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The New Jew-Speak, via Google

Sarah Bunin Benor’s new Jewish English Lexicon crowd-sources distinctive contributions to the language

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What do these four words have in common?

klutz
shmooze
spiel
pastrami

Well, for one thing, they all are entries in a brand new dictionary, the Jewish English Lexicon. For another … think about it. I’ll tell you later.

The Jewish English Lexicon is the brainchild of Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College and a prolific scholar of the varieties of Jewish English spoken in the United States. The Lexicon began as a class project five years ago but has since expanded to be a global work in progress, now available to everyone, and welcoming contributions from everyone.

Benor’s Lexicon is a sturdy youngster, having made its appearance on the Internet only a couple of months ago. Its vocabulary is only 700-plus words at the moment (including over 200 not in any other Jewish English dictionary), but that’s more than the repertoire of any human barely 2 months old. And it’s growing rapidly, with a word or two added almost every day.

Its parentage is impressive. Benor is a leading researcher in Jewish English, and indeed in world Jewish languages. The Lexicon is backed by her research and that of others and boasts an attractive, easy-to-use website made possible by foundation grants. Her army of collaborators potentially includes everyone who visits the Lexicon.

Remember when dictionaries were printed on paper? That’s so last century. The Jewish English Lexicon, like any up-to-date dictionary nowadays, is online. And it makes the most of its online situation, by being easy to use, interactive, participatory, constantly growing and improving, authoritative, respectful, good-natured, polite, and—oh, yes—free. You’re a click away from schnorring from it.

How did I hit upon “schnorring” for that last sentence? It was as easy as typing “free” in the search box, which immediately presented me with seven words having “free” in their definition, including “schnorr”: “to beg, to request money; to get something for free, to mooch.”

That’s an example of what you’re invited to do on the dictionary website. You can look up a word or a definition. You can browse alphabetically or randomly. You can find words by their language of origin (ancient or modern Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish, English, Ladino, or Arabic, among others).

The ability to search words by who uses them is an important innovation on Benor’s part. Her dictionary recognizes what her research has demonstrated, that “What has been called ‘Jewish American English’ … is not a uniform linguistic entity spoken by a uniform group of Jews. It is an abstract umbrella term representing the English-based speech of Jews in America, and it encompasses a great deal of inter-speaker and intra-speaker variation.” The Jewish English Lexicon is the first dictionary, print or online, to focus on the details of this variation. For each word, therefore, the Lexicon tells not just what it means but also who uses the word. Her diverse and sometimes overlapping categories include:

Religious: Jews who are engaged in religious observance and have some Jewish education.
Orthodox: Jews who identify as Orthodox and observe halacha (Jewish law).
Organizations: People involved in a professional or volunteer capacity with Jewish nonprofit organizations.
Jews: Jews of diverse religious backgrounds and organizational involvements.
Camp: Jews who attend or work at a Jewish overnight summer camp.
Israel: Diaspora Jews who feel connected to Israel and have spent time there.
Ethnic: Jews whose Jewish identity is primarily ethnic.
Older: Jews who are middle-aged and older.
Younger: Jews in their 30s or younger.
Ashkenazim: Jews with Ashkenazi heritage.
Sephardim: Jews with Sephardi or Mizrahi heritage.
Non-Jews: (words that have spread outside of Jewish networks).

Any word may well belong to more than one of these categories, and any person is likely to belong to more than one. Benor herself says she belongs to six categories: Religious, Organizations, Jews, Israel, Younger, and Ashkenazim.

The Lexicon is diplomatic and inventive. Take the matter of spelling. Many words of Jewish English are spelled in a variety of ways, reflecting their various languages of origin and the challenge of transliterating into English. Which spelling should be privileged? For example, when you’re looking for a word that means “Excuse me,” do you spell it slicha, slichah, selicha, selichah, or slikha?

Benor exercises the wisdom of Solomon in finding a modern solution. She explains, “we appealed to a higher authority: Google. Whichever spelling had the most hits in English at the time it was entered is listed in the primary spot.” No favoritism, just the objective facts.

***

In the old days of print, a dictionary wouldn’t see the light of day until it was finished. Only the dictionary’s staff and consultants would have a chance to verify completeness and accuracy. With an online dictionary, on the other hand, the sooner it’s available the better, because every reader is also a potential editor. The development of the dictionary is a collaboration with everyone who uses it.

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Alittlefurthernorth says:

Not sure what you mean when you say a word “comes from” Yiddish, but the word pastrami originally comes from Turkish. It was introduced into American English via Yiddish, though, so if that’s the criterion for inclusion in the Lexicon, you’re right.

Now that’s pilpul!

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The New Jew-Speak, via Google

Sarah Bunin Benor’s new Jewish English Lexicon crowd-sources distinctive contributions to the language