Dictionary.com

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.

Mazel Tov

Though mazel tov can literally be translated as “good fortune” or “good luck,” the phrase is not used in Yiddish the same way as “good luck.” Whereas “good luck” expresses a wish that something will turn out well, mazel tov is a recognition that something good has already occurred—much more like “congratulations” along with “thank goodness.”

The Yiddish mazel tov derives from Hebrew words meaning a constellation of good stars and destiny.

As Leo Rosten noted in his classic, The Joys of Yiddish, “Don’t ‘mazel tov!’ a man going into the hospital; say ‘mazel tov!’ when he comes out. Do not say ‘mazel tov!’ to a fighter entering a ring (it suggests you are congratulating him for having made it to the arena), or a girl about to have her nose bobbed (which would mean ‘and about time, too!’).”

Mazel tov first appeared in an English publication in the late fifteenth century, though at that point, the spelling of this transliteration had not yet been standardized.

This Yiddish phrase and others were absorbed into American English as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe established homes throughout the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, The Industrial Removal Office, created in 1901 as part of the Jewish Agricultural Society, worked to relocate people from New York’s Lower East Side to communities around the country. Possibly as a result, instances of the phrase mazel tov in English publications surged in the early 1900s.

Popular References:

Mazel Tov Cocktail, Movie (2007)

“I Gotta Feeling,” Black Eye Peas, Song (2009). Contains the lyrics “Fill up my cup, mazel tov!”

“Tevye’s Dream,” Fiddler on the Roof, Song (1964). Contains a chorus of deceased ancestors singing “Mazel Tov” repeatedly.

Relevant Quotations:

“The atmosphere and even the ring was Chinese, with the possible exception of the Mazel-tov which was in the purest Yiddish as most of the friends of the bride could not find out how to render Mazeltov in Chinese.”

The Reform Advocate: America’s Jewish Journal, Volume 37, Issue 4 (1909)

“Suddenly Rebbe Hersh hose, removed his white kaftan, and wrapping it around the Maggid’s shoulders, wished him mazel tov, mazel tov, congratulations. After a moment of surprised silence, all those present joined in approvingly: Mazel tov, mazel tov, may the good star accompany our new leader.”

—Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters (1982)

Sources:

From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America, A Library of Congress Exhibition

“Jews in England,” Once a Week, Volume 7. Edited by Eneas Sweetland Dallas, 1862

13 Comments

  1. dominic -  February 21, 2013 - 9:27 pm

    @morgan:
    …..Yiddish is the same as Hebrew, but in the Hebrew/Yiddish language

    Reply
  2. Victoria -  February 21, 2013 - 6:31 pm

    I love dictionary.com….but they should do different fonts to get people to actually think “Wow! Look at this font it looks fun to read!” instead of “Wow! THIS looks like a lot of words and is very booooorrrrrringggg!” Doesn’t anyone else feel this way? Cause there IS some interesting facts in some of these paragraphs!

    Reply
  3. harry -  February 21, 2013 - 12:50 pm

    @morgan, from Wikipedia:

    While the words mazal (or mazel in Yiddish; “luck” or “fortune”) and tov (“good”) are Hebrew in origin, the phrase is of Yiddish origin, and was later incorporated into Modern Hebrew.

    Reply
  4. Dr. OutreAmour -  February 21, 2013 - 8:02 am

    Or as we say when things don’t go well: Tough Mazel

    Reply
  5. Julia -  February 20, 2013 - 5:27 pm

    I’m Jewish and I love using this word! Its soooooo funny to hear people say it! Mazel Tov!

    Reply
  6. dodod -  February 20, 2013 - 4:03 pm

    yeah that could be true

    Reply
  7. MAZEL-TOV | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  February 20, 2013 - 8:13 am

    [...] ‘Mazel-Tov’ – We’ve had enough — Congratulations withholding — Humorous without the fuss — All in the Good Nature of scolding — Good Luck, Good Wishes, Good Fortune, Good Will — Under the guise of Good Hunting until — The irony unnoticed Be Still. — Asimov, Nabokov — Mazel-Tov. –>>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD on February 20, 2013 by LTRhyme. [...]

    Reply
  8. Zach... -  February 20, 2013 - 7:51 am

    I found this article very interesting. You learn something new every day!

    Reply
  9. Ali Semchuck -  February 19, 2013 - 5:22 pm

    A literal translation is “luck good.” Mazel means “luck” in Yiddish and “tov” means good. So the adjective comes after the noun.

    Reply
  10. Kean -  February 19, 2013 - 8:47 am

    Of course it is a stupid antisemitic joke Not acceptable But actually it was well known in Poland among Poles too who lived next door to Jewish community like in Leslau where nationality meant nothing just good neighbourhood. Comparison between mine and my mom’s generation sis quite shocking, isnt’t it?

    Reply
  11. Kean -  February 19, 2013 - 8:39 am

    You/re wrong It means go through the chimney very quickly [resource: Eichmann: 1944]

    Reply
  12. morgan -  February 19, 2013 - 3:31 am

    its hebrew not yiddish

    Reply
  13. Mark L. Levinson -  February 19, 2013 - 12:35 am

    Also, it’s best not to say mazel tov to a bride because it would imply that for her, managing to find a husband is a noteworthy achievement.

    Reply

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