Recently I saw a post on the meta.rpg.se site that asked When is editing your answer not kosher?, and it got me thinking. Why is the word Kosher used, instead of, for example, Halal, Permissible, or even just Okay? They would all have the same meaning, more or less. When did kosher first enter the English language, and how has it been popularised to being used in the context above?

The definition on Etymonline is:

"ritually fit or pure" (especially of food), 1851, from Yiddish kosher, from Heb. kasher "fit, proper, lawful," from base of kasher "was suitable, proper." Generalized sense of "correct, legitimate" is from 1896.

It seems a fair leap from 'ritually fit or pure' to the common usage, which almost connotes something being 'socially' acceptable as opposed to 'religiously' acceptable or even acceptable by fixed standards (in contrast to the freeform 'social' standards).

Can anyone help me here?

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    It certainly seems possible to me that kosher was used the same way metaphorically in Yiddish. – Peter Shor Dec 13 '11 at 11:11

A lot of Yiddish words crossed over into the English language in English speaking cities with sizeable Jewish communities. London is probably the best example, and as a result, cockney Londoners use lots of Yiddish words.

As well as kosher, there's chutzpah, klutz, nosh, schlep, schmooze, schtich and others.

As with other cross-pollination of languages, the words that caught on are ones that are shorter or catchier than the existing alternative, or words that have no satisfactory alternative.

None of the alternatives you suggested have quite the connotations that kosher has (or, more importantly, the connotations of something not being kosher!)

The word would have evolved from being a novel metaphor, through to being a commonly used metaphor, to gaining the commonly understood meaning it has today.

By metaphor, I mean that someone would have said something like "I've been offered a job; I'm pretty sure it's not totally kosher". The listener would know what kosher meant in sense of Jewish food preparation, but was able to understand it as a metaphor.

I don't think we're going to be able to pinpoint the moment it passed from being a metaphor to a straightforward word -- it's a continuum. The moment the metaphor was coined is surely lost in history too; since it probably happened in an East End pub in the early 19th century.

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  • But as far as I'm away, kosher used to have the connotation of 'Ritually fit or pure'. Obviously 'When is editing your answer ritually fit' doesn't have the same connotation as 'When is editing your answer acceptable'. When was this change in the English language? Or as far back as the mid 19thC were people asking if it was Kosher for Queen Vicotria to visit common folk at Christmas? – Pureferret Dec 13 '11 at 11:41
  • Answer updated. – slim Dec 13 '11 at 12:09
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    The best example is London? Have you ever been to New York? – user13141 Dec 13 '11 at 12:21
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    @onomatomaniak I have been to New York and I love it. However I get the sense that London is a better example in this case because New York was such a mixture of influences. In London you had a pre-existing predominantly English speaking population, with Yiddish leaking into it. In NYC you had a hundred different languages plonked into South Manhattan. – slim Dec 13 '11 at 12:27
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    My grandparents were brought up in the East End of London, but my strong impression from my childhood is that most of the Yiddish borrowings in English were not used outside the Jewish community until they came via US English. – Colin Fine Dec 13 '11 at 14:49

Etymonline.com answers your 'when' question:

Kosher first entered the English language in 1851, and the "Generalized sense of "correct, legitimate" is from 1896."

That still leaves your 'why' and 'how' questions open.

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  • But were the connotations the same back in 1851? Was it used in the same context in english speech back then as it was in Yiddish? Or did it, back then, have the modern connotation of something being 'acceptable' rather than 'Ritually fit or pure'? – Pureferret Dec 13 '11 at 11:36
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    @Pureferret: anytime observant Jews would have spoken among themselves in English, they would have needed the word kosher (or an equivalent word, but I think kosher was the one). – Peter Shor Dec 13 '11 at 12:28

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