Ten Immigrant Words That New Yorkers Use
“I like good strong words that mean something…” Louisa May Alcott
Whatever their ethnic background, New Yorkers are also all a little Jewish, Spanish and Italian.
In Spanish, the word bodega means warehouse. It is a word that Spanish immigrants brought with them and it transitioned into what would be called a convenience store. Originally owned by Puerto Ricans, it found its way into mainstream New York culture. In my mind I see red and black awnings, signs advertising cold cuts and beer, dusty groceries and people speaking Spanish. They are not necessarily Spanish owned today, but still called a bodega. It is used like this. I’m grabbing coffee at the bodega on the corner and then I’ll get on line for tickets. On line is New York for in line. A corner is the best location for a bodega.
Schlep is a word of Yiddish origin. It means to drag, haul, trudge. Schlep can be used as a noun or a verb. He is a schlep (jerk, loser, doesn’t pull his own weight). Move on, he is not worth your time. The verb usage can also include guilt. I schlepped downtown to see you. This can sometimes translate to, I took two trains and had to stand the whole time. Train is what New Yorkers call the subway.
Agita (Ah-jita) is Italian for heartburn or anxiety. It is something you give your mother. “Don’t tell me these things, you are giving me agita.” It is a common phrase heard by New York teenagers from their moms.
Schmuck is a Yiddish word which means idiot. Is it offensive to call someone a schmuck? Only if you are the person being called one. It definitely sounds a bit harsher than idiot which might make it the better choice. Another meaning is penis. We thought that was hysterical when we were kids.
Prosciutt. It is pronounced pra jute. When I was growing up I thought it was the Italian word for ham. Do you want “pra jute” on that? I never saw it spelled until I was older. I learned that it was prosciutto, a particular kind of ham.
Schvitz is a Yiddish slang term for steam bath but also used to mean sweat. You will see many people schvitzing when they are riding on a subway or bus without air conditioning in the hot, muggy summer. It is not a good look.
Goombah is little confusing to me. I always thought it was an Italian slang word meaning best friend – like family. Whenever someone introduced me to their goombah, it was always a big Italian guy that you wouldn’t want to mess with. Fuhgedaboutit.
Schmear. I have only heard the term when ordering a bagel in New York. I think it means the right amount of cream cheese to put on a bagel – not too much, not too little. “I will have a pumpernickel bagel with a schmear”.
Paesan is short for paesano and means a fellow Italian countryman. It’s supposed to be a compliment if an Italian calls you paesan. “You love pizza like a paesan.” It is often used like homie.
Klutz. The literal translation from Yiddish would be a block of wood but it is most often used to describe a clumsy person. That would be me. I’m such a klutz.