What do these four words have in common?
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.
Benor makes it easy to collaborate. So, you look up a word and don’t agree with what the dictionary says? No problem; you can immediately propose a correction. Every entry includes a link marked “Edit” with the explanation, “See something you disagree with? Feel free to edit it.” If you look for a word and it’s not there, the Lexicon also invites you to do something about it. The Welcome page has a link marked “Add an entry,” with the explanation, “the Jewish English Lexicon is made possible by visitor participation. Please take a few minutes to add a word or two.”
This freedom, however, isn’t anarchy, as is the case with the entirely user-generated Urban Dictionary, which accepts any definition for a word and posts competing definitions, inviting readers to vote thumbs up or thumbs down. In contrast, the Jewish English Lexicon announces, “All changes will be moderated.” The moderator is Benor herself, who draws on more than a decade of studying Jewish languages and cultures, not only in the United States but worldwide. The background for the Jewish English Lexicon includes a Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity conducted with Steven M. Cohen and reported in 2009. The research questions asked in that survey helped in construction of the Lexicon, questions like these:
“How do American Jews speak English? Who uses Hebrew and Yiddish words and New York regional features? When using Hebrew words, who prefers Israeli pronunciations and who prefers Ashkenazic ones? Which Yiddish-origin features do some non-Jews use?”
To get authoritative answers, they used the Internet to elicit responses to a questionnaire from some 25,000 Jews and 5,000 non-Jews living in America who were native English speakers. Their survey “used the snowball sampling technique (sending e-mail and asking recipients to forward it to others).”
And that brings us back to “klutz,” “schmooze,” “spiel,” and “pastrami.” What do they have in common that distinguishes them from the hundreds of other entries in the dictionary?
Well, all four—even “pastrami”—come from Yiddish. That’s a distinction, but it’s one they share with hundreds of other entries in the Lexicon; Yiddish is the second-most-frequent source of words in the Lexicon, next to textual Hebrew (“Hebrew in the Bible, ancient or medieval rabbinic literature like the Talmud and responsa, and liturgy,” as opposed to modern Israeli Hebrew).
No, what sets apart to “klutz,” “schmooze,” “spiel,” and “pastrami” from all other entries is what Benor discovered in her survey: They are as widely used by non-Jews as by Jews. Indeed, for “pastrami,” the Lexicon notes: “The word was introduced into American English by Yiddish-speaking Jews from Rumania in late-19th-century New York. It has become so common in America that it is no longer considered a Jewish word.” (Full disclosure: A month ago, when I noticed that “pastrami” wasn’t yet in the Lexicon and told Benor, she added it, which seems typical of how she responds to suggestions.)
Benor looks ahead to a day when she can include a voice component for pronunciations. She’d like to be able to use Hebrew letters for spellings of words. And that’s by no means all. She is working with a colleague on a Latin American Spanish version of the Lexicon, focusing on Jewish communities in Mexico City and Argentina. Like the Lexicon, it will be part of a website she produces and edits, the worldwide Jewish Language Research Website.
Benor is a two-fisted scholar if there ever was one. On the one hand, the Internet; on the other, good old-fashioned print (though also available as an e-book). Published last fall, almost at the same time as the Jewish English Lexicon, was her book Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism. In this, as well as the Lexicon, she demonstrates that scholarly doesn’t need to be pedantic. Chapter 2 of Becoming Frum, for example, is titled “ ‘Now You Look Like a Lady’: Adventures in Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Fieldwork.”
She looks like a lady, she reads like a novelist. Enjoy!
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Allan Metcalf is a professor at MacMurray College in Illinois, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, and author of OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.
Allan Metcalf is a professor at MacMurray College in Illinois, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, and author ofOK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.