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What do kibbitz, babble, brouhaha have in common?

No surprises that as newspaper publishers an article touting “a fascinating list of words that you probably didn’t know have Jewish linguistic origins” caught our attention.

Dr. Yvette Alt Miller put the list together for, and while some were known to us, others came as surprises. So from this sentence, Alt Miller’s opening one, how many and which words do you recognize as being of Jewish origin: When you kibbitz with your friends, does your babble ever lead to a big brouhaha?

Read below to find out!

Babble likely comes from a famous story in the book of Genesis recounting how people tried to build a tower — called the Tower of Bavel (Babel in English) — that would reach the very heavens to wage war against G-d. G-d thwarted their plans and toppled the tower.  Back on earth, people found that instead of speaking a common language as before, they all spoke different languages, which sounded like “babble” to others (Gen. 11:1-8).

Brouhaha sounds a bit like the Hebrew phrase baruch haba, which means “welcome” in Hebrew. Many linguists believe it was a dismissive word French people used to describe the sound of Jews speaking Hebrew. English speakers adopted this French word in the 1700s.

Kibbitzsounds a bit like the call of the European lapwing bird: peewit. Medieval German speakers called the bird peewit; from there, the name possibly evolved into kibbitz and moved into Yiddish, where it meant (at various times) to chatter, to visit or to offer advice.

Shmooze has Hebrew origins. Shmu’ot means “rumors” in Hebrew. Yiddish speakers called idle chat shmu’es; from there, the word evolved into shmuesn, meaning to chat, and entered English as shmooze, meaning to have a nice, cozy conversation.

Cherub– a sweet little innocent child in English – comes from the Hebrew word for sword, cherev. In the Torah, a cherub is a type of angel which guards the entrance to the Garden of Eden with a fiery sword, ensuring that people never return there (Gen. 3:24).

Ruthless refers to someone acting viciously, but it comes from the name of one of the heroines in the Bible, Ruth. A Moabite princess by birth, Ruth converted to Judaism and lived with her mother in law Naomi in Israel, where she displayed incredible kindness.  Ruth’s great grandson was King David.  “Ruth” became a byword for kindness; “ruthless” literally means having a lack of Ruth’s quality of empathy and giving.

Cider comes from the Hebrew word for drink, shaker. It was translated into Greek as sikera, and migrated into Latin as sicera. In the Middle Ages, French adopted the word as cidre, and it began to refer exclusively to strong drinks made from fermented fruit.

Iota comes from the Hebrew letter Yud, which is the smallest of the Hebrew letters. Iota was the Ancient Greek form of the Yud, and soon became synonymous with anything tiny. The same is true for the word jot.

Bedlam was originally the nickname of England’s first mental asylum. It was formally called the Bethlem Royal Hospital. Like many old hospitals, Bethlem began as a religious order; it was founded in the 13th century as a priory dedicated to St Mary of Bethlehem. And Bethlem was corrupted to bedlam.

Beelzebubis a Christian term for a malevolent being and comes from the Hebrew ba’al (lord) zevuvim(flies), the implication being that a “Lord of the Flies” would somehow be drawn to death and decay, which also attracts flies.

Cabal is derived from the Hebrew word Kabbalah, which literally means “receiving” and refers to Jewish mysticism. Reflecting the anti-Semitic belief that a secret group of Jews somehow controls the world, cabal often refers to such a gathering. Surprisingly, the word was popularized by Charles Dickens who used it as an acronym to help students remember the names of five government ministers in the 1600s (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley and Lauderdale) in his book A Child’s History of England.

Macabre likely comes from Medieval plays about the Maccabees, a group of Jewish fighters who resisted Greek rule in Israel a little over 2,000 years ago.  Called Chorea Maccabaeorum — “dance of the Maccabees” — in Latin, the plays were often bloody and featured the martyrdom of Maccabee fighters. The plays’ name evolved to Danse Macabe in French. In time, the name evolved to Dance Macabre, and the meaning to “dance of death.”

Read the full article and list at

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