The interstellar etymology of ‘mazel tov’

Mazal tov or mazel tov /’maz(ə)l toːv, tɒf/ is a Hebrew and Yiddish expression analogous to ‘congratulations’ or ‘good wishes’, though its literal meaning is closer to ‘good luck’.

Grammatically it functions mainly as an interjection (‘Mazel tov!’), and sometimes as a noun (‘a chorus of mazel tovs’). I see it in both forms online, and occasionally in films and books, but it’s not part of my idiolect or culture, so corrections or clarifications are welcome.

Popular on celebratory occasions such as weddings and Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, the phrase derives from modern Hebrew mazzāl ṭôb. Mazal (Hebrew) or mazel (Yiddish) refers to a star, constellation, luck or fortune; ṭôb means ‘good’, from ṭyb ‘to be(come) good’.

Mazel tov hats at a Bat Mitzvah

The American Heritage Dictionary says mazel tov comes from Mishnaic Hebrew and ultimately from Akkadian, one of the earliest written languages: manzaltu, mazzaztum meant ‘position of a star’, from izuzzu ‘to stand’. The related words Mazzaroth and mazalot have to do with astronomical constellations or the zodiac in Kabbalistic astrology.

Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher, author of Through the Language Glass, touches briefly on these connections in The Unfolding of Language, his 2005 book on how language evolves. The following passage is from its short introduction to Semitic languages and their cultural history:

Their political star may have waxed and waned, but for a good part of 2,000 years, Mesopotamian emperors, from Sargon in the third millennium BC to Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar in the first, would lay claim to the title ‘King of the Universe’, ruling over ‘the four corners (of the earth)’. More stable than the power of the sword, however, was the cultural hegemony of Mesopotamia over the whole region. The Akkadian language shaped the dominant canon for much of the Near East in religion, the arts, science and law, and was used as a lingua franca, the means of diplomatic correspondence. Petty governors of provincial Canaanite outposts, mighty Anatolian kinds, and even Egyptian Pharaohs wrote to one another in Akkadian. Language across the Near East also borrowed many scientific and cultural terms from Akkadian, a few of which may even be recognized by English speakers today. The Jewish expression mazel tov ‘good luck’, for example, is based on the Hebrew word mazal ‘luck’, which was borrowed from the Akkadian astrological term mazzaltu ‘position (of a star)’.

Although I have little interest in horoscopes, I like how mazel tov preserves a reminder of celestial bodies’ significance in traditional conceptions of human fate and fortune. English retains a similar link in written in the stars, thank your lucky stars, and star-crossed (‘ill-fated’).

The last of which brings us nicely to schlimazel, from Yiddish shlimazl ‘someone prone to bad luck’ – hence Schlimazeltov!, a short documentary about the concept of luck in London’s Jewish community.

Schlimazel may have somehow developed into shemozzle/schemozzle ‘muddle, melee, brawl’, but the etymology is uncertain. WordReference says shemozzle is “suggested by late Hebrew šel-lō’-mazzāl ‘of no luck’.”

[image adapted from Wikimedia Commons]
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17 Responses to The interstellar etymology of ‘mazel tov’

  1. Shaun Downey says:

    Thanks Stan I come here and learn something new!

  2. lucasbrouwers says:

    English is not the only language in which ‘mazel’ has found a home. In Dutch, ‘mazzel’ is another word for luck, in addition to the Germanic ‘geluk’ (English ‘luck’/ German ‘Glück’).

    ‘Mazzel’ is sometimes used in the compound word ‘mazzelkont’, which literally translates as ‘lucky ass’, or as ‘mazzelaar’, in both cases to refer to a very lucky person. ‘Mazzel’ has become so ingrained in Dutch language that I suspect most people are unaware of its Hebrew origin.

  3. Stan says:

    Shaun: Always a pleasure!

    Lucas: Thanks for your insights. I didn’t know Dutch had mazzel, but it makes sense given Yiddish’s origins as a High Germanic language; Wikipedia mentions related terms in German and Polish, such as Schlamassel ‘misfortune, disaster, mess’.
    As for luck, Etymonline says it comes from early Middle Dutch luc, a “shortening of gheluc ‘happiness, good fortune,’ of unknown origin”. I hadn’t looked at that one before.

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    Thoroughly enjoyed your current piece on the meaning, and etymological, zodiac-derived origins of the Hebrew/ Yiddish, ‘mazel tov’, and further, your observations on the roots of its linguistic ‘familiar’, ‘shlimazl ‘.

    I would highly recommend to your readers a former New York Times Bestselling non-fiction book by Michael Wex titled “Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods'”.

    (Wex picked up much of his knowledge of spoken Yiddish while hanging out as a youth w/ a coterie of old Jewish ‘kvetchers’ while living in Calgary, Alberta, and the schmata (sp. ?) district of Toronto, back in the ’50s. They apparently watched a lot of televised ‘pro’ wrestling together, back in the day.)

    Wex’s Chapter 7, “If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck: Mazel, Misery, and Money”, specifically the initial two parts, address the significance of the word ‘shlimazl’ in Yiddish cultural, and offers up some related derivatives, in his typically visceral, slightly bawdy, dry-witted style.

    For instance, “shlimazlnitse” translates as “a slovenly woman”, but more pointedly, “a bad housekeeper”. A “shlimazlnik”, it follows, would be “a slovenly man”…….. usually w/ attendant foul body odor, and an overall disheveled physical appearance.

    “Shlim-shlimazl” connotes “bad, bad, luck”, whilst the phrase ‘”shlimazl mit esik’ means “bad luck w/ vinegar”. (In other words, not just your run-of-the-mill misfortune. A little added sting there, as well)

    Other Chapter’s in Wex’s engaging ad hoc Yiddish primer include “Too Good for the Goyim: Sex in Yiddish”, “Bupkes Means a Lot of Nothing”: Yiddish in Nature”, “It Should Happen to You: Death in Yiddish”, and “Six Feet Under: Yiddish in Action”.

    Now if those aforementioned entries don’t get your bagel dough and kishkes in a complete twist, I don’t know what would. Just sayin’.

    Shalom!

  5. languagehat says:

    I didn’t know Dutch had mazzel, but it makes sense given Yiddish’s origins as a High Germanic language

    Not really, since it’s not a question of common origin (and mazel, of course, isn’t Germanic at all). It’s just a Yiddish word that happened to catch on with the people Jews lived among, regardless of linguistic affiliations; many such words (though not, as far as I know, this one) were also borrowed into the slang/jargon stratum of Russian via places like Odessa, and Russian is not any sort of Germanic language.

    I also recommend the Wex book, which I wrote about here, though one should note the reservations expressed by Ben in the comments (“His discussion of Yiddish dialects is possibly the worst treatment of the subject I’ve encountered. It’s flat-out erroneous for the most part, and he uses technical terms like unrounding in a way that makes it clear he’s guessing at what they mean”).

  6. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    Here in the U.S. “mazel tov” is transliterated from the Hebrew characters with an “a” in “mazel.” (Of course, I haven’t seen every use). The pronunciation here is always “mazel” to rhyme with “nozzle,” and “tov,” to rhyme with “doff.”

  7. Marc Leavitt says:

    Sorry. I meant an “e.”

  8. Stan says:

    Alex: I appreciate the recommendation – it sounds like a fun and interesting book.

    Hat: Thank you for for the additional thoughts, and the helpful link.

    Marc: Mazel appears to be the usual spelling, but mazal is quite common too.

  9. alexmccrae1546 says:

    languagehat,

    I concede that I may have been a tad overly effusive in my praise of Michael Wex’s “Born To Kvetch”, so thanks for kind of balancing the ‘critical’ ledger, in a sense, w/ the link to your related article (and attendant comments) from back in 2007.

    Your blogger Ben’s harsh assessment of Wex’s alleged misinformed, dare I say sloppy, and outright erroneous take on Yiddish dialects that you earlier quoted at length, I have to accept as essentially a valid criticism, since this is an area of linguistics where my experience, and expertise amounts to zilch, bupkes….. well you get my drift.

    I did find some of blogger Ben’s follow-up comments re/ Wex’s personal challenges growing up a Canadian jew in the Hasidic Jewish tradition, and further, enduring many difficult years of financial and creative struggle (pointing out that he worked as a janitor in Montreal for a time), as rather mean-spirited in tone, if not intent. Just my opinion.

    I did, however, appreciate Ben’s recommendation of other books on the subject of Yiddish, especially coming from an avowed bona fide Yiddish academic/ scholar. (I basically have no reason to doubt him.)

    I imagine I was initially drawn to Wex’s matter-of-fact, ‘kvetchy’-style humor, and his ambitious attempt to cover most aspects of the broad sweep of Yiddish tradition; its linguistic idioms, pet names, and prophetic phrases—-its almost fatalistic take on mankind’s inevitable mortality.

    Life can be a joy, or a burden….. and everything else, in between.
    The true Yiddish practitioner realizes that to complain about one’s lot in life is living proof that one is still alive and kicking. What’s not to complain about?

    Kvetching, turns out, may be good therapy for the soul.

    As an aside, IMHO, it’s no accident that so many of our greatest humorists and standup comedians of our generation are Jewish; many firmly anchoring their comedic schtick in the Yiddish humorist tradition.

    The likes of Larry David, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers, Rosanne Barr, and Robin Williams cut their teeth in comedy admiring the likes of Jack Benny, Milton Berle, George Burns, Henny Youngman, Sid Ceaser, the Marx Bros. who came before them, and kind of set the template for American comedy going forward.

    Many of the early pioneers of comedy got their start in the waning days of live vaudeville, which was heavily influenced by the Yiddish style of humor, and theatrical performance.

    And so it goes.

  10. languagehat says:

    I concede that I may have been a tad overly effusive in my praise of Michael Wex’s “Born To Kvetch”

    I hope it didn’t seem that I was implying any such thing! I liked the book very much myself, and so did Ben — he was just pointing out something it didn’t do well (let’s face it, perfection is hard!). And the follow-up comments you didn’t care for weren’t by Ben, they were by zaelic (whose blog is sheer delight), and I think you may have been misinterpreting him — he’s a big-hearted, empathetic guy (and I don’t say that just because he sent me a kucsma), and I’m quite sure he was saying those things in affection and with no mean-spiritedness.

  11. languagehat says:

    Er, I meant “follow-up comment,” not “comments” — he only left one.

  12. alexmccrae1546 says:

    languagehat,

    I apologize for misappropriating comments from your article re/ Michael Wex’s personal background to blogger Ben, in my last post. (Sorry Ben, if you’re out there.)

    It was actually blogger ‘zaelic”, on April 9th of 2007, who made what I felt were slightly snide, mean-spirited comments re/ Wex’s at-times problematic career arc. (Specifically, the janitorial bit.)

    However, in revisiting your April 2007 article, I confirmed that blogger Ben did offer up a later post where he recommends three credible scholarly Yiddish language tomes to your readers.

    Really, no biggie.

  13. limr says:

    ‘Mazel tov’ is pretty common here in New York, where it’s also sometimes shortened to just ‘mazel’. A lot of Yiddish expressions are familiar to us in this area: we schlep our stuff, complain about putzes and laugh at a big schnoz. It is possibly why I’ve never had an issue with “I could care less,” which some insist just has to be said “I couldn’t care less.” But add a question intonation, a shoulder shrug, and start with an interrogative, and it makes perfect sense: “What, I could care less?”

    The discussion about ‘schlimazel’ was also quite interesting, though I confess that I can’t hear or read that word without thinking of the opening sequence of ‘Laverne and Shirley’

    I did start some research a while back (pesky teaching distracted me!) on what influence Yiddish has had on American (maybe just NY?) English and picked up Wex’s book but it didn’t grab me. Not sure if it was the fault of the book or if it just wasn’t the right book for me at the time. I’m happy to see the other suggestions in the comments on languagehat’s post.

  14. Stan says:

    limr: I love that reanalysis of “I could care less”! (The phrase doesn’t bother me either, because I don’t expect rigorous logic from language.) Yiddish expressions aren’t used much in my neck of the woods, but they’re familiar enough from TV and film. I’d never encountered Laverne and Shirley before, so thanks for sharing the video.

  15. the ridger says:

    I just recently saw The Footnote (an Israeli film), and I was struck by everyone’s pronouncing “mazel tov” with the stress on ZEL – rhyming, more or less, with “bell”.

  16. Stan says:

    Karen: I don’t think I’ve ever heard it spoken that way, though I assume it’s the norm in some contexts. I didn’t even know about the variation until I researched the phrase. Wikipedia has a note on this.

  17. […] Carey explained the interstellar etymology of mazel tov, the word fell, and reflected on the reflexive, themself. Fritnancy’s words of the week were […]

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