English-Yiddish Dictionary Breathes New Life Into a Historic Language

Indiana University Press
Indiana University Press / Indiana University Press

Flip through the Modern English-Yiddish/Yiddish-English Dictionary, published by Uriel Weinreich in 1968, and you’ll notice it’s missing plenty of now-ubiquitous words. You won’t find “email” or “texting,” of course, and certainly not “transgender.” To update a historic tongue for modern speakers, The Times of Israel reports two language lovers have created a new translation resource for all things Yiddish.

Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath and Dr. Paul Glasser teamed up with Indiana University Press and the League for Yiddish to publish the Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary. With 50,000 entries and 33,000 sub-entries, it’s more than twice the length of Weinreich’s dictionary. Even more importantly, it's the first work in 50 years to breathe new life into a language that experts believe to be around 1100 years old.

Schaechter-Viswanath, a poet and editor, and Glasser, a former dean of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, contributed words to the dictionary, as did their Yiddish-speaking colleagues. The two also relied heavily on notes compiled by Schaechter-Viswanath’s father—noted Yiddish linguist Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter—and borrowed phrases from an old Yiddish thesaurus, European reference books, and French and Russian-Yiddish dictionaries.

As for the dictionary’s brand-new entries, the editors combined already existing Yiddish words into compound words, or canonized unofficial words or slang used among Jews today. For example, email is blitspost, binge watch is shlingen epizodn—literally translated to “wolf down episodes”—and flip-flops is fingershikh, or finger-shoes.

The 2010 census found that only 154,433 Americans still speak Yiddish at home. Still, the dictionary's initial sales look promising: 1200 copies were published in June, and have since sold out. Another 1000 are currently in the works.

For Schaechter-Viswanath, the work was a labor of love. “I did it for my children, my grandson, my colleagues in the Yiddish world, and myself,” she told The Times of Israel. “Most of all, I did it for my father.”

According to The New York Times, the dictionary’s debut will be officially celebrated at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan on November 13. (Fittingly, the event’s keynote speech and a panel discussion among the dictionary’s editors will be offered in both English and Yiddish.) Tickets are free, and available online.

[h/t The Times of Israel]