47

This question was motivated by an interesting comment that was made at https://academia.stackexchange.com/posts/comments/123681?noredirect=1

Part of Answer: I don't think that particular research team would be a healthy place for you. The guy behaved badly. You need an advisor you can trust to act like a mensch.

Interesting Comment: Your "be a mensch" comment might be a little localised for American English, I (as a British English / German speaker) wondered why you were telling them to "be a human" before realising it was probably a Yiddish import from the American Jewish community with the appropriate semantic shift.

(I was using it in the decent human being sense; I checked the Wikipedia List of English words of Yiddish origin, and mensch does appear, in case that's helpful.)

Is "act like a mensch" too localized for ELU readers? Please say which variety of English you speak: American, British, Indian etc.

-- Edited to add: I would also like to know if the context made it clear enough or if I should go back and edit the Answer over on Academia and avoid using the word in future.

(If the conclusion is yes, then I will write a separate question asking for alternatives. So, please, no alternatives here—thank you!)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this entire conversation has been moved to chat. – Andrew Leach Sep 10 '15 at 8:45
  • It appears to be a well-enough known word to have been used in an article on Yahoo: yahoo.com/travel/… – Daniel Sep 18 '15 at 13:04
  • 1
    The cited "Interesting Comment" surprises me. However they're counted, there are far more Jews in the US than the UK, and it accords with my personal experience that "Yiddishisms" are far more common in AmE than BrE. So if anything one might suppose that mensch would be "too localised" for Brits, not Americans. If I'm honest though, I always tend to assume any words like that have negative rather than positive associations, and I wouldn't use them myself anyway. – FumbleFingers Jun 7 '17 at 14:38
  • 2
    @aparente001: My profile does say I'm UK-based. You could probably guess that anyway, given that I'm currently promoting Charlie Brooker and Philomena Cunk in my profile (I suspect most Americans wouldn't even recognise their names, let alone their humour). I've encountered mensch many times, but it's not in my productive vocabulary, and I make little effort to remember the meaning of words like that. So if you'd asked me before it came up here I couldn't have told you the difference between a mensch and a putz, for example. – FumbleFingers Jun 8 '17 at 12:06
  • 1
    @Pharap - Thanks for the info. Make sure you vote for a "yes" answer! // I very much doubt you've never met anyone of Jewish cultural or ethnic background -- and you might even have met someone who practices the religion as well. It is often not obvious. – aparente001 Aug 26 '17 at 17:21

17 Answers 17

27

Nearly fifty years old, born in the UK, living in N. Italy for too many years, but a frequent visitor to the UK and Ireland: can't say I have never seen ‘mensch’ online, or that my mind exploded when I read the OP's sentence. By the way, should it be written with a capital letter?

In its proper context, the meaning of ‘mensch’ was easy enough to guess. But I'm used to guessing meanings: living in Italy there are so many different dialects, you have no choice but to develop a sense of intuition. I think this is a common characteristic among speakers of more than one or two languages.

However, if knowing its precise meaning of was of real importance, it's easy enough to look it up online. I would not recommend using this term in speech in the UK, unless you were sure your audience was familiar with the expression (and this holds true for the US as well), but it might be a handy trick in a presentation which is lagging pace; a humorous side-note added by the OP: "for the gentiles in the audience, ‘mensch’ is Yiddish for a person of honour". Said with a smile and a wink, it would be memorable.

UPDATE

I have just read the cited question on SE Academia, a very interesting read, and I would like to assure the OP that it would be impossible for any reader to interpret the Yiddish ‘mensch’ in his answer as being offensive or an insult. The context makes the meaning crystal clear, so I would advise the OP to not edit his answer. Moreover, the term is listed in Dictionary.com, one of the most visited online dictionaries, which hopefully dispels any worries that it is not acknowledged or accepted as being (also) English.

2nd UPDATE (Less than one year later)

The following was written by the ex-host of Top Gear, an Englishman called Chris Evans, for an article in the Mail Online (22:43 GMT, 9 July 2016)

Matt LeBlanc, Chris Evans, The Stig

The Top Gear gang are the most driven (forgive the pun) and dedicated I have ever worked with. There is nothing those guys won’t do to make every second of on-air content shine to its maximum potential.

Plus, I got to share the screen with Joey from Friends! May I just take a few lines to assure you what a total mensch and extreme petrolhead Matt LeBlanc is.

Which kinda proves that even Englishmen know the term and are confident enough to know how to use it correctly.

Link to The Guardian (for those who can't stomach the Daily Mail)

  • 2
    I believe capitalization is needed for German nouns but not for transliterations of Yiddish nouns. – aparente001 Sep 11 '15 at 3:48
  • This answer probably best captures the meaning in "modern" usage (since roughly the mid-1900s, when Yiddishisms started gaining broader exposure in the US). There is actually a bit of a range of meaning. M-W's definition is similar to yours, a person of integrity and honor. Dictionary.com has a broader definition that is also accurate: a decent, upright, mature, and responsible person. It can also have a meaning similar to the usage of "man" in a saying like "act like a man", or "be a man", or "man up"; i.e., to be responsible or brave, be willing to deal with a difficult situation. – fixer1234 Apr 25 '17 at 20:23
  • 1
    As an Englishman who has lived almost his whole (relatively young) life in the south of the country, I must say I've never encountered anyone using this term. We've imported a few Yiddish terms, most likely from the US, in recent decades, yet "mensch" doesn't appear to be one in remotely common use. Indeed, I would identify it with the German word for "man", and I suspect there are many more people who know the German meaning than the Yiddish one. – Noldorin Sep 20 '17 at 2:19
  • @Noldorin the Daily Mail and The Guardian are both British newspapers, Top Gear is a British TV programme, and Chris Evans is also British. They all seem to know what "mensch" means. The word will probably never become part of the spoken vernacular in the UK but the OP was concerned as to whether its meaning and use was too esoteric. I think it's safe to say that many British people will have heard or seen it in print at least once or twice. This was probably your first time :) – Mari-Lou A Sep 20 '17 at 11:17
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA, Sure, I'm familiar with all these things, but they're hardly bastions of authority, like the OED/ODE is (see my answer below). The people writing/speaking the word are decidedly exceptions to the norm, rather than the norm, in my experience. Probably watch too much American TV! – Noldorin Sep 20 '17 at 15:30
58

For me (native German speaker who spent some years working in England), this is exclusively an American word of Yiddish origin. I don't think I have ever heard this word in the UK or read it in British media. I would first assume it to be an allusion to Louise Mensch, who has been over the British media a lot in recent years. Sometimes German words are used in pretentious or sarcastic British English, as in "Herr Hitler" or "he likes to eat Wurst". This is the next interpretation I would try in a British context.

Mensch, though it sounded vaguely familiar as an American word, is sufficiently rare that I had to look it up for its precise sense. (The German sense is much more generic: man, human.)

Of course I don't know if native British English speakers have similar reactions.

But aren't you overdoing this? Two questions just to optimise the formulation of your original question?


PS: "Mensch", the established spelling as an English word, is actually the German spelling. The standard Yiddish spelling is of course in Hebrew letters, but the most common Latin transcription (YIVO) is "mentsh".

In German the word just means human (as a noun). The word is also used in German whenever English uses man in a way that includes women. Similar to the situation in English, Mensch and menschlich (the corresponding German adjective) are used in some contexts to imply the positive aspects of humanity related to solidarity between Mitmenschen (fellow humans). On the other hand, menschliche Schwächen (human foibles) are only menschlich (human), so in some contexts the negative aspects may be implied. In general there are gute Menschen (good men) and schlechte Menschen (bad men)

It appears that Yiddish (maybe especially Western Yiddish, which was spoken primarily in Germany?) basically shares the neutral or ambivalent nature of the word, but (maybe especially Eastern Yiddish?) gives more prominence to certain positive aspects. This may be due simply to culture (e.g. proverbs can have such an effect), or maybe Yiddish has a Hebrew word that competes with mentsh for the neutral meaning and thus makes it easier for it to shift.

Mensch as a loanword in English has completed this semantic shift in a way typical for loanwords. Since English already has words for the basic, neutral or ambivalent meaning, it has no use for anything but the special meaning. (Narrowed meanings like this are typical for loanwords. E.g. in Italian, a palazzo is just a big house - possibly an office building or an apartment building. The word gave rise to the loanword palazzo, which is even more specific than palace.)

If I understood it correctly, a mensch in English is a more or less ideal human, not according to Christian ideology - i.e. a saint, selfless - but in a much more pragmatic sense that reminds me of the Greek ideal of a balanced mind. (But without the physical aspects, which were equally important to ancient Greeks.)

43

As a native speaker of British English, I've never heard that phrase in my life and have no idea what it might mean. It's not a phrase I'd expect British people to understand, unless it's been used in one of the many American TV series that have been popular in the UK.

30

From my own experience, this is an idiom one can only use reliably in a diverse and cosmopolitan American milieu. I employ it with no hesitation if there are Jews present, because I am certain they will understand it. But educated people with a lot of multicultural awareness probably will as well.

It is not something one would be likely to use in, say, a Southern rural or blue-collar Northern gathering. But there is always a chance that media exposure will have enlightened a few.

26

As a native British-English speaker, who has lived in New Zealand for over 10 years, I have never heard this word before in either country.

I would say this is exclusively American-English, and probably only from certain big cities, as well. Its use is somewhat akin to my saying "I'm going to see the whanau" and expecting anyone outside New Zealand to understand me.

26

I'm an American from the south, and in contrast to other Americans who have answered, I've never heard that idiom before. I didn't have any clue what the word mensch was supposed to mean until after reading comments/answers here, and I still have to look it up to be actually sure what it means. I find it surprising that this is referred to as an Americanism, since this is my first exposure to the phrase.

I don't mean to discourage healthy use of the phrase, necessarily. In context, "I don't think that particular research team would be a healthy place for you. The guy behaved badly. You need an advisor you can trust to act like a mensch.", it is sufficiently obvious that you mean "act like a gentleman" to justify the usage in my opinion. I'm just surprised to see Europeans saying they think this phrase is common enough in America to consider it an Americanism.

  • Thanks for weighing in. Can you tell me whether the context ("I don't think that particular research team would be a healthy place for you. The guy behaved badly. You need an advisor you can trust to act like a mensch") was helpful? – aparente001 Sep 7 '15 at 1:37
  • 6
    Not the original poster, but as another American who has never heard that idiom, let me point out another issue that I'm suprised no one has mentioned (and maybe that's because it's just me). A similar term I _have_heard is Ubermensch, as in Nietzsche. Ignoring the Nazi-perversion aspects (and untermensch), given that I know Ubermensch can be translated as "Superman", I would have assumed mensch had more overtones of humbleness than I think you meant. – Foon Sep 7 '15 at 14:00
  • @Foon - I hope I didn't get too tangled up in the complex stuff at the end of your comment.... But a mensch is nothing if not humble. – aparente001 Sep 8 '15 at 4:04
  • 4
    @aparente001: I'm an American mid west city-dweller. I would have parsed mensch, in context, as a reference to Nietzsche's "Ubermensch" as well. My understanding of the sentence would have been "You need an advisor you can trust to act like (at least) a man (with a heavy subtext that you intentionally didn't choose to say act like a superman)". Thus, the meaning I attributed would have been closer to "they have to at least be decent to you". – Andrew Coonce Sep 8 '15 at 14:08
  • 4
    @aparente001: In short, unless there are lots of American Jews in a given region, I wouldn't expect a reader to understand "mensch"; context or otherwise. It's inappropriate for an utterance that's intended to be understood by a wider audience of unknown origins. – Andrew Coonce Sep 8 '15 at 14:10
24

I didn't become familiar with the term mensch until the 1970s, when I moved from Texas to the east coast (Maryland) for college. At the time I assumed that it was simply a regional term. However, the frequency of "a mensch" in Google Books search results suggests that the term's popularity in published writings has grown substantially since the 1950s. Here is the Ngram chart for "a mensch" (red line) and for "a real mensch" (blue line) for the period 1900–2005:

The Ngram results suggest that few occurrences of "a mensch" appeared in print prior to 1960—and indeed Google Books search results find no instances of "a mensch" as a Yiddish expression in an English-language text until the two that appear in the 1950s. The first occurrence is from Ignaz Maybaum, The Jewish Mission (1951):

Geiger's humanist imperative "Sei ein Mensch" (be truly human) meant what Mensch meant in the German language of the eleventh century, and what has been kept alive until to-day in the Yiddish word "Mensch". But the nineteenth-century German language derived the word Mensch from the enlightenment age which saw man only as homo sapiens and not as the child of God. To be a Mensch meant to Geiger to be merciful. Geiger's Jewish humanism is expressed in Micah's words: "It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, And what the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God" (VI, 8).

The second instance is from Philip Roth, "Epstein," in Goodbye Columbus: And Five Short Stories (1959):

Epstein opened his mouth. His tongue hung over his teeth like a dead snake.

"Don't you talk," his wife said. "Don't you worry about anything. Not even the business. That';; work out. Our Sheila will marry Marvin and that'll be that. You won't have to sell, Lou, it'll be in the family. You can retire, rest, and Marvin can take over. He's a smart boy, Marvin, a mensch."

Lou rolled his eyes in his head.

More than a dozen Google Books matches for mensch appear in English-language sources during the 1960s, and the numbers have continued to increase sharply in the decades since then.

Another measure of the increasing awareness (in U.S. English) of mensch is its inclusion, since the Ninth Collegiate (1983) in the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary series. This is significant because these dictionaries are by no means exhaustive in their inclusion either of new terms or of terms that are infrequently used. The Ninth Collegiate gives a surprisingly late first-occurrence date for the word in English:

mensch n {Yiddish, fr. G, man, human being, fr OHG mennisco; akin to ON mennska humanity} (1953) : a person of integrity and honor

But just as unexpectedly, the Eleventh Collegiate (2003), while retaining the Ninth Collegiate's etymology and definition, bumps back the first occurrence date almost a hundred years, to 1856.

In my view, mensch is rapidly becoming Americanized, which means that the advice to "act like a mensch" is more and more likely to be understood in parts of the United Sates outside its traditional strongholds of the Northeast and big cities. Hence we get un-self-conscious article ledes like this one from David Greenberg, "It's a Myth That Nixon Acquiesced in 1960" in the Los Angeles Times (November 10, 2000):

Despite thousands of contested ballots in Florida's Palm Beach County, a lot of people are calling on Al Gore to act like a mensch and concede the election to George W. Bush—as they contend Richard M. Nixon did in 1960 when he lost to John F. Kennedy amid rumors of fraud.

Many newspapers far from Los Angeles are signed up to share stories from the L.A. Times, so a story like this one is apt to be read by people in many parts of the country, exposing them to the phrase "act like a mensch."

Nevertheless, on the strength of other responses to this question, I would caution you not to expect mensch to travel well outside the United States into other parts of the English-speaking world.


UPDATE (11/26, 2016)

Early instances of 'a mensch' in English-language newspapers

I decided to supplement my original, Google Books–based answer with some research into early instances of "a mensch" from newspapers, using an Elephind search for that phrase. By far the earliest match for "a mensch" is from "Obituary: Felo de Se" in the [Lehighton, Pennsylvania] Carbon Advocate (April 28, 1877), a strangely jocular account of a suicide:

--"Who would ——— bear to grunt and sweat under a weary life, when he might his quietu make with a bare bodkin?" Such, probably, were the thoughts of Sebastian Mensch, of East Mauch Chunk, as he hurriedly left the breakfast table on last Saturday morning; only that he applied the muzzle of a gun to his mouth instead of driving the blade into his bosom. The effect was the same however, for within a few minutes from the time he had left the room, Sebastian had ceased to be a "Mensch." What beliefs he had, we know not, but suppose that, wearied and disgusted with life, he concluded that it were best for him his "quietus to make."He now sleeps the last sleep beneath the clods of the valley, in anticipation, let us hope of a brighter future. The cause and mode of his exit will, we hope be an admonition to others never to indulge in excess, nor to attempt the swallowing of a loaded gun. Requiescat in pace.

East Mauch Chunk is a real place, in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, which is a heavily ethnic German area. The "ceased to be a 'Mensch'" remark in the story arises only because of the dead man's name—but it seems clearly to be a play on the word mensch. The next four occurrences of mensch (ranging across a period from 1908 through 1955) are from a Jewish newspaper in Sydney, Australia and from two newspapers in New York City

From Nahum Sokolow, "Aron Ber, The Terrorist" in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Hebrew Standard of Australasia August 28, 1908):

He has no definite duties, The other work people know what they are. The workmen are workmen; the office staff are bookkeepers, superintendents, porters and salesmen. Old Aron Ber is nothing of all that. He merely—a Mensch. In earlier years he had to look after the potatoes from which the jam was partly made. He used to ride to the starch factories and buy potato refuse. But this duty was taken from him many years ago and given to a younger, man.

From Montague Glass, "Capture Villa? Stop Talking Nonsense," in the New York Tribune (May 14, 1916):

President Wilson is like a whole lot of fellers. He starts in with good cards and instead of playing them like a Mensch, y'understand, he considers first should he come trump, y'understand, and he's got his thumb and finger on the ace of trump, when he thinks why should he give his hand away like that.

From "Amusing Anecdotes of Jewish Life," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Hebrew Standard of Australasia (June 29, 1923):

"What I have written," said the Gaon, "is absolutely true, but I'm afraid you've taken the wrong meaning out of it. What I meant was that he knows as much Hebrew as Shakespeare, that he knows as much English as Moses, and that as the Almighty is not a mensch, neither is this Rav a Mensch."

From E. Hemingin, "Lion at Large: The Importance of Being Earnest," in the [New York City] Columbia [University] Daily Spectator (December 7, 1955):

Carrying 19½ points, while not conducive to a great average, makes one feel for the first time martyr-like, courageous—in short, "a mensch."

The next-earliest match, from "Writer Predicts, Revolt Will Go On," in the [Kent, Ohio] Daily Kent Stater (January 16, 1969) is the first Elephind instance of mensch to appear in the U.S. midwest:

"The more self-education, the more a student will find and test his capacities and real interests until, on graduation, he Is a "mensch" (man), rather than a narrowly trained, stunted professional ready to be slotted Into his 'place' in the structure of what SDS calls corporate liberalism," Hentoff asserted.

"Hentoff" is Nat Hentoff, a longtime writer for the [New York City] Village Voice, although the quotation here comes from an article titled "The Universities: Crisis of Legitimacy," published in the January 1969 Evergreen Review. This instance (published about 16 months before the Ohio National Guard's shooting of protesting Kent State University students) is noteworthy in part because it indicates that the editor at a college newspaper in a small city in northeastern Ohio in 1969 deemed it necessary to translate mensch for readers.

Likewise, Willard Abraham, "Parents Are Children's Most Important Teachers," in the [Sachse, Texas] Sentinel (February 24, 1988) includes a definition of mensch:

Serious thinkers have sometimes written about this issue. A recent one is Rabbi Neil Kurshan whose book is titled "Raising Your Child to be a Mensch." There is no direct translation of that word, but in a description of the book it is stated that "the term reflects a social ideal of traditional culture, representing decency, generosity, kindness and above all — integrity."

The same perceived need for translation may be true (albeit with a somewhat patronizing inflection) of this instance from Dan Sorid, "The Lion's Den: Columbia as Sketchy Friend: Half-Truths and Betrayal,"in the [New York City] Columbia [University] Daily Spectator (January 19, 1999):

And now for the weekly Morningside Mensch and Moron Awards. (Note for the Goyim: a mensch, according to "The Joys of Yiddish," is someone with "nothing less than—character: rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.")

But in a letter from Sid Herzig to the editor of the [Ithaca, New York] Ithacan (April 4, 1969), the writer feels no need to explain the term:

In the Community Model [of campus life] priorities are established and resources are allocated democratically. Trustees, administrators, faculty members, and students share educational values including respect for individual differences. Ideally individuals grow and develop in an open pluralistic society. The good life is a community of mensch.

Ultimately, although the newspaper matches noted here show that mensch has sporadically been used in English-language contexts for considerably longer than my Google Books search results might suggest, they don't indicate widespread U.S. awareness of the term even as late as 1999.

13

I'd like to add to the other answers by saying that to me (as a British English speaker who's never heard this word), it sounds mildly insulting. When I saw the title of this question, I was expecting it to be similar to something like 'putz', i.e. quite a negative thing. To me, it sounds like a word that you'd use like "I couldn't stand that guy on the train, he was such a mensch".

So, I think if you use this to an audience who might not know the word, you need to make very clear what it means, because of the risk of someone totally misinterpreting it.

9

As someone living in the UK most of my life I had never come across that word. If I had to guess at it then I would have associated it with the word untermensch, and from that taken it as human, possibly with a tendency to view it slightly badly due to deriving it that way.

  • Your association is interesting. May I ask, how did you come to know the word Untermensch? From the historical reference, or something more recent? Have you come across it in your reading, or in conversation? What sort of person uses it, and what are they trying to convey? (I'm asking because it's a word that makes me uncomfortable, only knowing it in the historical usage, and I'm wondering if I need to desensitize.) – aparente001 Sep 8 '15 at 4:07
  • 1
    @aparente001 - I too know it through history (secondary school 20th century history), with its usage there also making me slightly uncomfortable – Kickstart Sep 8 '15 at 8:24
  • There's also Übermensch of course, which has positive connotations from Nietzsche. I would think of both terms. (Actually, the Nazis got their word Untermensch inspired by Nietzsche's term – an opposite.) – Noldorin Aug 4 at 20:12
8

I am an Australian. I have never heard of the phrase "act like a mensch" before. I am reasonably widely read, I studied Latin and French at school, and learned a smattering of Spanish.

Putting aside whether your use of the phrase makes the piece more interesting, my suggestion is that it would not be widely understood. People like me would either guess that it meant something (I would guess something bad - like "act like a jerk"), or if they were sufficiently interested, look it up online.

Either way, the use of the phrase is a barrier to clear understanding.


Even taking the context into consideration, following on from the phrase:

The guy behaved badly. You need an advisor you can trust to ...

Other phrases could be inserted that made sense, eg.

  • Stand up for your rights
  • Be prepared to walk if you do
  • Comfort you if you are in trouble
  • Kick those guys in the head

Not knowing the phrase, "decent human being" just doesn't jump to mind.


Amusingly, as I type this, the word "mensch" is underlined in red in my web browser as a misspelling. So, whatever dictionary Firefox is using doesn't know the word either.


Edited to add ...

I checked with four other members of my family during our usual dinner-table banter. None of them had heard of the word "mensch". Two of them spend the evenings reading books.

5

For this Australian, I've encountered the word mensch in US media (TV and movies mostly) a number of times; each time I think the speaker was Jewish. The general meaning was always clear enough from context (to mean something along the line of 'a real human being', 'a good man', generally relating to a person who is consistently displaying qualities like generosity or responsibility).

I've also been called a mensch by an Australian colleague who is Jewish; while the word is not really used in broader Australian culture, in my case at least it was understood in a general sense.

Is "act like a mensch" too localized for ELU readers?

I think there has to be some level of tolerance for terms that are somewhat localized; I don't feel it's too localized, but is there any objective basis on which to assess such a question? I doubt it.

Please label your answer British or US.

Those are not the only varieties of English! I can't label my answer with either term, since it doesn't apply. While I comprehend idiomatic English of both varieties quite well, I don't speak British English, nor do I speak American English (though most Americans I encounter when I am in the US can't seem to tell that I'm not English unless I talk like Steve Irwin; when I am in the UK people seem to instantly know exactly where I am from).

There are more speakers of English as a first language in the Commonwealth outside Britain than in it, so I don't see any particular reason to accord primacy to British usage within it. On the other hand there's a degree of similarity in many varieties of Commonwealth English, and to the extent that there is, it may make sense to refer to that; with that in mind, outside the US, mensch would be relatively rare, and where it is heard, mostly via US cultural influences.

  • 3
    The varieties of English spoken in the Commonwealth are generally similar in terms of spelling and lexicon when compared to American English. Obviously there is local slang in every variety of English, local slang within the US, within particular cities in Australia and New Zealand even. But it's still common to refer to 'British vs. American English' instead of the (perhaps more correct) 'Commonwealth vs. American varieties of English'. – Miles Rout Sep 9 '15 at 22:28
4

As an Irish person, I'd consider it an American phrasing, and expect it to be more common in the US than in Britain or Ireland, but I wouldn't consider it obscure.

There are plenty of American films, books and television shows available here. We can understand it when Krusty the clown uses it in the Simpsons, or Woody Allen uses it in Annie Hall.

4

This is not a phrase that is widely known, even in the US. In my hometown, only the handful of us Jews would have known the word.

  • 4
    Which part of the US do you come from? – Mari-Lou A Sep 7 '15 at 5:06
  • 1
    I disagree; I'm American and not Jewish and I know exactly what the phrase refers to. – SomethingDark Sep 7 '15 at 8:35
  • 4
    @SomethingDark Well obviously if you know the phrase then everyone in the US does, is that what you're saying? – user89134 Sep 8 '15 at 11:49
  • 1
    @NajibIdrissi - Goodness, no. I simply mean that knowledge of the word is not limited strictly to the Jewish community. – SomethingDark Sep 8 '15 at 11:51
  • 1
    I'm from Virginia, though I go to school in Chicago. In Virginia, I avoid using this word around non-Jews just as I'd avoid using any Yiddish words around non-Jews. I don't really think of "mensch" as English honestly. In Chicago, a lot more people know it. – Stella Biderman Sep 14 '15 at 8:04
3

I'm some random American with basically no connection to German or Yiddish, but I still recognize it. I'd translate "be a mensch" as "be a decent human being" (as in, grow up already).

I believe it translates literally as "man". I've heard people say "be a mensch" to small (male) children that misbehave (as if to say be a big boy now), so that's live usage as well.


But as to your question:

Is "act like a mensch" too localized for ELU readers?

No. Not for American, and not for British. I consider it a loanword.

Even if not everyone knows mensch, only using words that 100% of people know makes language boring and contributes to vocabulary loss. There's no benefit from doing this, especially if context makes the meaning clear. Language should be fun. Use fun words now and again.

3

As a speaker of AusEng I don't think I've ever heard or read the word before. As others have said, with enough context I can guess it's a positive term, but it doesn't communicate effectively. And I'd agree with @stripybadger that its phonemes make me expect it to be a negative term.

2

I can't remember when I first heard the word mensch, but it was probably about a week after landing in college in the Boston area. I don't remember ever being confused about what it meant, which means I probably first heard in a context that made it clear. People going to college in the New York City area probably had the same experience. To me, mensch is a full-fledged word in the English language and inescapable if one reads widely. I feel sorry for people who have not assimilated the wonderful Yiddish words, mensch, meh, schmuck, chutzpah......

1

Just to add to the existing good answers, my copy of the latest Oxford Dictionary of English (this is a British-produced dictionary with international terms) lists the definition as

noun North American informal
a person of integrity and honour.

While I concur with this attribution personally, as a Brit, I encourage others to follow an esteemed authority more than myself!

  • DO use comments to ask for clarification, suggest changes, or offer short-lived information. DO NOT use them for minor edits (edit instead) answers (post an answer instead), praise or rebukes (vote instead), debate (chat instead), or comments on site design or policy (post at meta instead). – MetaEd Sep 20 '17 at 15:53
  • Your answer does not prove that the general British public is unaware of N.American terms. People travel more extensively these days, and globalization (globalisation) is a harsh reality. American TV shows, music, and movies (films) have had more influence on the way today's youth, in the UK, speak and write than anything else today. – Mari-Lou A Sep 20 '17 at 16:08
  • @Mari-LouA Pure and utter conjecture. – Noldorin Sep 20 '17 at 16:22

protected by RegDwigнt Sep 7 '15 at 11:08

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.