Pssst! Wanna know a juicy secret? Get this: The most well-known Yiddish word describing women doesn’t mean what we think it does. I’m no linguist, but after spending a little time on several authoritative Yiddish dictionaries, I’m convinced that this ubiquitous, pejorative term — Yente — has very little to do with gossip. Instead, it appears to have everything to do with vulgarity, and may even have roots that are downright dirty.
Of course, words change and evolve over time, especially in Yinglish considering almost nobody speaks the original tongue anymore. Take, for example, the Yiddish verb “shmuesn,” which means, literally, to converse — no implied brown-nosing or hidden agendas. In Yinglish, “to schmooze” means something altogether different. So it goes with “Yente.” The word probably entered the truly mainstream vernacular with the meddling Molly Picon matchmaker character in the 1971 film adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof.” But before that, humorist Jacob Adler wrote a decades-long column in the Forward featuring a character named “Yente.”
These uses refer to women named Yente, but somewhere along the line, the name took hold as a female adjective. Sure, some men co-opt the term: Larry David called Ted Danson a “yente” in the sixth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” If you’re anything like me, you grew up with your parents admonishing you (but not your little brother) not to “be such a yente” when your endless curiosity about their adult conversations got annoying. At the same time, the public park where my retired Holocaust-survivor grandparents hung out and played card games with their gabby friends was known as “the yente center (centeh?).”