Word of the day: schlep

In a recent post on the word pogrom, we looked at language connected to the dark human tendency to blame and attack others when things start going wrong in society. We mentioned the anti-Jewish pogroms that occurred across Eastern Europe and that by the end of the 19th century led to tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in mainland Europe and arriving in England. In London, Jews lived primarily in the Spitalfields and Whitechapel areas, close to the docks, and as a result the East End became known as something of a Jewish neighbourhood. It’s often forgotten that about 50,000 Jews served in the British Armed Forces during World War One, and around 10,000 died on the battlefield. Perhaps because their rootlessness made them more independent and because they may well have had a broad range of international contacts, many Jews also became entrepreneurs, with a heavy concentration in the garment industry as well as in retailing, entertainment and real estate.

As well as contributing to the cultural and economic life of the city, Jews also contributed linguistically, with many words moving from Yiddish – a language that is a mixture of Hebrew and an old form of German, and that’s mainly spoken by Jewish people from Central and Eastern Europe – to English, and particularly to the English spoken in London! One of the most commonly used today is schlep – /ʃlep/. If you describe a journey as a bit of a schlep, it means you think it’s long, difficult, and boring.

Just today, my wife was toying with the idea of going down to a friend’s 40th in South London on Friday, but decided against it. It won’t finish till after midnight, she reasoned, and it’s such a schlep home. I’d have to get a cab and it’d cost a fortune, so I think I’ll give it a miss. A couple of days ago, I was complaining about having to schlep (yes, it can also be a verb) all the way back into town again to pick up my phone that I’d left in the office. And recently, up in Edinburgh, where I was talking at a conference, an old friend of mine was explaining why he’d had to move to Falkirk, which on a good day is about twenty-five minutes by train. Not too bad a schlep, then, I observed. Yeah, but with our trains, he shot back, there are more bad days than good!

Want to learn more about the many different ethnic and religious communities of London?

Take our ADVANCED LANGUAGE AND CULTURE course in the summer.

  • Do you know if there are any Yiddish words in your language?
  • Which languages has your language borrowed from the most? Why?
  • When was the last time you thought a journey would be a bit of a schlep?
  • Can you think of any places people are currently fleeing from? Why?
  • In what ways do immigrants contribute to the cultural and economic life of your city?
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