Australian words with a Yiddish origin

by Amanda Laugesen

A small number of Australian English words have their likely origins in Yiddish, a Jewish language with its origins in German, and with several regional variations. Words with a Yiddish origin came into Australian English both through the migration of Yiddish speakers to Australia, as well as through transferred uses and variants of terms that had developed in British English and slang.

Front page of the first Yiddish newspaper to be printed in Australia, 16 January 1931

Front page of the first Yiddish newspaper to be printed in Australia, 16 January 1931

Some of these terms are discussed below:

caser – ‘a coin worth five shillings; a crown’. This term had its origins in Yiddish and was probably a British slang term brought to the Australian colonies, although the first recording of its usage is Australian: ‘A swell drew out his thimble and handed it to the time keeper, together with a few casers.’ (Sydney Australian, 10 August 1825)

cobber – ‘friend’ (often as a mode of address) This well-known Australian English word probably has its origins in Yiddish chaber, ‘comrade’. It is first recorded in Australian English from the late 19th century, but came to have particular resonance during the First World War through its use by Australian soldiers.

motser – ‘a large sum of money, especially as won in gambling; a fortune; a great amount’. This popular Australian term can also be found with the variant spellings motsa, motza, and motzer. It probably has its origin in the Yiddish word matse, unleavened bread. Jonathan Green in his Dictionary of Slang speculates that motser comes from the traditional matze bread resembling an outsize coin; possibly the transfer is influenced by common slang terms such as bread and dough for money.

imgres-4moscow – ‘to pawn’ (verb); ‘a pawnshop’ (noun). This term derived from the British slang term moskeener, ‘to pawn an article for more than its real worth’, which in turn derived from Yiddish. The noun form is sometimes found in the phrases gone to Moscow or in Moscow. The 1953 novel Caddie records the noun form: ‘Me clobber’s already in Moscow, an’ so is me tan shoes … There dont seem nuthin a man can raise a deaner on.’

mozzle – ‘luck; fortune’. Mozzle derives from the Yiddish word mazal. While recorded in an American Jewish context in the late 19th century, all the usages recorded in the first half of the 20th century are Australian. Joseph Furphy in his famous novel Such is Life (1903) uses the term: ‘How much do you stand to lose if your mozzle is out?’ The abbreviated form mozz is used in the phrase ‘to put the mozz on’ meaning ‘to exert a malign influence on; to jinx’ is also found in Australian English.

shicker (also shickered) – ‘drunk’. Also used to mean ‘alcoholic liquor’, especially in the phrase on the shicker. This comes from the Yiddish shiker, ‘drunk’. There is also the British slang and dialect terms shickery and shiggery, ‘shabby, rickety, shaky; also drunk’. The term shicker is found in Australian English from the late 19th century; the abbreviation shick meaning ‘drunk’ (adjective), ‘alcoholic liquor’ (noun), and ‘drunkard’ (noun) is also found in Australian English from around the turn of the 20th century.

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4 thoughts on “Australian words with a Yiddish origin

  1. I find this etymology of cobber impossible to accept. The Hebrew/Yiddish word for ‘friend, associate, companion’ is spelled חָבֵר, but it is pronounced /xaver/ in both languages, never /xaber/. It is (or was) used in Jewish English also in the sense of “Comrade” as a term of address in left-wing organizations, still pronounced /xaver/.

    The OED s.v. cobber says “perhaps < dialect cob (see Eng. Dial. Dict.), to take a liking to.” The EDD in turn reports the usage from Suffolk, with a discouraging note “[Not known to our other correspondents]”. Still, at least the phonetics are correct.

  2. Dear Ozwords,

    In discussing the latest Ozwords (June 6) with a Jewish friend he replies:

    ‘One that was missing was ‘kliner’, referring to girlfriend or wife. It comes
    from The rhyme of the Sentimental Bloke. In the Romeo and Juliet scene,
    approximately, ” His kliner’s push was mixing wif a crew; a dead tough crowd
    of crooks called Monatgue.” A kliner is the Germanic Yiddish for “the little
    one” as in ‘klein” :small; little.’

    I emphasize that this is not my contribution.

    Regards
    Charles Smith

  3. Thanks John for your contribution. The etymology for ‘cobber’ has proved a tricky one. Our draft etymology for ‘cobber’ in the upcoming second edition of the ‘Australian National Dictionary’ (AND2) refers to the standard attribution to British dialect ‘cob’ as you’ve mentioned. The problem with this etymology, as the EDD mentions, is the lack of evidence. Further to this the Suffolk dialect is an unlikely an atypical candidate for words that have come to Australian English from British dialect.

    The AND2 draft sees the Yiddish origin as more likely – given that it is recorded in Australian English with a number of other Yiddish words in the late 19th century. I’ll pass your comments about pronunciation on to Bruce Moore, the editor of AND2. At this stage we are still saying ‘probably’ or ‘perhaps’ in our various Australian Oxford Dictionaries. The issues you raise are certainly important ones though!

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