Of Tchotchkes, Mavens, Schmattes and Other English Words

By Ticktin, Harold | Midstream, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Of Tchotchkes, Mavens, Schmattes and Other English Words


Ticktin, Harold, Midstream


My word processor has just told me that I am wrong about mavens. According to it, maven does not have to be italicized; it is an English word, but the others have not yet been admitted and are therefore redlined. My bet would have been on tchoktchkes because as long ago as 1990, I saw a headline in the Washington Post which read: Tchotchkes For Sale at Monticello (no explanation of the term). As we say in Anglicized Yiddish, go know.

If you haven't figured it out yet, this is all about the impact of Yiddish on English, and no matter what my word processor maven tells me, it is not only The Post that knows tchotchkes is English. So do the people at Christies and The New York Times, which once informed its readers that "Brando knew that celebrity tchotchkes (no italics or explanation) don't reveal much," when his turquoise jewelry, fringed coat and vest were put up for sale by that storied auction house.

Lest one believes that the word is too esoteric for Anglo ears, please apprise two Ohio items, not a place known for Yiddishisms: the first, a column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, during a coin investment scandal, which characterized the coins, bunnie babies and baseball cards which the Bureau of Workers Comp invested in as "memorabilia," collectibles ... and (you guessed it) tchotchkes, spelled correctly, with no additional explanation. In the second, from the boardrooms of industry no less, there appeared in Crain's Cleveland Business a bold headline: QUALITY SERVICE WINS CUSTOMERS IN COMPETITIVE TCHOTCHKE MARKET. Here there was a bit of guidance for the perplexed defining the word as "ad speciality" meaning throwaways to business customers, like boomerangs and umbrellas with company legends. Not too bad a description if one imagines a balaboste (Jewish female storekeeper) throwing in a couple of colored buttons with a swath of dry goods.

Of come, as one might expect from the paper with the largest Jewish population in America, The New York Times leads the pack in reverse assimilation. But keep in mind that The Times is also a national journal mad there does not appear to be any explanation for the Yiddish in the national edition. Many Yiddish words appear in the Arts Section of The Times as acceptable English. My favorite was a review of a play called The Audience, a musical in which a faux audience was the play. The headline read "Coughers, Kvetchers and Other Stars in the Seats." Other dillies include "The Muse Who Sold Shmattes" (about Ron Rifkin), "Shaking Things Up in Broadway's Shtetl" and a dance review which read "A Mishmash of 2 Forms. …

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