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Jewish Grammar Rules

picture of oil bottle

Does something ever sound funny to you, and you don't know quite why? Or, if you now live somewhere other than where you grew up, do you ever say things that sound funny to others? My wife and I grew up in northwestern Ohio where the word wash is pronounced "worsh." People there also "redd up" the table after meals and "redd up" the house before guests arrive. When we were in college out of state, we had to eliminate those things from our speech, or be prepared to be teased or to explain what we meant.

In several of my classes today we were talking about the placement of adverbs in French sentences. In English we often put short adverbs before the verb – as in the bold print in the first part of this sentence. My students were having trouble understanding why using English word order in French would sound weird to the French who never put the adverb before the verb. I gave them one of the classic Pennsylvania Dutch examples of funny word order, where prepositional phrase placement in sentences turns "Throw the horse some hay over the fence" into "Throw the horse over the fence some hay"), which illustrates a slightly different effect of altering word order.

Along that vein, I found some rules for Jewish grammar in my files and am posting them, followed by what would make some great Jewish Country-Western Hits.

Jewish Grammar Rules

1. When making statements, phrase them as questions. Instead of telling Ida she looks gorgeous, ask her, "Ida, how stunning do you have to look?"

2. Instead of answering questions definitely, answer with another question. When someone asks how you feel, answer, "How should I feel?"

3. Whenever possible, end questions with "or what?" This allows the other person to interject another question: "Has she grown up, or what?" — "Can you remember when she was just a baby, or what?" (Don't be surprised if someone bursts into "Sunrise, Sunset" at any moment.)

4. Begin questions with "What?" For example: "What, my cooking is not good enough for you?"

5. Drop last word in sentence (which is typically a direct or indirect object): "What, do you want to get killed going alone? Harry will go with." (dropping the "you").

6. Move subject to end of sentences: "Is she getting heavy, that Esther?"

7. Use "that" as a modifier to communicate contempt: "Is Esther still dating that Norman fellow?"

8. Use "lovely" to describe actions taken by someone else that the listener should have done too: "We got a lovely note from the Goldmans for hosting the Seder." (Translation: "What, you didn't eat and drink too, at my Seder? You slob, you didn't send a thank you note!")

In using your newly obtained Jewish grammar remember that just because Jews are asking questions, doesn't mean they're going to wait around for an answer. If you've got something to say, speak up. Interrupt often. It shows that you are interested in the conversation. If you're talking and Jews don't interrupt you, they're bored.

Here's a lovely blend of Jewish and Country-Western phraseology and themes...

Jewish Country-Western Hits

For You I Should Be Singing?!

I Was One of the Chosen People ('Til She Chose Somebody Else)

Stand by Your Mensch

I've Got My Foot On The Glass, Where Are You?

My Rowdy Friend Levi's Comin' Over Tonight

You're the Lox My Bagel's Been Missin'

Mamas Don't Let Their Ungrateful Sons Grow Up to Be Cowboys (When You Could Very Easily Have Taken Over The Family Hardware Business That My Own Father Broke His Back To Start And Your Father Sweated Over For Forty-Five Years Which Apparently Doesn't Mean Anything To You Now That You're Turning Your Back On Such A Gift!)

Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Latkes

The Second Time She Said Shalom, I Knew She Meant Goodbye

I Balanced Your Books, but You're Breaking My Heart

Four Thousand Years of Sufferin', and I Had to Marry You?!


Have you discovered things that you grew up saying that others don't understand, or what? Or have you heard some interesting regional expressions?


โ€œGod doesn't call us to blind faith – He's given us lots of evidence.โ€ - Dr. Drew Conley

=^..^= =^..^=

"Let me tell you the one thing I have against Moses. He took us forty years into the desert in order to bring us to the one place in the Middle East that has no oil!" - Golda Meir

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32 Comments on “Jewish Grammar Rules”

  1. #1 Jessica
    on Jan 26th, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    I’ll have to remember these since there’s a Jewish university I’m considering attending when I’m done at BJ. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I get odd looks when I say something “weirds me out,” and some people call my use of the phrase “might could” ungrammatical. Such heinous accusations!

  2. #2 Rob
    on Jan 26th, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    @Jessica – If you end up going to that Jewish university, do you think you might could use some of these expressions without weirding them out, or what?

  3. #3 Carrie
    on Jan 26th, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    I got a good laugh, but my favorite is the Oil of Oy Vey!

  4. #4 Dahv
    on Jan 26th, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    My high school just did a production of Fiddler on the Roof – the actors must have consulted you for their grammar! It was perfect, that play! What? You don’ believe me? You should have gone and seen! Only kidding ๐Ÿ™‚

    On the other hand, ๐Ÿ™‚ there are some pronucimations my family disagrees on: drawer (pronounced DRAW or DROAR) and the delicious fudge frozen dessert–is it FUDGECICLE or FUDGEICLE? Please help us!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. #5 Ann
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 6:18 am

    Several thoughts on this post:

    When I was in the hospital in 1996 with a major MS flare up, one of the doctors who came in was this lady neurologist. After she left, I said to one of the nurses, โ€œShe reminds me of a New York Jew.โ€ Turned out that she IS a NY Jew.

    My fatherโ€™s sister said โ€œworshโ€ and as far as I know she had never even been to Ohio. She was NJ born and raised and still there when she died.

    Iโ€™ve been in the South so long that I canโ€™t even remember any Yankee phrases (i.e. five years at bj and almost 34 years in Charlotte). There was a lady I used to work with that always reminded me that I was a Yankee. The greatest compliment anyone ever paid me was the day that she said, โ€œYou donโ€™t qualify as a Yankee anymore. Youโ€™re Southernized now.โ€

  6. #6 Rob
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 6:24 am

    @Carrie – I’m glad you got what was probably a much-needed laugh up there in the real tundra … well, almost. When I ran across that picture, I knew it just had to be part of the post. ๐Ÿ˜€

  7. #7 Rob
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 6:30 am

    @Dahv – Bonjour! Good to see your comment. I had fun reading the grammar rules and song titles out loud, trying to do it with the NY Jewish accent I’ve heard before. It really got me to chuckling.

    As far as the pronounciation of Fudgecicle, I also have heard both and it’s a tough call, at least by considering the original word from which it’s a take-off – icicle. Hmm….

  8. #8 Rob
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 6:33 am

    @Ann – I agree that NY Jews do have their own distinctive sound – see my comment to Dahv. As far as being “Southernized” goes, just yesterday I heard a Southerner on the radio talking about all us Yankee transplants. He said that even though we like it hear and completely adjust, we are still not Southerners, and even our children born here won’t be. He said, “If a cat’s kittens are born in the oven, that won’t make them biscuits!”

  9. #9 Laura
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 8:27 am

    I was reminded of “Fiddler on the Roof” reading those grammar rules too… that has always been one of my favorite musicals. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I grew up in the southeastern corner of Maryland (so it usually depends on who I talk to as to whether I’m a Southener or a Yankee). One phrase that is typically heard up there is “big ol’,” which can be used to describe an object of nearly any size.

  10. #10 Sherry
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 8:53 am

    M. Loach, this one made me laugh out loud! I’ve long been fascinated with Jewish culture, customs, and communication. ๐Ÿ™‚ The word “oy” has been a part of my vocabulary ever since I roomed with a girl in college who had traveled abroad quite a bit. She reported that while coming back to the states one August, she sat next to a very loud Jewish lady. Upon entering the plane, the lady remarked, “Oy, does it stink in here, or what?! Who stinks? Do you stink? (Looking at my roommate…) I know it’s not me! Who stinks?” My roommate didn’t know whether to laugh or duck and cover. ๐Ÿ™‚ She said it was interesting, that flight home. ๐Ÿ™‚ We all started to use the phrase “oy vey” and complained each time the dorm room started to reach the “pique” of putrescence by re-quoting that incident!! ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. #11 Rob
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 9:00 am

    @Laura – I share your love for the Fiddler. There are several songs from it that go through my mind from time to time, one of them being “Sunrise, Sunset.”

    I don’t know whether your part of Maryland has the corner on the expression “big ol'”. I know I’ve heard people use it, but I don’t think they were from MD.

  12. #12 Rob
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 9:03 am

    @Sherry – To tell you the truth, I had to do a web search last evening to try to determine if “oy vey” is an OK expression to use. I tend to be really careful when it comes to using several things – interjections in general and words I’m not totally sure about. This one fit into both of those categories for me, hence my natural caution. But I found nothing to indicate that it was profane. Phew! I really did want to use that picture! ๐Ÿ˜€

  13. #13 Lynnette J.
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 11:06 am

    I have found that my vocabulary is a mix of northern and southern, with a good dose from some of the books that I have read. I used the phrase “You hit the nail right on the head” with one of my southern co-workers. He didn’t understand what I had said. I have used words and phrases like ‘fixin’s’ and ‘catch the light’ and the first one around a co-worker from New Hampshire. She commented that I sounded southern. ๐Ÿ™‚ I guess I’m a ‘tweener. (betweener)

  14. #14 Eileen
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    I learned a lot of new ones when I lived in Montreal, but I don’t remember too many right now. Most of them were direct translations from French into English, or even from other languages, since most of the English speakers were actually native speakers of another language (Greek, Italian, Armenian, etc.) But we always “closed the lights” and “closed the computers” (even if they were not laptops). ๐Ÿ˜‰ Oh yes, and we would always “pass by” places…the store, friends’ houses…not indicating that we drove down the street in front of these places, but that we actually stopped and went in.

  15. #15 Michael
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    My family has an expression that was humorous to my wife when we began dating. We use the word “knocking” as a euphemism when we’re frustrated with something. For example, if a football player drops a pass, we would yell “Catch the knocking ball!” I’m not sure if that’s a regionalism or if it’s just unique to my family somehow.

    As for regionalisms, my principal is from central North Carolina, and he talked about someone being “as confused as a termite in a yo-yo.” I loved it! So, I decided to use it in class one time. I inserted the zinger in the middle of a lecture and waited for the laughs to knock me over. However, the kids just looked at me like I was an idiot. One of them said, “Yo-yos aren’t made out of wood.” So much for that.

  16. #16 Rob
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    @Lynnette – I have some of the same problems, only different. I have retained some of my Yankee-isms from my earlier years up there, but then I’ve picked up some really great Southern-isms in my last 25 years here. When I go back to Ohio to see family, they chuckle at some of the things we say … but then we chuckle at some of the things they say (and that we used to say. ๐Ÿ™‚ If you haven’t tried out the Yankee-Dixie quiz on my site, you might find it interesting to see what percentage of your speech is from which region.

  17. #17 Rob
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    @Eileen – We have noticed that when in France with some of the Americans living there. When they speak English, it’s often with French turns of phrase and wordings, but in English – kind of a hybridized English. Then we pick some of it up and come back saying things like “We are five” instead of “There are five of us.” (French: Nous sommes cinq.)

  18. #18 Rob
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    @ Michael – And not all “yo-yos” are wooden or plastic toys….

    Just wait, Michael … some of your best illustrations and humorous stories will have to go by the way eventually because, even though your current students understand, not many years from now your students will not have that as part of their background. It gets scarier each fall to see the latest Mindset List from beloit.edu that tells what is in the frame of reference of the incoming college freshman. I have a former blog post about it – http://blog.ivman.com/mindset-of-the-class-of-2010 If you didn’t see it, look at it and know that it’s already dated! Yikes!

  19. #19 Jessica S.
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    “Redd up” is definitely a phrase I use. Interestingly, I have found differences in lingo between southwest PA (where I grew up) and southcentral PA (where I live now). I say “pop” to their “soda,” “gob” for their “whoopie pie” (and tell them mine sounds more dignified), and sometimes use “hoagie” for “sub” (the sandwich). I get a bit of good-humored grief for saying “pop,” but right now I refuse to conform. Unthinkable!

    I have some Pittsburghese in my pronounciation and vocabulary, but I am not among those that say “yinz.” ๐Ÿ™‚ It is a classic out that way! Here’s another pronounciation I don’t use, though I heartily agree with the sentiment – Go Stillers!!!

  20. #20 Rob
    on Jan 27th, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    @ Jessica – Bonjour! Good to hear from you! We have friends from Johnstown, PA who also redd up. In NW Ohio we say “pop” also. You have pointed out some great examples of differences even within one state. Stick to your guns with pop. Even though many in this area think it’s odd, it will always be pop to me.

  21. #21 Eileen
    on Jan 29th, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Oh, yes, I remember the “we are five” phrase too; the same goes for the day/date – my coworker used to always say, “what day are we today?” and answer with “we’re Thursday” or whatever was appropriate. ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. #22 Rob
    on Jan 29th, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    @Eileen – Same thing in France – we are Thursday, indeed.

  23. #23 Vikki
    on Jan 29th, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Growing up in eastern Wisconsin gave me a plethora of unusual words and phrases. An example is bubbler. I was about 15 before I heard it called anything else when a friend came back from vacation in CA and told me they call bubblers drinking fountains. We just thought that was the funniest thing we ever heard. To a Wisconsinite, a fountain is something that shoots water out of the ground and is sometimes lit up (although I have heard that near the Minnesota boarder they donโ€™t call them bubblers). Also, we drink pop out of pop machines, a definitely affirmative answer is ya der hey, and many sentences are followed by โ€œdonโ€™t ja knowโ€. Also, we called them lightening bugs, not fireflies.

  24. #24 Laura
    on Jan 29th, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    I’ve heard “big ol'” in other places as well… another interesting local expression (which may or may not be exclusive to the area… I don’t recall hearing it anywhere else) is saying “well, I’m done!” to express a certain level of surprise or shock. The most humorous thing about it to me is that the one person whom I’ve heard use these expressions most frequently is my dad, who is not native to the area, while my mom, who is a “native,” rarely (if ever) uses them! ๐Ÿ™‚

  25. #25 Rob
    on Jan 29th, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    @Vikki – In NW Ohio we called them drinking fountains, but we did say lightening bugs. I agree, though, that some expressions are downright hilarious when you first hear them.

  26. #26 Rob
    on Jan 29th, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    @Laura – “Well, I’m done” is a new one on me! One I say that has about the same meaning is “All right then!”

  27. #27 Dahv
    on Jan 29th, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    My Children’s Ministries teacher always says “Please” when she missed what you said—she said it’s because she grew up in Cincinnati. It sounds a wicked weird: I’m used to hearing “What?” or “Hmm?” or even “Pardon?”

  28. #28 Rob
    on Jan 29th, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    @Dahv – That’s a new one on me too. One of the expressions you yourself used isn’t new to me, but whenever I encounter it, it always takes me back – the use of “wicked” for anything other than something evil. Ah, regionalisms!

  29. #29 Wade K
    on Jan 31st, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    “Redd up.” I thought that was just Pittsburghese! When I first moved there I had to get used to the new lingo and pronunciation. “DownTown” become “Dahntahn” You (plural) is “youinz” or shorter “yinz.” Then there were the long e sounds sounding like a short i sound. So in in the ‘burgh you’d be hearing” Ey, yinz coming to my dahntahn haus to watch them Picksburgh Stillers pluck them Redbirds on Sunday?”

    You might enjoy googling “pittsburghese” to be further entertained. Here’s an entry I posted: http://www.pittsburghese.com/glossary.ep.html?type=verbs then look at “kook.”

  30. #30 LeAnne
    on Feb 2nd, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Mr. Loach,

    One I’ve found interesting is how many people use the phrase, “Happy as a clam”–without finishing it. I’m not sure just how happy a clam is. ๐Ÿ™‚ My mom grew up in Washington State, where they went clam digging often, and the complete expression is “Happy as a clam at high tide.”

  31. #31 Rob
    on Feb 2nd, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    @Wade – It’s interesting to learn a little about Pittsburghese. And the stuff on the link you posted – too funny! Thanks!

  32. #32 Rob
    on Feb 2nd, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    @LeAnne – I had always heard the unfinished expression. Thanks for your comment. It makes a whole lot more sense now. ๐Ÿ™‚