Musings on Mishigas: Yiddish for AJP Readers

David Shapiro, Ph.D.

Have you ever searched for just the right word to describe the crazy behavior of someone? Or maybe you know people for whom the English language just doesn’t convey what you want to describe. Yiddish might just provide the precision you are looking for, especially when commenting on people’s foibles and mental challenges. Here are a few from my upcoming book dealing with words and phrases to describe people’s behavior, possible diagnoses in Yiddish, and some of my favorite Yiddish curses.

To start, let’s look at the words Yiddish can help with describing behavior.

It is probably kinder to say someone is meshugeh rather than to call them crazy and interestingly there really are no comparable words to describe someone who is floridly psychotic. You can use Tsedrayt or Tsedudelt to describe someone whose thinking is mixed up but it really isn’t psychotic. Same for farbisseneh who is chronically bitter, cynical and unpleasant but not really paranoid even though they see the worst in everyone. Farstunkeneh is another way to describe their behavior. Someone who has a dreykop also is confused and talks incessantly, confusing you and everyone else but again, not psychotic. Nonetheless, a crazy person is often said to be a meshuggeneh.

On the other hand, Yiddish can supply a number of words to describe different mood disorders. Here are a few to describe those we might call ‘anxious’ in English:

Verklempt was a favorite used by the character on the Saturday Night Live television show to describe someone so filled or clutched with anxiety. Tzimmes which actually translates as a fruit and vegetable stew can also describe someone who is very anxious and agitated. Someone with shpilkes just can’t sit still; it looks like they have ‘ants-in-their-pants’ but when it is very serious anxiety, add the ‘oyf’ in front and they have Oyfshpilkes. If the anxiety affects their cognitive ability, they have a fardrayt kop.

There are other words that connote anxiety but are closer to describing manic behaviors such as a Bren who is a person with a great deal of energy and very optimistic. Some say they have a ‘gift-of-gab’. However, it can result in a chaynick whose jabbering doesn’t always make sense. A typical response to a chaynick whose jabbering doesn’t always make sense is to hak mir nisht in chaynick or stop talking so incessantly giving me a headache. Or even more explicit, klop mir nisht in kop or stop kicking me in the head. Of course, that person might even be called a nudnick who is a chronic pest, worse than a nuisance.

Interestingly, there are lots of Yiddish words to describe someone we might label with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder starting with a ganseh knacher who thinks they are a really big shot. It is often said about them in a derisive way. A shvitzer is a self-appointed show off. A person who is an ongeblozen is self-inflated, conceited, and puffed up but when they fail and end up with nothing, they are called oysgeblozen. A person who has succeeded and wants the whole world to know about it, boasting in a showy crude way is an allrightnik or a fayfer. A batlan is intellectually pretentious and thinks they know everything, while a bluffer is similar but knows they are trying to deceive and exaggerates accomplishments, full-of-hot-air. A blozzer from nicht is also a showoff but is very haughty about it. A trombenic is a braggart and parasite and shows off similar to a plosher who exaggerates their own talents and a yakshan who thinks they come from royalty. We can take our choice of which word to use to express our disdain for this behavior.

There are also many Yiddish words that describe criminal behavior of various types, ranging from someone who is annoying while others would fit under the category of Antisocial Personality Disorders.  A schnorrer is a moocher, a chiseler and a bum with a parasitic lifestyle. A fonfer is someone who is deceptive, a con person, manipulator who can talk someone into almost anything using shallow promises like “would I lie to you?” Some can be called a bullshit artist without evil intent but a character disorder anyhow. A gazlen is similar and who manipulates and puts something over on other people but not really a professional swindler like a goniff who is crooked and dishonest in business, shady and untrustworthy. A macher is a manipulator similar to Factor 1 of the PCL-R. They are a fixer, a big wheel, a well socialized psychopath. We might call them derisively ‘a used car salesperson’. A ganseh macher is a really big psychopath. There is more in this category which makes me wonder why Yiddish is so preoccupied with these characters. Some are even called a Mamser which literally means a bastard but may be used affectionally with children who are mischievous but not with such affection if an adult. A trombenick is a parasite who is leaching off others similar to Factor 2 of the PCL-R while a dreyer is a finagler who twists and turns things, a milder form of a trombenick. Sam Levenson used to say that if you ask a dreyer how they make a living, they mumble a lot saying, “I don’t know, I do this, I do that. I make a living.”  Some think the worst is a paskudnyak who can be insensitive mean nasty and the total opposite of a mensch or a decent human. Others argue and say the worst is really the leader of evil people or a Rosh Mervshe, perhaps the Yiddish version of the Godfather.

There’s lots more. Avoidant, Inadequate and Other Personality Disorders have lots of overlapping but familiar Yiddish words to describe their behavior.  Here is just a sample. A gornisht is used to describe someone who is a nobody while the term gornisht helfin is used when someone messes up and no one can help them fix it. Someone who is both avoidant and dependent may be called a schmendrick as they go along with others and avoid responsibility. A putz, klutz, schmuck, schvuntz and nudnick are all derogatory terms to describe unlikeable people. Each has its own precise reason for the dislike. For example, a nudnick is beyond a nag, a pain-in-the-ass, while a putz is a prick, and a little schmuck is a schmeckel. Then there is the schlemiel who spills the soup on the schlemazzel but both are inadequate socially. Finally, there is Moishe kapoyer who is both passive and aggressive, argumentative while doing and saying the opposite all the time.

We want to end this article with a few of the choice Yiddish curses that may be said when totally frustrated with difficult people. The interesting thing about Yiddish curses is that the beginning is designed to make you feel good and then they slam you down. Here are a few of the more well-known ones:

 To get rid of a nudnick, one might tell them: Gay kacken afn yam (go take a shit into the water or ocean) or Gay kloppen kop afn vant (go bang your head on the wall) both of which mean “go away and don’t bother me” to the nudnick. Hob dehr in dred (Go to hell) or Hob dehr in bod. A favorite is the one that tell the person they should grow like an onion, with their feet in the air and their head in the ground Zuldir vachsen vi a tsibbeleh mit ein kop in dred.

One of my favorites is told by Sam Levenson which takes the curse from saying something positive to a negative ending, abruptly. An example is: You should become a millionaire and own ten magnificent houses with ten limousines and ten chauffeurs. Each morning you step out of a different house into a different limousine and go to a different doctor; none of whom know what you are dying from!

I’d like to invite everyone who has enjoyed reading this article to send in your favorite Yiddish expressions and curses with translations to possibly be included in the book. Send to Dr. David Shapiro at

Become an AJP Member!

Scroll to Top