Summer, when people who have been dragging themselves from exile to exile for nearly two thousand years inexplicably betake themselves to airports, where they seem surprised to find themselves chanting, almost compulsively davening, the Yiddish monosyllable of universal disapprobation—feh.

It means: “It stinks.”

Feh is not to be confused with its near relative, fnyeh, which means “nothing special, so-so,” but tending toward the wrong “so.” If someone asks, “How was the in-flight movie?” and you respond with fnyeh, you’re saying that while it might not have stunk, it was certainly no rose. What it was, is parve—not terribly good, not even terribly bad, with a slight but unmistakably unpleasant aftertaste—somewhat like most kosher airline food. Better than a trip to the dentist, but not so good that you’d hate yourself for dozing off at the climax.

Feh and fnyeh are generally accompanied by a dismissive wave of the hand, intended to help push the memory of the thing in question as far away from the mind’s eye as possible. The wrist, generally the right, bends until the fingertips are parallel to the floor, but only after the whole arm, starting from the shoulder, has been moved far enough to the left to bring the crook of the right elbow into line with your nose at precisely the second when the wrist goes down—as if you were forcing whatever you’re talking about into a very deep pit of oblivion.

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.

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