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By Jordan Finkin



I’ve been thinking a lot about fools lately, especially those whom we are in the habit of suffering rather too gladly. The old saw has it that the Inuit language has fifty words for snow, which turns out not to be the case. Yiddish is said to have a similar number of words for fool. (I would hope this is simply a testament to Jews’ ability to identify them.) The famous teaser is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “Gimpel the Fool” which begins: “Ikh bin Gimpl tam. Ikh halt mikh nisht far keyn nar. Farkért. Nor di layt rufn mikh mit azá tsúnemenish. M’hot mikh óngehoybn rufn azóy nokh in khéyder. Zibn tsúnemen hob ikh gehát, vi Yísroy: trop, khámer-éyzl, hór-flaks, lékish, glomp, shmóyger, un tam.” Here is Saul Bellow’s translation (with just a tweak here and there): “I am Gimpel the simpleton. I don’t think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that’s what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was still in school. I had seven names in all, just like Jethro: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, glump, ninny, and fool.” English clearly also does not lack a similarly rich vocabulary in this regard. (Though I question Bellow’s rather too ready “glump,” an unusual English dialect word meaning glum or sulky. The Yiddish “glomp” or “glyomp” is more the kind of oafishness associated with hayseeds, from a word referring originally to a cut stalk or stump.)

To start with Singer’s terms:

khámer-éyzl—ignoramus (consists of a combination of the Hebrew and Germanic words for “donkey”)

hór-flaks—clumsy oaf (literally “gristle”)

lékish—simpleton; there is also the phrase “lékish ber” meaning a big oaf or galloot

shmóyger—inept fool

tam—a naïve simpleton

To that list we could readily add the following (there are plenty of others, but I will exclude the more recondite and risqué):




bulván or balván or bolván—blockhead (from a word also meaning mannequin or a snowman)


drong—clumsy oaf


flokn—simpleton (literally, “post”)


gávron—simpleton, slack-jawed with staring eyes


katshn—blockhead (literally, “corncob”)

loksh—dummy (literally, “noodle”)


mok—idiot (dim. mékele)



propn—dummy (literally, “cork”)



shméndrik—ridiculous fool (a name coined by the playwright Avrom Goldfaden for his play of the same name)

shtabún—simpleton (literally, “rod”)

shtik holts—blockhead, dolt

slup—simpleton (literally, “post”)

stolb—simpleton (literally, “post”)

stoyp—simpleton (literally, “post”)

trop—simpleton (usually in the phrase “nárisher trop”)


yoktn (shortening of yókter, itself a parody of “doctor,” meaning a quack)



yokl—simpleton (and his related characters “Móyshe Yokl” and “Yokl ben Flekl”)


ferd—imbecile (literally, “horse”; the image of the horse was one of the most common motifs of stupidity in Eastern European Yiddish literature)


You will note that the majority of these words are of Slavic origin. It seems that Yiddish-speakers readily and regularly dipped into that well to produce new words as needed. In this Eastern European context I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Khelm (Chełm), whose “wise men” are the poster children for a particular brand of profound dunderheadedness. A “Khélemer,” native of Khelm, is of course a synonym for just that kind of fool. Yiddish writers were fond of creating places in Eastern Europe whose inhabitants were foils for the author’s critical bite. Mendele Moykher Sforim, for example, had his town of “Glupsk” (from the Slavic “glupy” meaning stupid or foolish) and Ayzik Mayer Dik had his “Duratshesok” (from the Russian “durak” meaning fool).

But it wasn’t only the Slavic storehouse that supplied Yiddish linguistic needs. Fools came from Hebrew as well. To the “khámer-éyzl” and the “tam” that we encountered above we can add: 


behéyme—imbecile (from the word for cow)

khúshim—idiot (from a word indicating someone in a daze)

shóyte—lunatic; and its intensified form “shóyte ben pík-holts” (foolish son of a woodpecker)

álter Térekh—old fool (literally, “old Terah,” Abraham’s father in Genesis)

típesh—blockhead or idiot; and its intensified form “típesh shebe-típshim” (fool among fools)

vayzóse—fool (literally, Vayzata, Haman’s youngest son in the Book of Esther), as in the expression “vu dalfn iz an óysher iz vayzóse a khókhem” (literally, “where Dalfon is wealthy Vayzata is wise”), which is itself a play on the name of Haman’s second son, Dalfon, which is a homonym of a Hebrew word meaning “pauper”


Since Passover is coming up, two especial words for fool come to mind. The first is “she-éyne yodéye líshel” referring to the fourth son at the seder who “has no capacity to inquire.” The second is “yáknehoz,” from the acronym for the five prayers to be said if Passover falls at the end of the Sabbath.

But far and away the most common word for fool in Yiddish is “nar.” As the saying goes, “a yid, vos er iz, keyn nar iz er nisht”—whatever he may be, a Jew is no fool. This word has an additionally interesting detail in Yiddish, namely that even though it is a Germanic word it takes a Hebraic plural form: “narónim.” A handful of words in Yiddish do this, for example, “póyer—póyerim” (farmer, peasant) and the sometimes humorous “dóktor-doktóyrim” (doctor).


As always, “léyent gezúnterhéyt”—read it in good health.


(Please send Yiddish questions to: yiddishcolumn@americanisraelite.com)





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