On the latest episode of the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, I take a look at a classic Yiddishism: kibitz, which can mean “make unwanted comments (as a spectator at a card game),” or something more general like “chitchat.” While it’s a word with a rich history, its origins are ultimately mysterious.

One thing we can say for sure is that the verb kibitz and the noun kibitzer (“one who kibitzes”) entered American English from Yiddish speakers in the early 20th century. Yosef Tunkel, a Yiddish writer from Belarus, came to the U.S. and published a humorous journal caled Der kibitser in 1909 and 1910. And 1910 is also the earliest I’ve found for the use of the word in English:

At a beer saloon on the East Side, which has a clubroom annex, where skat and pinochle are the chief attractions, but where visitors who are not satisfied with playing the silent part of “kibitz” discuss intricate problems in science, religion, politics and statecraft, a placard was posted yesterday showing a rampant ram and this legend in German: “Theodore Roosevelt is on time for everything. He will reach Germany in the bock beer season and will drink bruderschaft with the Kaiser in —- beer. Prosit!”
New York Tribune, May 13, 1910

In this early usage, kibitz is clearly associated with observers at card games (skat and pinochle), though curiously here the “kibitz” here is “silent” (at least compared to the animated discussion going on away from the card tables).

Another interesting early example from the same newspaper shows how kibitz developed as a verb. In a 1916 column by Montague Glass (a Jewish writer originally from Manchester, England), the fictional characters Zapp and Birsky discuss the real-life heavyweight fight between Jess Willard and Frank Moran at Madison Square Garden, and how it was attended by doctors, lawyers, and even judges of the New York Supreme Court:

“I leave it to you, Zapp, if a judge of the Supreme Court enjoys such things, it’s a whole lot more bekovet [dignified] for him to go to a hospital and kibbitz an operation, Zapp, and then if the poor feller gets covered with blood, nebich, he’s anyhow under ether and nobody is going to shout: ‘Ataboy, Professor Doctor von Schlachthaus! Eat him up! You’ve got him groggy!'”
New York Tribune, Apr. 16, 1916

But kibitz and kibitzer didn’t start to get popular in the U.S. until 1929, with a Broadway comedy in 1929 called “The Kibitzer.” The star of the play (and its co-author) was a young Jewish actor whose family had moved to New York from Bucharest, Romania: Emmanuel Goldenberg, or as he was known by his new stage name, Edward G. Robinson.

Robinson played Lazarus, a talkative cigar store owner who gives unwelcome advice to card players who gather at his store every night to play pinochle. The play was made into a film in 1930, but with the role of Lazarus played by another Jewish actor, Harry Green, as Robinson wasn’t yet a bankable star. And whle the title was changed to “The Busybody” in the U.K., in the U.S. the studio, Paramount, kept the Yiddish-inflected title.

In his book In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture, Ted Merwin tells of how Paramount circulated a press sheet to explain to movie theaters how to promote it. “To millions of persons this word as yet means nothing,” the press sheet read. “That’s why it is a wow title, for a full meaning of the term is only realized after the public has seen the picture.” The studio publicists said the movie “will make the American people kibitzer-conscious,” and ultimately it did.

Interestingly, the studio suggested that theaters run contests for the best definitions of kibitzer, and they enlisted well-known entertainers to pitch in with their own defining. As Merwin writes:

Among the wacky celebrity definitions printed in the press sheet are those of Zeppo Marx (“A kibitzer is every one of my uncles”), Groucho Marx (“A kibitzer is a fellow who eats canned corn”), Fredric March (“A kibitzer is the helpful person who offers to hold your coat while you whip that truck driver who cut in ahead of you”), and Fay Wray (“A kibitzer is the man who dodges taking you to the night clubs because he says he doesn’t dance”).

Perhaps this open-ended semantic campaign helped kibitz and kibitzer expand their meaning in American English. But the original usage in Yiddish was more closely tied to that stereotypical image of the nosy onlooker at a card game. The 1925 edition of Alexander Harkavy’s Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary (which also happens to be the earliest source for the interjection meh) includes entries for kibitz, kibitzen, and kibitzer with the following footnote (thanks to Ben Sadock for the translation):

From German Kiebitz, an annoying onlooker at a card game (actually a certain bird that typically takes over the nests of other kinds of birds). The Yiddish meaning apparently comes from the fact that onlookers at a game often amuse themselves at the players’ expense.

This explanation, from the German bird name kiebitz appears in many reference works, including many English dictionaries. In English, the bird is known as the lapwing, the plover, or the pewit. Pewit is onomatopoetic like kiebitz, imitative of the male bird’s shrill call during its loopy display flight.

In the 1945 supplement to The American Language, H.L. Mencken relays an account from a correspondent about how kibitz came from the German bird name. Back in the 1840s, a general in the old Austrian Army had a dog (perhaps a yappy little thing) named Kiebitz, named after the bird. That word got humorously applied to members of the Austrian staff corps under the general, as the line officers thought that the staff corps officers were merely onlookers. Then, supposedly, the “onlooker” sense moved from the Army to use in the cafés of Vienna.

While that story may be fanciful, it’s true that kibitz did show up in those Viennese hangouts shortly thereafter. A chess journal published in Vienna in 1855 talks about a gaping crowd of “kibitzen” watching chess matches at a popular café.

But the origins of kibitz get murkier still, since many scholars have suggested that the connection to the German bird name is actually a case of folk etymology. According to this thinking, kibitz comes from another word that happened to be similar to the bird name Kiebitz, and because of that similarity, people assumed there must be a connection (just as, for instance, asparagus changed to sparrow grass in some English dialects with speakers assuming a connection to sparrows and grass).

Instead of Kiebitz, the source of kibitz may in fact be a word from the German criminal argot known as Rotwelsch or Gaunersprache. In this jargon, the word Kiewisch had the meaning of “inspection” or “search.” This in turn comes from an older form of Western Yiddish (a fertile source for the Rotwelsch lexicon), and the Yiddish word may ultimately be derived from Hebrew.

That original Hebrew root, it has been suggested, is the noun kibush, which literally means “oppression.” It’s not entirely clear how that might have given rise to the German thieves’ jargon Kiewisch, but once it got the meaning of “inspection,” that word (as a noun or verb) has been documented in such seamy contexts as petty hustlers checking each other out to make sure they weren’t ripping each other off.

From there, it’s not a big step to see how Kiewisch could also be used in a card game to refer to someone sneaking a peek over a card player’s shoulders, and from there to pesky onlookers in general. And as Kiewisch became kibitz, that onomatopoetic bird name Kiebitz might have played a role in shaping the word through folk etymology.

So the circuitous route may well have gone from Hebrew to Western Yiddish to German criminal slang to more common German use, all before the word got picked up by the Eastern European Yiddish speakers who enriched the American English idiom. We may never know the true etymology, but that won’t stop word lovers from kibitzing about it.