"Onomatopoeia" is not a Yiddish word. But perhaps it should be, given how many Yiddish terms seem to be, well, onomatopoetic.

Expressions such as "schmooze," "tchotchke," "kibbitz," "chutzpah" and "nebbish" sound like exactly what they are, the very definition of onomatopoeia. "Klutz" and "schnoz" and "nosh" seemingly could have no other possible meaning, the way someone called "Roy" or "Sharon" seemingly could have no other name.

Ay (or is it oy?), but there's the rub, the whole chicken-and-egg quandary. Were these words devised to sound like what they mean, or was that a happy accident? Indeed, are they even really onomatopoetic -- a la "roar" and "cuckoo" -- or is it just that they're so descriptive and evocative that they just seem to fit after we hear them once?

"That so many Yiddish words sound onomatopoetic is the ultimate irony of a language built on irony," said Neal Karlen, author of "The Story of Yiddish" and a Minneapolis resident. "The language was created so that Jews could let their hair down and say what they wanted without being understood or misunderstood by the ruling classes of the diaspora.

"Context, not the sound of the word, which is the essence of onomatopoetic, is the critical component."

Thus, it's only after we encounter "mazel tov" at a wedding, or "nudnik" in a harangue about someone who's a pain in the neck ("nik") that the words take on that "just right" sound. It generally takes only one time hearing "she doesn't know bupkis" or "he fell on his tuchus [or tush]" to recognize not only what these Yiddish words mean, but also that they could mean nothing else.

"A year ago, a young woman from Brainerd was moving into the apartment next door to me," Karlen said, "and she asked me to help her schlep a heavy trunk upstairs. I asked her where she learned that word, and she said she had no idea; in fact, she admitted, I was the first Jew she had ever met.

"But 'schlep,' in her mind, not only meant, but sounded exactly like what it meant -- to lug or drag heavy objects."

A back-seat education

Yiddish originated in the Middle Ages in Germany and quickly spread among Jewish populations in central and eastern Europe. Although many of the words are Hebrew in derivation, it is considered a Germanic language, and indeed the two lexicons often have melded.

"Dumkop" is literally "dumb head" in Yiddish, but most Americans are more familiar with the term "dummkopf," thanks to -- talk about irony -- the bumbling Nazis in "Hogan's Heroes."

In Europe, Yiddish became more prevalent, if less conspicuous, during Hitler's Third Reich; on these shores, it bubbled up outside Jewish circles only via entertainers, particularly Borscht Belt comedians. (As Lita Epstein notes in her wonderfully titled "If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Say It in Yiddish," Rodney Dangerfield was "the ultimate kvetcher.")

Otherwise in midcentury America, the language remained mostly underground. Karlen's parents, for example, used it when they didn't want their progeny to understand what they were saying.

"My real Yiddish education began during that torturous annual ritual of Midwest families -- the never-ending car trip," he said. "Just when conversation in English in the front seat sounded like it was beginning to get interesting, they'd switch for extended periods into that enticing, incomprehensible tongue of Yiddish. With it came hushed voices, sighs, belly laughs."

The young Karlen quickly noted that the language "sounded incredibly filthy" and that the sharpest putdowns seems to be words beginning with a "sh" sound: schnook and schlump, schmendrick and shtinker, schmutz and schmaltz, schmo and schlub.

"The sh- and shm- sounds, I deduced, were reserved for the biggest insults," Karlen recounted. "So I had to wait in the back seat for more data. And then I would be rewarded when my parents would say a few words in English, then end their sentence with a 'sh.' Like 'Can you believe Irv? That schmuck can't keep his zipper zipped and his shvantz in his pants. Can you believe he left Adele for that blondie shiksa [non-Jewish] secretary of his? It's a shanda [disgrace]!' "

In the end, Karlen said, a language that was meant to be secretive and expressive turned out to be too much of the latter for its own good.

"Unlike so many English words that are truly onomatopoetic -- buzz, click, boom, meow, swoosh -- it's all a big mistake that so many Yiddish words like 'putz' and 'oy' have come to mean exactly what they sound like," he said. "It's ass-backwards, but Yiddish was built ass-backwards, as a way to express every emotion and person there is, in far more minute detail than English.

"Again, for a language built on irony, this is perhaps the biggest irony: Yiddish was created not to be understood by 'outsiders,' but now it has permeated English."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643