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.’