I will make a telephone out of your guts”). It would appear that sometimes the old ways really are the best.