Viewpoint: Speaking 'medical Yiddish'

September 19, 2008

Understanding the various cultural and linguistic nuances of our patients can certainly help in strengthening doctor-patient relationships.

A patient of mine, a 78-year-old woman, came in for her annual checkup and said, "Doctor, I know I am a kvetch." She then proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes listing myriad complaints. A "kvetch" is the Yiddish term for a complainer.

Yiddish, the language of Central and Eastern European Jews, is derived principally from Medieval German dialects. Many of the European centers for Yiddish culture were destroyed during the Holocaust, but the language has survived among Jewish immigrants living in the United States and in other parts of the world.

In my internal medicine practice here in South Florida, I treat a lot of Yiddish-speaking patients. Thus it is not uncommon for me to hear various medically related Yiddish expressions during the course of office hours. A patient stopped by the other day and said, "I am sorry to be such a nudge [Yiddish for someone who is an annoying pest], but I haven't gotten my prescription yet." She had already called the office 10 times that morning. Such patients often drive medical office personnel meshugge (Yiddish and Hebrew for "crazy").

Take for example, two foods common in Jewish households: The first is gefilte fish, which in Yiddish and German means "stuffed fish." Gefilte fish is often served during Jewish holidays and the Sabbath meals.

It was common for European Jewish women who made their own gefilte fish to get sick. They would sample the ground raw fish as it was being seasoned and, in the process, ingest tapeworm larvae and develop intestinal symptoms of this parasite.

The second food is borscht (Russian and Yiddish for "beet soup"), which is also a favorite among Jews from Europe. Sometimes the beets, if eaten in large quantities, can cause red discoloration of the urine and stool that can be mistaken for abnormal bleeding.

There are countless other examples of medical Yiddish. A patient of mine complained that an antibiotic given for a persistent cold was worthwhile as toiten bankus. "Bankus" was a type of suction cup used in Europe years ago to treat illness. The phrase "toiten bankus" implies that something would help as much as bankus would heal a dead person.

Many sick patients of mine often krechtz (Yiddish for "moan"). Most readers are familiar with the Yiddish groans oy! or oy vey! ("oh, pain!"). When I asked an elderly patient of mine about troubles she was having with her children, she moaned, "Oy vey iz mir" ("woe is me") and added, "Don't ask."

When I give my Yiddish-speaking patients good reports, I often hear them say "Fun dein moil tsu Gott's oyeren!" ("From your mouth to God's ear!")

I think it is nice that various cultures and languages add their own distinct flavor to the American medical dialect. Yiddish is certainly a perfect example of this. Interested readers can learn more about the Yiddish language from books in any library. But I am sure that Yiddish-speaking patients will be more than happy to share some of their favorite expressions with you.

And so I conclude with the following: Zay gezunt. (Yiddish for "be well.")

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