Arvid Mahankali, an eighth-grader from Queens, NY, won the contest spelling k-n-a-i-d-e-l, a Yiddish term for a dumpling, usually called a “matzoh ball.” It’s usually served in chicken soup, especially on Passover. Some people like their knaidlach (plural) small and firm, some like them big and fluffy, and there are at least as many different recipes and techniques for making them as there are ways of spelling their name. Although Arvid had never tasted a matzoh ball, he spelled the word correctly according to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the authority for the National Spelling Bee.
The thing that struck me funny was that there is no one correct spelling of the word! Why have it on the list of words challenging young spellers? Since “knaidel” is a transliteration of a Yiddish word, it can be spelled in English according to one’s pronunciation of the Yiddish word and one’s determination of which letters of the English alphabet best make the appropriate Yiddish sound. Hence, it could be spelled kneydl, knaydl, kneidel, knaydel, knadel, knaidle, or knaidel (the last example being how Arvid --and Webster’s Third--spell it.) Using Hebrew letters, the Yiddish word would have just one spelling! This is true of many transliterated words, particularly words containing sounds that don’t quite match sounds of English letters, notably the breathy guttural “ch” sound, as in “Bach,” where the “ch” sound is not the soft sound of “chicken” or “choose” or the “k” sound of “Christmas” or “school.” For people who have trouble with that guttural “ch” sound, it’s easier to pronounce it as an “h.” The Jewish winter holiday, traditionally transliterated as “Chanukah,” now is often transliterated as “Hanukkah,” and there are several other acceptable spellings of the word in English.
“Chutzpah” is another commonly used Yiddish “ch” word , often spelled “hutzpah,” which I wrote about in my earlier column about Yinglish. “Chozzerai” is another. It derives from the Yiddish word “chazzer,” which means ”pig,” and is used to describe food that is awful, merchandise that is cheap and poorly made, or anything that is junk, trashy, or even disgusting. “If you want to be healthy, nosh on a carrot or some celery instead of that chozzerai you’re eating!” “Oy, that piece of chozzerai must have come from the dollar store.” A kinder, gentler “ch” word is “challah,” the braided egg bread served traditionally on the Sabbath and holidays. It’s more easily pronounced “hallah” but is delicious either way it’s spelled.
I’ll close with one last “ch” word, based on the Hebrew word “chai” which means “life.” According to the Hebrew system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase, the two Hebrew letters making up the word “chai” add up to 18, which is thus regarded by many as a lucky number. People often “give chai” -- gifts and donations of money in multiples of 18, representing wishes for a good life. Some people wear jewelry with the Hebrew symbol for “chai,” as a good luck charm. (No rabbits have been harmed to make this good luck charm!) Names derived from “chai” include Chaya and Chaim, which mean ”living thing” (and may be spelled various ways). “Chai” is also the generic word for life-giving tea in India and many parts of the world, often pronounced with a “sh” sound rather than the gutteral “ch” or hard “k” sound. Perhaps the best known “ch” word is the toast, "l’chaim,” which means "to life," frequently used when celebrating happy occasions such as holidays, birthdays, weddings, births, graduations, winning the lottery. “L’chaim” (or “l’chayim”) is familiar to most people from the rousing song in “Fiddler on the Roof.” I close with a toast to all my readers—L’chaim, and a happy, healthy, joyous summer.