We often default to foreign words because English simply does not have a word for everything. Schadenfreude is one example; zeitgeist another. You are probably au fait with more.
Anthony Finkelstein, dean of the Faculty of Engineering Sciences at University College London, thinks Yiddish is ripe for the picking. His Profserious blog highlights 10 Essential Yiddish Words for Academics.
First up is “gevalt”, often translated, “rather pitifully”, he says, “as ‘woe is me’”. On learning that “we somewhat overshot our recruitment target [and] there will be 150 students in your first year class”, “Oy gevalt!” may be used. “Macher”, meaning “big shot”, is “used to refer to people such as members of the synagogue council, charity committee organisers and the like”. It can be used in an admiring way, Professor Finkelstein says, but “typically with Yiddish words, not always”. For example, it “could be used in reference to pro vice-chancellors”: you can decide for yourself whether this is admiring or otherwise.
Next is “frummer”, literally meaning “orthodox or strictly religious”, and suitable for academic cultists “who have total faith in a particular method, tool, approach or school of thought”. Professor Finkelstein adds, “Sometimes meshugenah (mad) frummer [is used] to refer to extremes of religious observance.” Are there any meshugenah frummers in your department?
“Bubbe maisse” means “grandmother’s tales”, and “only research matters for promotion” could be considered a bubbe maisse. “Kibitz”, a word in “reasonably widespread use”, means unwelcome or meddlesome advice, and can be useful when presenting to university committees.
“Mensch” - literally, “a man” - comes next. Somebody who “does the ‘right thing’”, it is a term of high praise. “In modern usage [it] can be applied to a woman,” the blog reassuringly clarifies. For example: “‘She let them take credit for the work, making no reference to her contribution’; ‘She is a mensch’.”
Translating “mitzvah”, Professor Finkelstein says, “is very difficult because it encompasses duty, onerous obligation and privilege or honour”. It can be “tinged with light irony” for honours requiring large amounts of work: “assuming office in a professional society, conference chair or even head of department are all ‘a mitzvah’”.
“Mishpoche”, or “family”, could refer to “members of your ‘clan’, research group, former students, university department, the people you hang out with at conferences”. “Gornisht” means “nothing”. “Less than nothing in fact, really nothing at all. Thus, ‘I expected a review back on my paper after a year of waiting…but gornisht.”
His final Yiddish gem is “broyges”, or “angry”. “Used to refer to longstanding family disputes [such] as when your Aunt Sadie will not talk to Aunt Beckie because she went to Uncle Arnold’s wedding in the same dress she was intending to wear.” In academia? “His name was not put on the grant application and now he is broyges.”
“Sometimes my experience as an academic calls forth sentiments that can only be expressed in Yiddish,” Professor Finkelstein told Times Higher Education. “What does the experience of a small fractious, wandering, bookish tribe have in common with UK academics? I could not possibly say.”
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