Kibitzing chess players and editors

After a binge of Ed McBain books a few months ago – they often touch on linguistic topics – this week I picked another of his 87th Precinct series off the unread shelf: Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man (1973). It uses a form of the Yiddish word kibitz twice in short succession:

In the April sunshine four fat men sit at a chess table in the park across the street from the university. All four of the men are wearing dark cardigan sweaters. Two of the men are playing chess, and two of them are kibitzing, but the game has been going on for so many Sundays now that it seems almost as though they are playing four-handed, the players and the kibitzers indistinguishable one from the other.

Kibitz is a handy word that means to watch someone do something (normally a game, often cards) and offer unwelcome advice. It can also simply mean to chat or joke around. The word entered English almost a century ago via multiple languages, thieves’ cant, and ornithological onomatopoeia. This delightful etymology is summarised at Etymonline:

1927, from Yiddish kibitsen “to offer gratuitous advice as an outsider,” from German kiebitzen “to look on at cards, to kibitz,” originally in thieves’ cant “to visit,” from Kiebitz, name of a shore bird (European pewit, lapwing) with a folk reputation as a meddler, from Middle High German gibitz “pewit,” imitative of its cry.

At this point I would normally offer some general comments about the word, but Stuart Brown got there first and put it perfectly at his blog A Progressive Rake, in a recent post on the Yiddish loan-words kvetch, klutz, and kibitz:

The consonant conjuncts they offer are meaty and enjoyable, and they seem to have an pleasurable specificity in meaning: providing that satisfying feeling of having found exactly the right term that you required. But the problem with them, as a Brit, is lack of exposure. . . . Consequentially I only use a few of them, and then with care, because for many I am uncertain of precisely those specifics of inference that I so relish. This is a shame, because I would love to have a few Yiddish epithets that I could apply to myself.

Ditto from this Irishman, who knows bupkes about most Yiddishisms.

Updates: More discussion of the history and use of kibitz at Language Hat. And I read another example in Lawrence Block’s The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza this week; the narrator is describing the scene in Washington Square: ‘Chess players advanced pawns while kibitzers shook their heads and clucked their tongues.’

Lawrence Block again, in A Long Line of Dead Men: ‘There were three men on the stoop she’d pointed to, two of them playing checkers, the third kibitzing their game. The kibitzer was drinking a can of Miller’s.’


14 Responses to Kibitzing chess players and editors

  1. Stuart Brown says:

    An interesting point, which I didn’t cover on that post to keep it short, is whether these words seem so specific in their meanings precisely because they are loans. That is, do they have the very detailed nuances when spoken in Yiddish?

    Kibitz certainly has shifted in meaning and become far more specific in American English: it apparently has none of the interfering connotations within Yiddish, it simply means something along the lines of (good-humoured) small-talk.

    It seems reasonable to presume that most languages have fairly generic terms for most things they need to talk about, and that these may block the uptake of loan words with the same scope. The question is: are these generic words in Yiddish, which have become specialized during the borrowing process, or are they borrowed precisely because they have detailed meanings which (in a Meaning of Liff fashion) we really could do with words for in English?

    Both events seem quite plausible to me: semantic-focusing-due-to-borrowing and borrowing-due-to-semantic-focus. There’s no reason to presume that only one mechanism occurs: as I say, kibitz seems to be the former, but the borrowing of the German Schadenfreude, for instance, I think is clearly as case of the latter.

  2. cynthiamvoss says:

    Interesting! I have heard kibitzing used to mean chatting. I love the added meaning of offering unwanted advice or meddling. It’s fun to learn there is more to it.

  3. Mixed Messages says:

    I have only heard it used. In terms of watching a game of bridge (without advice or chat).

    It was regularly used – and still is as I understand.

  4. John Cowan says:

    Indeed, it’s commonplace for borrowings to be more highly colored in the target language. Spanish sombrero means ‘hat of any sort’, but in English the word means ‘traditional Mexican hat’. A shmok in Yiddish is just a prick, literal or figurative, without any of the special flavor it has in English.

  5. My first — and, until this year, only — encounter with the word “kibitz” was the following joke, which I read in a Reader’s Digest years ago:

    I have no idea how famous that joke is, but I assume anything I read in an old Reader’s Digest has been around. It’s unusual for a written joke in that the punchline is pure situational comedy (not wordplay or anything else). Its relevance to the topic of invented words should also be noted.

    I didn’t know what a kibitzer actually *was* until @lynneguist tweeted about it on 13 January of this year. (On seeing your blog post I knew I’d seen a discussion of the word not too long ago, because I remember looking up the joke in response to it, but couldn’t remember where. So I searched my browser archive and found Lynne’s tweet.)

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    Kibitzing has always meant offering helpful advise to someone involved in a competitive game, in my experience from the States. This is why people would declare “no kibitzing” to any who might attempt it. I’ve never known it to mean to chat or offering good-humored small talk. This is from my experience growing up in the Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, PA.

  7. Stan Carey says:

    Stuart, John: That’s a really interesting question, Stuart, though I don’t know that it applies in the case of kibitz – as the Online Etymology Dict. notes, kibitsen in Yiddish means ‘to offer gratuitous advice as an outsider’, which is already pretty specific. My gloss of the word’s other sense as ‘to chat’ was also a bit simplified: in English it has the sense of joking and messing around to pass the time with someone (or as the OED puts it: ‘To chat, banter, or joke, freq. with a person; to behave in a lighthearted or informal manner, to fool around‘). Which, again, is particular in the kind of chatting it refers to. But John’s examples would seem to support your general observations about ‘semantic focusing due to borrowing’, and examples of the reverse type (e.g., Schadenfreude) are not difficult to find.

    Cynthia: Ah! I’m glad to hear a report of its other sense. Usually when I encounter the word it’s in reference to the game-interference use.

    Mixed Messages: Bridge is quite popular in Ireland, so for all I know kibitz may have some currency in those circles here.

    Adrian: That’s a better joke than I was expecting. It doesn’t rely on wordplay, as you say, but I find there is some mild humour in the sound of the invented words themselves, which are quite Roald Dahl-esque.

    Charles: The interfering-in-a-game sense is the one most familiar to me, and then only indirectly, via books and so on; I’ve never heard it spoken in Ireland. But the ‘chat, banter’ sense is noted by the major dictionaries (and I’ve encountered it occasionally, e.g., in Portnoy’s Complaint), so I wanted to include it too.

    • Stuart Brown says:

      Ah, I may have misread my sources, as I thought that the Yiddish form was the jokey, conversational sense and that the gratuitous advice sense was Am. Eng. I shall have to check up!

  8. I could be wrong, but I have never heard kibitz to mean offering unwanted advice, and 3 of my 4 grandparents were from Poland/Russia, Yiddish was their first language. My parents were both born here (US), but my mother’s first language was Yiddish. A propos of nothing, she used to drag me and my brother to the Yiddish theater in Manhattan like annually, though we understood almost nothing. Yiddish was used as a “secret language” and we were never taught it and it was almost never spoken directly to us. My 4th grandparent was born in Boston. All my grandparents spoke perfectly good (if somewhat accented) English. However, kibitz just meant to kid around, joke around, fool around, goof off or goof around (like my father would tell us to stop kibitzing around and do our homework or chores). I looked it up and I see where online dictionaries say it means to offer unwanted advice, but I would have to ask someone who speaks Yiddish to verify if it is/was used that way. It may have been misinterpreted or may have evolved to take on that (additional) meaning, and here I am referring to where Charles Sullivan says people declared “no kibitzing.” Serious bingo players, die-hard golfers, etc, do not want people idly chattering around them, whether offering advice to players or anything else. So they would not appreciate idle chatter or joking around and may very well have said “no kibitzing” as a way to tell people to keep quiet in general. I will have to find out more, and if I have the time and patience (and memory), I will post another comment here. The only reason I am saying anything is that if people think it means “to offer unwanted advice,” they may be offended by someone telling them to stop kibitzing, when in fact it may be meant harmlessly in a sort of coaxing way to say “let’s stop fooling around and get down to business,” or “let’s stop joking around and get serious.” It is not the kind of word that is said in a mean or offensive way; it is fairly lighthearted and conciliatory.

  9. Vinetta Bell says:

    Stan: I take from this wonderful discussion that denotation and connotation waltz through the history of word usage for many (if not most) languages.

  10. Stan Carey says:

    bluebird: It seems to have both meanings, perhaps with either one dominating in a given community or population. Thanks for your detailed take on its meaning and connotations. It did seem like a word suited to light-hearted use.

    Vinetta: That’s very nicely put.

  11. […] Kibitzing chess players and editors […]

  12. Paul Ogden says:

    I examined several German and Yiddish dictionaries and posted a longish response at Language Hat.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Interesting notes. Thanks, Paul. So far it seems that people who use the word do so in one or other of its main two senses – not both. But my dataset is small, so I don’t know to what extent that’s the case.

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