Sounds Like…..

Joyce’s husband was surprised when a non-Jewish patient told him she would need to “finagle time from work” to have surgery.

“How did she know that Yiddish word?” he asked. Turns out, even though it rhymes with bagel, finagle isn’t Yiddish.

Finagle and some others words sure sound Yiddish – they’ve got the “chuuch” or the “fah…” and the insulting adjective quality. Like the whole list of Yiddish words for no-goodnik people, such as shlemiel, shlimazel, shlump and shnook. But don’t be confused: that schnauzer is not a Yiddish dog.

Finagle has been traced to the old English dialect word “fainaigue,” meaning “to cheat or renege.” Today it means something more along the lines of finding a way to get what you want – we’re talking clever, not dishonest.

Evan Morris, the Word Detective, explains finagle this way: “The usual use of the word carries the implication of bending, perhaps twisting, but not breaking the rules. Your average finagler is just looking for an angle, an insider’s discount on storm windows or use of the company truck after work.”

All those kids who get the wrong answer on their algebra homework should know about Finagle’s Constant, a mathematical device that’s inserted into a formula to make the answer come out right. Why didn’t we use it when balancing our checkbooks?

Cockamamie, an adjective meaning absurd, ridiculous or foolish, is mistaken for a Yiddish word so often that we had to put it in our Dictionary to explain that it isn’t.

Cockamamie is an alteration of the French word decalcomanie, combining the French words for “tracing” and “mania.” Decalcomania – transferring designs to pottery or artwork, was popular in the mid-1800s. When the transfers were marketed to children as temporary tattoos in the 1940s and ‘50s, the name was intentionally changed to cockamamies, because it was easier for kids to pronounce.

Today the word refers to more than tattoos. It’s anything that’s a crazy idea or an implausible proposition, as in “My kid says he wants to go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. What a cockamamie idea!”

Clint Eastwood isn’t Jewish and doesn’t speak Yiddish, but in the movie In The Line Of Fire, he is a veteran Secret Service agent who tries to convince his frightened younger partner to stay on the job. He says that quitting is a “cockamamie” idea and then tells the younger man he should use the word every once in a while to keep it alive.

Oprah Winfrey, the maven of popular culture, made up her own Yiddish word. She combined shlump (a dull colorless person) with her diminutive suffix dinka. She uses the word to describe shlumpy housewives who don’t care how they look. Wearing baggy sweatpants or bad mom jeans, no makeup, and hair gathered in a ponytail, a shlumpadinka is in need of a makeover. In fact, Oprah devoted more than one show to getting women out of their shlumpadinka rut. We were just happy to see that Oprah spells Yiddish words like we do – with “sh” and not “sch.”

So nu? We’re done our spiel for now. We have to go get all ongepotchket. We’re going to meet friends for a nosh at the deli. (All real Yiddish words!)

This entry was posted in Dictionary of Jewish Words, ethnicity, Yiddish and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Sounds Like…..

  1. Cleverly done, as always. What does the where mean in this sentence you posted in the article? Today it means something more along the lines of finding a way to get what you want – where talking clever, not dishonest.


  2. it’s a typo from the Word Mavens… we meant to say “we’re talking clever..” damn that spellcheck, but thank you for reading so throughly


  3. Lisa Markc says:

    Very interesting..I have one for you,
    Fred and August Dusenberg founded Dusenberg Auto and Motor Co in 1913. They build the Dusenberg cars by hand. The expression we have all heard, “That’s a doozy” comes from the Dusenberg car..not a Yiddish word but an expression


  4. Julia H says:

    I am not sure you are correct about Oprah. We used the term schlumpidikkeh in my home in NY and I heard it from my Yiddish speaking grandparents and my mother long before Oprah had a tv show. Their origins are The Bronx Jewish Community. Interesting that Oprah added Dinka instead of “dikkeh”- which is a cultural group of Africa. She may have known of this tribe and it may be a more familiar sound to her ear than the way we create adjectives in Yiddish.


    • Interesting…. since we’re from Philadelphia, we are unfamiliar with Bronx Jewish/Yiddish expressions. And are you saying “dikkeh” is a S. African tribal group– so how did this get appended on “shlump”? Thanks for the comment!


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