March 4, 1999
What does "kibitz" mean?
The word kibitz is one of our better-established Yiddishisms, and has several closely related senses.
The earlier form is the agent noun kibitzer, the main meaning of which is 'a meddlesome onlooker, as at a game of cards, chess, etc.; one who intrudes with unwanted advice or annoying comments'. There is also a less common sense 'a person who meddles or clowns in order to attract attention; one who will not mind his or her own business'.
The verb kibitz itself has a slightly more expanded sphere. The two main senses are corresponding intransitive and transitive senses. The intransitive sense is 'to look on at a game of cards, chess, etc., and make critical or distracting comments; to give unwanted advice' (for example, "Poker is so fascinating. Can I kibitz?"--Tennessee Williams, Streetcar Named Desire). The transitive sense is 'to watch or examine (a game, a participant, etc.) and give unwanted advice or make distracting comments' ("Schultz kibitzes the captain on one hand and me on the next"--Damon Runyon).
The other verb senses include 'to chat or gossip', which has been fairly common since the 1930s; 'to cajole'; and 'to eavesdrop'.
Kibitzer is first recorded in America in the early 1920s (though there are some earlier examples of the word as the title of Yiddish-language periodicals). It is a borrowing from Yiddish, itself from colloquial German kiebitzen 'to be an onlooker at a game', from Kiebitz, literally 'a plover or lapwing', though in German slang usage 'a meddlesome or annoying onlooker at a game'.
The verb kibitz is either an English back formation from kibitzer, or a borrowing from Yiddish of the verb on which kibitzer is itself based. The intransitive sense if first recorded in the later 1920s, with other senses following thereafter.
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