Recently, someone on Quora asked „How did the phrase “oy vey” become popularized in the USA?“ This sent me scrambling for my well-leafed copy of Leo Rosten’s wonderful book, Joy of Yiddish, which is the penultimate guide to the variety and vitality of the language and special culture of the Jews, their distinctive style of thought, and their subtleties of feeling. Published in 1968, the book contains a whole chapter devoted to the word oy!
The exclamation point, he claimed, is part of the spelling.
Oy is not a word; it is a vocabulary, he writes. It is uttered in as many ways as the utterer’s histrionic ability permits. It is a lament, a protest, a cry of dismay, a reflex of delight. For him, however sighed, cried, howled, or moaned, oy! is the most expressive and ubiquitous exclamation in Yiddish.
Oy is an expletive, an ejaculation, a threnody [dirge], a monologue. It may be employed to express anything, from ecstasy to horror, depending on (a) the catharsis desired by the utterer, (b) the effect intended on the listener, (c) the protocol of affect that governs the intensity and duration of emotion required (by tradition) for the given occasion or crisis.
Oy is often used as a leadoff for “oy vay”, which means, literally, “oh pain,” but is used as an all-purpose ejaculation to express anything from trivial delight to abysmal woe. Oy vay! is the short form for “oh vay iz mir!” (pronounced “oy VAY iz mere”), an omnibus phrase for everything from personal pain to emphatic condolence. (Vay comes from the German Weh, meaning “woe.”)
Oy is also used in duet form, oy-oy! or in a resourceful trio: oy-oy-oy! The individual oys! can play varying solo roles, to embellish subtleties of feeling: thus OY!oy-oy, or oy, oy, OY! OY-oy! can mean “And how!”
It is worth noting that oy! is not ai!, and runs a decidedly different gamut of sensibilities. Ai! is also used in tandem (“ai-ai!”) and à trois, as the French, no novitiates in the “ai-ai-ai!” stakes would put it.
As for the difference between oy! and ah!, there is (naturally) a saying to illustrate the distinction:
“When you jump into cold water you cry ‘oy!’ then, enjoying it, say ‘a-aah.’ When you commit a sin, you revel in the pleasure, ‘a-ah’; then, realizing what you have done, you cry ‘oy!’”
Oy, accordingly, can be used to express:
- Simple surprise. “When she saw me, she said, ‘Oy, I didn’t expect you!’”
- Startledness. “She heard a noise and exclaimed, ‘Oy! Who’s there?’”
- Small fear. “Oy! It could be a mouse!”
- Minor sadness (sighed). “When I think of what she went through, all I can say is o-oy.” (Note the oy prolonged to indicate how sensitive one is of the troubles of others.)
- Contentment. “Oy, was that a delicious diner!”
- Joy. “Oy, what a party!”
- Euphoria. “Was I happy? Oy! I was dancing on air!”
- Relief, reassurance. “Oy, now I can sleep.”
- Uncertainty. “What should I do? Oy, I wish I knew.”
- Apprehension. “Maybe he’s sick? Oy!”
- Awe. “He came back alive yet? Oy!”
- Astonishment. “Oy gevalt, how he has changed.”
- Indignation. “Take it away from me. Oy!”
- Irritation. “Oy, is that some metsieh!”
- Irony. “Oy, have you got the wrong party!”
- Pain (moderate). “Oy, it hurts.”
- Pain (serious). “Oy, Gottenyu!”
- Revulsion. “Feh! Who could eat that? O-oy!”
- Anguish. “I beg you, tell me! Oy!”
- Dismay. “Oy, I gained ten pounds!”
- Dispair. “It’s hopeless, I tell you! Oy!”
- Regret. “Him, we have to invite? Oy!”
- Lamentation. “Oy, we cried our eyes out.”
- Shock. “What? Her? Here? Oy!”
- Outrage. “That man will never set foot in this house so long as I live. Oy!”
- Horror. “— — married a dwarf? Oy, gevalt!”
- Stupification. “My own partner? . . . o-o-oy!”
- Flabbergastation. “Who ever heard of such a thing? Oy! I could plotz!”
- At-the-end-of-one’s-wittedness, or I-can’t-stand-any-more. “Get out! Leave me alone! O–O-O-o-o-oy!
Mrs. Fishbein’s phone rang.
Hul-lo,” a cultivated voice intoned, “I’m telephoning to ask whether you and your husband can come to a tea for Lady Windermere – – “
“Oy”, cut in Mrs. Fischbein, “have you got a wrong number!”