As you browse the Jewish English Lexicon, you'll notice that each entry has a primary spelling and, usually, one or more alternative spellings. How did we determine the primary spelling?
In English writing, Hebrew and Yiddish words can be spelled in many different ways. Some publishers use the Library of Congress system for Hebrew and the YIVO system for Yiddish. But words used in Jewish English often come from both Hebrew and Yiddish, and it would be strange to use one system or the other (“Five Books of Moses” and “Jewish law” would be either khumesh and halokhe or ḥumash and halakha). Another option would be to use spellings provided in Jewish English dictionaries, but they are also diverse. Instead, 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. For example, “al regel achat” had 8,540 hits, while “al regel ahat” had only 5,860.
At the same time, we want to make sure that visitors searching for a specific word can find it, so we offer multiple alternative spellings, including Ashkenazi, Israeli, and Sephardi/Mizrahi variants. The list of attested spellings is by no means exhaustive, and, as with the rest of the database, we count on visitors like you to add more.

Languages of origin

Similarly, it is often difficult to determine a word’s language of origin. Many of the words that derive originally from Hebrew or Aramaic texts were also incorporated into Yiddish and Modern Hebrew and are now used in English with influences in meaning and pronunciation from Yiddish and/or Modern Hebrew (for details, see Benor’s 2000 paper and 2012 book). Despite this overlap, we include source language information due to popular demand. Here is a guide to our language names:

  • English: Words of English stock used distinctly by Jews.
  • Textual Hebrew: Words from Hebrew in the Bible, liturgy, and ancient or medieval rabbinic literature like the Talmud and responsa.
  • Aramaic: Words from Judeo-Aramaic, especially as it appears in the Talmud and some liturgy.
  • Yiddish: Words from Eastern Yiddish (a German-based language with Hebrew/Aramaic, Slavic, and Romance influences) spoken by Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe (Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, etc.).
  • Modern Hebrew: Words used in contemporary Israeli Hebrew and/or coined in the modern era.
  • Ladino: Words from Ottoman Judezmo/Judeo-Spanish (a Spanish-based language with Turkish, Greek, Arabic, and Balkan influences) spoken by Sephardim, especially in the Ottoman Empire.
  • Arabic / Judeo-Arabic: Words from Arabic and Judeo-Arabic spoken in Arab lands. Some Arabic words entered English through Modern Hebrew, and others through the Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, or Persian of immigrants to English-speaking countries from Muslim lands.
  • Persian: Words from Persian and Judeo-Persian spoken by Jews in Iran.

Who tends to use it

A lexicon is more comprehensive when it includes sociolinguistic information. While any person - Jewish or not - might use any of the words in this lexicon, research has shown that certain types of people are more likely to use certain words (see Benor and Cohen’s 2009 survey results and Benor’s 2011 academic paper). The groups we included are based mostly on Benor and Cohen’s survey data:

  • Religious: Jews who are engaged in religious observance and have some Jewish education (includes but is not limited to Orthodox Jews)
  • Orthodox: Jews who identify as Orthodox and observe halacha (Jewish law)
  • Chabad: Jews affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitch movement
  • 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 in their 70s or older
  • Younger: Jews in their 30s or younger
  • Ashkenazim: Jews with Ashkenazi heritage
  • Sephardim: Jews with Sephardi or Mizrahi heritage
  • Syrian: Jews with recent ancestry in Syria
  • Persian: Jews with recent ancestry in Iran
  • Bukharian: Jews with ancestry in Central Asia, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan
  • Juhuro: Jews with ancestry in the Caucasus region, such as Azerbaijan and Dagestan, also known as Kavkazi, Gorsky, or Mountain Jews
  • Russian: Jews with recent Russian-speaking ancestry in Russia
  • Non-Jews: (words that have spread outside of Jewish networks)

These categories are not intended to represent all subdivisions of American Jews, and they are by no means mutually exclusive; some individuals are part of six or more of the groups. In the absence of specific research on most of the words in this lexicon, this column is based mostly on the impressions of the people who entered the words or subsequently added suggestions; feel free to edit as you see fit. As this column suggests, Jewish English is not a homogenous language but rather an umbrella category for English spoken by a diverse group of people.

Jewish English Dictionaries cited in the database

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