Thanks to its frequent coupling with oy, gevalt (sometimes transliterated as gevald, which reflects Yiddish spelling rather than pronunciation) is among the most popular words in Yiddish. Oy gevalt can mean anything from “Heavens above” to “Oh, damn,” “Fantastic,” “Far freakin’ out,” or “I’m about to reach a climax,” and is probably second only to oy vey as the Yiddish phrase best-known to people who don’t speak the language. I still treasure the memory of a friend shaking his head in wonderment and yelling, “Gevalt, Jimi!” after a particularly blistering solo at a 1968 Hendrix concert.
Gevalt itself means “force” or “violence”; something done mit gevalt is done violently or with force. Gevalt comes to mean “a cry for help,” “a scream,” and also becomes the actual word for “cry for help.” Someone yelling “Gevalt” can be taken as hollering “Scream!” somewhat like a character in a highly self-conscious comic; to go one step further, though, and say gevalt geshrign, “gevalt has been screamed; a hue and cry is being raised” is to cross over to either the prissiness of “land sakes” or the slight vulgarity of “Jesus H. Christ.”
The adjective gevaldik means “vast, mighty, powerful”; it’s in frequent use in Orthodox English to mean “great, fantastic, excellent”: “she gave a gevaldik talk on the need for increased modesty.” “He’s a gevaldik cook.”
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week. Below are some items for sale from eBay for those of you with an interest in Yiddish.