Verterbikher: What’s in a Word?

The quest to create an exhaustive dictionary of the Yiddish language has been ongoing for over a century. 

The first glossaries of Yiddish appeared in the seventeenth century, produced by Christian Hebraists with missionary intentions. In the eighteenth century, several dictionaries and grammars of underworld argot (which included many Yiddish words) were produced for the use of German policemen.

Uriel Weinreich’s 1968 Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary sought to create a purely modern Yiddish by excluding many familiar German, Slavic and English imports.   

Uriel Weinreich’s 1968 Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary sought to create a purely modern Yiddish by excluding many familiar German, Slavic and English imports.   

It wasn’t until 1898, when modern Yiddish literature was flourishing, that the first major Yiddish-English dictionary appeared. The author, Alexander Harkavy, tried to capture Yiddish as it was actually spoken. His 1928 Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary is still used by students seeking the meanings of idiomatic Yiddish.

Forty years later, Uriel Weinreich’s 1968 Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary sought to create a purely modern Yiddish by excluding many familiar German, Slavic, and English imports.  

Der groyser verterbukh / The Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language was envisioned as the Yiddish equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary. The linguist Yudl Mark and his colleagues in New York spent decades on the project; in 1980, they published their fourth and last volume—finally arriving at the end of alef, the first letter of the alphabet.

Yitskhok Niborski’s 2002 Dictionnaire Yiddish-Francais includes 37,000 words, nearly twice as many as Weinreich’s dictionary. Solon Beinfeld and Harry Bochner drew on Niborski’s work to create their Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary in 2013. 

And, most recently, in 2016, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath and her colleague Paul Glasser, published the Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary, which they spent sixteen years working on, carrying out the legacy of Gitl’s father, the linguist Mordkhe Schaechter, who collected a million Yiddish words and phrases over his lifetime. 

Yiddish dictionaries come in all sizes

A few selections from our collections about Yiddish dictionaries

Aaron Lansky interviews Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath about her Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary, in this fascinating 2017 piece from Pakn Treger.

In this 2012 episode of The Shmooze, Professor Solon Beinfeld and Dr. Harry Bochner, editors of the Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary, visit with Aaron Lansky and share the story behind their then-soon-to-be-released dictionary (released in 2013).

A lively From the Vault piece by Center fellow Sophia Shoulson about the largest and the smallest Yiddish dictionaries in our collections.

A short piece from Pakn Treger by Eddy Portnoy about 'the trouble with Yiddish biographical dictionaries.'