Certain situations require the right turn of phrase. If, for instance, you need to hip check your rabbi or, if you feel an unquenchable desire to bitch-slap the cantor, there is a uniquely Jewish vocabulary of which you can avail yourself. You never quite know, after all, when you’ll need to open up a can of Yiddish whup-ass.
That’s right, Yiddish whup-ass. Stereotypically speaking, of course, Jews don’t fight. But realistically, they do and the Yiddish language developed a rich lexicon to exhibit the ways in which Yiddish-speaking Jews bring the ruckus.
Some of this vocabulary appears in an amazing two and half page article in a 1926 festschrift in honor of Dr. Alfred Landoy’s 75th birthday. Landoy was a German Jewish philologist. A gift from his friends, students and colleagues at the YIVO Institute, the tome comprises dozens of articles on Yiddish philology, ranging from hot-button items like the declension of nouns in Yiddish to Yiddish dialects in Estonia. Sandwiched among them, is a list of nearly 100 Yiddish fighting words collected by a little-known linguistic hero by the name of Hershl Grinboim.
Grinboim starts by reminding us of a complaint printed in an 1867 edition of the Warsaw Jewish Times that Jews were bitching about how everyone thought they were a bunch of milquetoasts, unable to nut up in a real fight. Worse yet, detractors of Yiddish even tried to claim that the language itself was a 98 pound lexical weakling, devoid of a vocabulary that dealt with interpersonal violence.
How wrong they were. Even in 1867, dozens of Yiddish words and phrases existed that dealt with fighting, and, as the author notes, Yiddish was actually quite rich in this realm where, supposedly, Jews feared to tread.
The reality was that this was the lexical domain of the undocumented and disdained, non-intellectual subclasses of Yiddish speaking Jews, blacksmiths, butchers, porters, wagon drivers, and others who worked with their hands and bodies, who fought with each other and anyone else who tried to give them the bum’s rush. Linguistic enrichment comes from all quarters and it is the bottom that often feeds the top.
So, for the benefit of Shtetl readers and anyone with the intention of starting their own Yiddish Fight Club, we offer a brief selection of Yiddish terms for specific ass-kicking techniques:
Unterkletzl: also Puterpletzl and Benkele: a strong knee in the ass.
Araynforn: as in, “araynforn in pisk arayn,” meaning, to elbow someone in the jaw.
Barne: a closed-fisted hit on the head with the knuckle of the middle finger raised. Known in English as a noogie.
Bukh: a punch in the side.
A bintl finger: literally, “a bundle of fingers.” a punch in the mouth. Not to be confused with the Forverts’ A bintl brif (A Bundle of Letters) column.
A bentsh: to smash someone in the head with a piece of wood, or some other item. Literally, “a blessing.”
Der gubernator: “the governer.“ To take one’s thumb and jab it under a person’s ribcage, or into his side.
Doyresn: to kill. From the Hebrew, “to flatten,” as in “I’m gonna knock you flat.”
Drazgen: to beat lightly.
Tunk: an open-handed slap that gets inside the victim’s mouth. Literally, a “dunk.”
Tluk: a full-body check.
Tramsk: A powerful punch, usually to the upper back.
Khsime: as in, leygn a khsime afn ponem (putting one’s signature on someone’s face).
Dos lempl: The Lamp. Squeezing the victims nose, usually with forefinger and thumb. When snot is forced out of the nostrils, it is called, likhtelekh, or, “little lights.”
Mashkante: to hold someone down and beat them. Literally, to take out a mortgage on them.
Der mek: “the mack.“ A smack on the head with a hard object.
Nase arbet: literally, “wet work,” i.e. murder.
Nizikn: to harm or kill. From the Hebrew for “damage.”
Stusak: a hard punch in the back.
Palmes: literally, an autopsy. Here, a hit over the head with a stick.
Pletn: to bash someone over the head with an iron bar or heavy stick.
Flask/frask: an open-handed slap across the cheek, hard enough to leave a red mark. A Yiddisha bitch slap.
Flik: a hard smack in the face.
Kop: a kick in the stomach.
Kulak: a hit in the side, not necessarily with a fist, even though the word itself means “fist.”
Kipn: to fight.
Klung: a punch in the teeth, so hard you hear bells ring.
Knak: a hard punch.
Shturkh: a hit with an elbow.
Shtikhe: a punch in the ribs with the knuckles of the first two fingers sticking out.
Shtaysl: an uppercut landing directly under the chin.
Shmitz: to whip with a stick.
Shmir: an open-handed smack to the face. This is the same shmeer as in cream cheese on a bagel, different context.
Shmetern: to beat the crap out of someone. Literally, to destroy.
Shnel: a punch in the nose.
Shroyf: a punch in the side with the knuckle of the middle finger sticking out.
Zbokh: a quick punch with a closed fist.
Zbeng: a powerful punch with a fist or an object.
Zetz: a quick, strong hit.
There are a number of fascinating aspects to these words. One of these has to do with using words of Hebrew origin, like bentsh, doyresn, khsime, and aroysnemen a mashkante, for acts of violence. Bentsh, taken from the word “to bless,” is used ironically. A khsime is a signature, in this case, one left in the form of a punch on someone’s face.
Many of these words are onomatopaeic: Zbokh, Zbeng Zetz, Tluk. If superhero comics existed in Yiddish, these would be the words you’d see in spiky sound effect bubbles.
But even though Jews were instrumental in developing superhero comics, Yiddish wasn’t necessarily part of that equation, with perhaps the one exception of the bizarre and unsuccessful comic developed by the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, “Funnyman”.
But superheroes notwithstanding, this vocabulary was used in real life, by real Jews. Jews who kicked ass in Yiddish.
Eddy Portnoy is a writer and Yiddish professor at Rutgers Uiversity. Despite his academic ways, Portnoy has been known to deliver dos lempl to rotten students and to overly demanding employers. (He would not however, under any circumstance, lay a finger on his cantor.)