Oy! The word that says it all

By David Robson, March 14, 2014
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I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or because I write for the JC but I’m saying “oy” a lot more than I used to. It’s the world’s most useful syllable. For chanting Chasidim it’s a sort of substitute for the secular la-la-la-la — in songs where nobody’s bothered to write enough words. Or else it’s a way to help them get into religious-ecstatic mood: a thousand Chasidic oys equal one extended Buddhist “Om-m-m-m….”.

For me (and though it does me no credit I am not alone) it’s mostly a better, more acceptable surrogate for the f-word — an exclamation for moments of extreme surprise, shock, clumsiness, disappointment or pain, and indeed for moments of triumph. A single “oy” does justice to almost any crisis and every ecstasy. There’s no such thing as the double oy. But of course there is the triple oy — “oy-oy-oy” — reserved for when things go horribly wrong. Nobody ever used the triple oy to express joy – “we’ve won the pools – oy oy oy!” Even joyful intonation doesn’t turn three oys into three cheers.

A truly tragic long-drawn-out “o… o… o… y… y… y” can have the same force as any number of repetitions but there is something about tripling words that is undeniably impressive. I avoided the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! (actually about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour) because I feared it might be a harrowing account of endless Hebrew classes, to be followed by a sequel Talmud! Talmud! Talmud!

And here’s another thing about “oy”. Perhaps it’s indelicate to say it, but I like it because it’s a Yiddish expression that’s goy-proof (or g-oy-proof if you prefer). Take, by contrast, what’s happened to the word chutzpah. It’s been annexed by all and sundry, which is a chutzpah in itself, and it’s been reduced to hutzpah by people who couldn’t pronounce the letter chet even if it het them in the face, and employed to mean all sorts of things that it really doesn’t.

True, there is the non-Jewish yell that’s just an “Oi” as in “Oi you, put that down or I’ll give you a clip round the ear.” And here’s the crucial difference: “oi” is a yell directed at others, “oy” is an archetypal Jewish expression of misery directed towards nobody except the Almighty or almighty tsores.

We may pride ourselves on our love of words and long-winded analysis, on our penchant for philosophising and psychologising and complexities of the Jewish and indeed the human experience. But do we need all those millions of words? Couldn’t Freud just as well be spelt Froyd?

These two letters are all we need. “Oy” says it all, though some do gild the lily with “oy vey”. You may well know the joke about the Jew who got membership of a country club that didn’t accept Jews. His first visit was on a warm summer’s day.

He went down to the outdoor pool, which was surrounded by members sunbathing. He plunged straight in and was shocked by how cold the water was. When he surfaced he couldn’t stop himself letting out an impassioned “Oy vey!” Then, immediately realising his mistake, he hopelessly added “… whatever that means.”

Last updated: 11:45am, March 14 2014