12 Foreign Words and Phrases New Yorkers Love to Use

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in American Culture and Holidays, American English Grammar and Usage, Business English, English lessons in New York, Online English lessons

It’s no secret that languages borrow from other languages. The French, despite their reputation as linguistic puritans, are known for enjoying “le weekend.” Any English-speaking fan of telenovelas has probably  heard the word “look” being used to describe one’s personal physical appearance and style. 

The classic and much imitated Colombian telenovela, Yo Soy Betty La Fea centered on the transformation of Betty’s “look.”

English has always had its fair share of borrowed phrases. When Europeans first arrived in the Americas they stole native words as well as land.

Wabanaki (Native American) Canoe. The word “canoe” came from the Arawaken language. Can you canoe?

Americans have adopted many foreign words and expressions that were brought to our shores by people who came here from all over the world. New York City, which continues to draw immigrants, visitors, dreamers, and doers from every corner of the planet, has a particularly rich history of taking words of foreign origin and adding them to our unique regional lexicon.

Below is a list of 12 foreign words and phrases that one is likely to hear in New York.  I’ve excluded words used only to describe foods such as pizza, tacos, and so on. They’re too easy!  Most of these words have been brought to me by my English-language students who heard them at work, in social settings, or on television.

Bodega – Look up the word bodega in a Spanish/English dictionary, and you’ll see the definition is simply “cellar” or as part of the phrase “bodega de vino” — wine cellar.  On the island of Puerto Rico, it was used to describe the corner grocery store, the type of store that sold food, but probably other useful items as well. Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917, and have been migrating to the mainland ever since, with many settling in New York. They took their version of “bodega” with them. These days all New Yorkers of every ethnicity refer to small neighborhood grocery stores as “bodegas.” It doesn’t matter whether the grocery is owned by a Puerto Rican or a Pakistani. We even use it as an adjective to describe the ubiquitous cats employed by the owners of these stores to control the mice. Bodega cats are so  beloved by New Yorkers that they have become an Instagram sensation!

This “typical” NYC bodega is actually fake! A more modern storefront was transformed with a false facade to make a movie!

Stoop – The verb “stoop” has existed in English for hundreds of years,  and means to lower one’s body or moral standards. Here are two examples: Joe stooped down to pick up some quarters that fell out of his pockets.  Mary stooped to betraying all of her friends to get her dream job. In New York City, however, stoop as a noun, has a meaning, unrelated to this verb. In New York a “stoop” is the staircase and platform that exist in front of a single or multi-family dwelling. Example: In the television program Sex in the City, Carrie’s stoop featured prominently in many episodes. The word comes from the Dutch, “stoep.” The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle in New York. You will not hear it used much outside of the New York City/Hudson Valley area.

Here is a typical New York stoop, maybe a little less fancy than the one where Carrie Bradshaw lived.

Schadenfreude – There are several German words that have no true English equivalent and have been borrowed by English speakers. Schadenfreude is one of the most popular. Schadenfreude combines the German words for “harm” and “joy” and translates as  the experience of joy at the misfortune of others. Example: I felt great schadenfreude when I heard my ex-boss was fired from her position and having trouble finding a job.  Unlike bodega and stoop, it is not a word used almost exclusively in New York, but it is probably used by New Yorkers more than by people in other parts of the country. That might be cultural, or maybe it’s simply that a certain class of New Yorkers, the intelligentsia, enjoys using foreign words! Which brings us to our next word….

Intelligentsia – While this word possibly derives from the Latin word for intelligence, it more likely originates with the Russian, intelligentsiya, which refers to the intellectual class. It is a word somewhat on the decline in its use in the United States.  Occasionally, it is used ironically or disdainfully. Example: Jane considers herself a member of the intelligentsia because she has a subscription to The New Yorker. Recently, a Chicago-based coffee company called Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea has opened some New York cafes, so the term may be about to make a comeback

Well, they do say drinking coffee makes you smarter. Then again, perhaps the name is simply meant to evoke smart people who stay up late drinking coffee while having very important discussions in dark cafes.

Déjà vu–  This is French for “already seen” and is used to describe the illusion one has of remembering something when one is actually experiencing it for the first time. Example: “I had the weirdest feeling of déjà vu when I got on the ship. I was convinced it was a premonition of disaster, but then my husband suggested I had probably seen too many movies like Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure.” This word is not  a word used only in New York City, but you are likely to hear it here.

Yogi Berra, beloved baseball catcher and manager was known for coining nonsensical phrases such as: “It’s like deja vu all over again.”

Faux pas – This is another French phrase, which literally translates as “false step.” In English we use it to mean an embarrassing remark or act in a social or business situation. For example: “I asked her about husband’s health, but it was a faux pas. I had forgotten they got a divorce last year.” As with some other words on this list, the use of this phrase is not limited to New York City. 

Yiddish words. The rest of the examples in this post all derive from Yiddish.Some of my students are a little confused by Yiddish, so please allow me to explain. Yiddish was the common language of Eastern European and German Jews. Although there were Jewish populations spread across different geographical areas and countries, the Jews were one people sharing a common culture and religious heritage. They developed their own language,separate from biblical Hebrew, and separate from the primary languages spoken by non-Jews in their region.  Yiddish is derived from German, but also uses many words from Hebrew, and borrowed words from Russian, Polish, and other languages. Most European native speakers of the language died in the Holocaust. As Jewish immigrants became assimilated they stopped teaching the language to their children.  Today Yiddish is only used as the primary language of some ultra-religious (Hassidic) Jewish communities in the United States and Israel. These communities trace their roots to specific villages in Eastern Europe that were wiped out in World War II. Because many Yiddish-speaking Jews immigrated to the United States (particularly to New York) in the late 1800s and into the early 20th century, and interacted with other groups,  many Yiddish words are in common use in the United States, especially in New York. Some of these words have traveled via movies, television, books, magazines, and now the internet, and are used throughout the United States, but New York City probably started using them first, and uses them more often even today. While Yiddish as a primary language is dying, Yiddishisms — words derived from Yiddish — are still commonly used by Jews and non-Jews in New York City. I could have easily chosen more than the following six examples!

Schtick — Schtick literally means “piece” but was also used in Yiddish to mean a  prank or joke. The word is and was commonly used by comedians (many of whom were Jewish) to describe their routines. That’s how it came into common use in English. However, today, “schtick’ is often used in business or other settings to describe someone’s routine way of doing something, especially when that thing involves some kind of performance, such as giving presentations, selling ideas to clients, etc. For example: Barbara always starts off her speeches by asking for questions instead of waiting until she’s finished. It’s her schtick.

The comedian, Jerry Seinfeld made observational humor his shtick. By slgckgc – https://www.flickr.com/photos/slgc/31240933902/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58914950

Schmooze — Schmooze comes from the Yiddish word shmuesn which means to chat. However, in its English usage, it really means to network, or to chat with people casually, but often as a preamble to business. As with other Yiddish derived verbs, we conjugate shmooze as we regular verbs in English: I shmooze, you shmooze, he schmoozes etc. We can also use them in different tenses, or as gerunds. Examples:  I went to the party because I knew there would be potential clients and I could shmooze.  Cheryl is smart, but she’s not so great at the art of schmoozing new clients.

Chutzpah — Chutzpah means audacity, but in the sense of shamelessness, or impudence. The classic definition is an old joke: A man kills both his parents. He goes before a judge and pleads for mercy because he is an orphan. If you grew up hearing the word, you understand that it is NOT pronounced with a “ch” as in “child” but with a gutteral sound similar to clearing one’s throat. In 2011, a politician from Minnesota attempted to use the word, but she got the sound wrong, leading many in the media to make fun of her. 

Schlep — Schlep is a very New York word that can be used as both a noun and a verb. As a noun it denotes a place which is a great distance away or simply difficult to get to. Example as a noun: It’s such a schlep visiting my sister in the Bronx. You have to take two subway trains!  As a verb it means to undertake a journey that is a schlep. For example:  I schlepped all the way to Bronx to see my sister, but she wasn’t even home!  Notice the double “p” connoting the short “e” sound in the past tense.  It can also be used as a gerund:  I’m sick of schlepping to my sister’s house. Why doesn’t she ever come to see me?

Maven — A maven is an expert in some area. In New York City and its environs, maven has been in common use for more than fifty years.  However, the (non-Jewish) writer Malcolm Gladwell is credited with popularizing the term in his book The Tipping Point, published in the year 2000. It is now used in more parts of the United States and has become an accepted term in business. Example: “Have you met Bill yet? He’s our resident computer hardware maven. You can come to him for help if you are having any hardware related problems with your computer.”

The popular writer, Malcolm Gladwell is Canadian of Scottish and Jamaican descent. He’s not even a little bit Jewish, but he loves Yiddishisms and knows how to pronounce them.

Schmuck – In Yiddish the word “schmuck” is an obscenity. It is a vulgar term for penis. However, in English the word has come to (or evolved) to mean a person worthy of contempt or a fool. It’s a strong word to use, so you should be careful about using it, but it’s not obscene.  Here’s an example describing bad behavior: I heard Joe insulted you. Don’t take him seriously! He can be a real schmuck sometimes. Here is another example, using it to describe someone who is acting foolishly:  I can’t believe you are going ahead with the wedding. Don’t be a schmuck! Tracy doesn’t love you. She loves your money!

There are many other foreign words that Americans (and New Yorkers) use all the time. Feel free to comment below and add some that you have heard! 

(If you are interested in English lessons with Marion, please check out the website.)

The Old Bait and Switch

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Business English, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, Online English lessons, Tutoring

Let’s try something different. I’ve created an audio file, so you can listen to this lesson as you follow the transcript below. Words in boldface are explained in a short glossary beneath the text.

“Bait and switch” is a commonly used expression. It comes up in conversation, and it’s mentioned sometimes in newspaper and magazine articles. In fact, if you google it, you’ll find plenty of references!

Here is a dialogue using the expression. Can you guess the meaning from context? (If you are having trouble with some of the idioms, there’s a vocabulary list at the end of this post.)

Jane: How did it go at Appliance Superstore? Did you get the television you saw advertised?

Joe: Do you mean the 42 inch Samsung television for $200?

Jane: Yes. That sounds like a great deal.

Joe: I didn’t get it. I waited outside the store for two hours before they opened. I was one of the first people inside, but they told me it was already sold out.

Jane: Sold out? You mean there were none left?

Joe: Yeah. That’s what “sold out” means. Then they tried to sell me another television. It was some brand I’d never heard of before, a 22 inch screen, and they wanted $400!


Jane: Let me see if I get this. You went in looking for a Samsung 42 inch television for $200, and when you got there they tried to sell you an inferior brand smaller television for double the price???

Joe: Yes. That’s exactly what happened.

Jane: That sounds like bait and switch to me!

As you can see, “bait and switch” is when you offered something that sounds great, but when you show up, you find out that what is actually being offered is of lower quality and/or higher price.

Here’s another example:

Sarah: How did your date go?

Gina: You mean my date with that guy I met on the online dating app?

Sarah: Yeah.

Gina: It was a disaster. He turned out to be 75 years old!

Sarah: 75 years old! What? But I saw his picture. He looked like Keanu Reeves, back when he in The Matrix!

Gina: That’s because he used a photo of Keanu Reeves, back from when he was in The Matrix! The guy didn’t look anything like that.

Sarah: Hmmm. I thought he looked familiar. So you’re telling me that this guy used a photo of a movie star to lure you into going on a date with him even though he was much older and didn’t look anything like the guy in the photo?

Gina: Yes. It was bait and switch.

Maybe this has happened to you? Have you ever booked a hotel room after seeing a beautiful photo online, only to discover the room looked nothing like the photo?

The word “bait” can be used as a noun or a verb. It is used a lot for fishing and hunting.


In fishing, the fisherman uses a worm as bait. The bait is the thing that attracts or lures the fish. Sometimes in hunting, a hunter will set out food as bait to attract animals. If you ever tried to catch a mouse in a mousetrap, you probably used a piece of cheese as bait.

Bait as a noun: I put bait in the mousetrap, but the mouse didn’t take the bait.

Bait as a verb: I baited the mousetrap with cheese, but the mouse didn’t take it.

The word “switch” can also be used as a noun or a verb. To switch something, is to replace something with another thing. For example, I switched from regular coffee to decaf because I was having trouble sleeping.

Swtich as noun: I made the switch to decaf because I was having trouble falling asleep.

Switch as a verb: We switched hotels because we didn’t like the place we were staying.

Here’s your takeaway: Bait and switch is when someone uses an attractive offer as bait to lure you in, but then that person or business switches their offer and tries to sell you something of lesser value and/or higher price.

There were many phrasal verbs, and idioms used in this post. Here is a list of words and phrases that might be new to you:

It comes up a lot. “come up” is a phrasal verb with different meanings. Here “comes up” means “is mentioned.”

I didn’t get it. In this context, “get” substitutes for “obtain.”

…it was already sold out. “Sold out” means the store has none left.

Let me see if I get this. Here “get” substitutes for “understand.”

When you got there… Here “get” substitutes for “arrive.”

show up: appear

find out: discover, in the sense of learn new information

He turned out to be 75 years old. Turned out is a phrasal verb with a few different meanings. In this context it means: It proved to be the case that he was 75 years old.

to lure: Lure is a verb with a similar meaning as attract or draw in.

to book: As a verb “book” can mean reserve. Example: We’d like to book a room.

takeaway: “Takeaway” when used as one word is a noun. It is often used in business and education to mean the main point that you “take away” or “take with you” from a presentation, lesson etc.

I hope you enjoyed this lesson. If you are interested in 1 to 1 English lessons please explore the site!

Getting to JFK: Here Are Your Options

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in American Culture and Holidays, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, New York Culture

“Why isn’t there a direct subway line to the airport?”

“Why is it so expensive to get to Kennedy?”

“I always take Uber, but how do you New Yorkers get to the airport?

I get these questions a lot. Many of my English language students are here on work transfers, or they are the spouses of someone with an L-1 visa. They love to explore U.S. destinations, including San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles . They enjoy going back home for the holidays. Some of them have a “revolving door” of visitors crashing on their couch. They often lament the high cost of getting to the airport, and are surprised that a major city like New York, doesn’t offer better options. Usually, they take Uber.

Today I’m going to give you some other options for getting to JFK. I will follow up with posts on getting to Newark Airport and LaGuardia.


The Way We Speak (English) Now: Hooking Up

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in American Culture and Holidays, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, New York Culture

“Hooking up” is a phrasal verb – which means (as all my ESL students know) it is an expression containing a verb and a preposition.

Once upon a time is a phrase we use to start fairy tales. It was also used in the very first Star Wars film, in the opening captions where we learn that the story takes place “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away. Sometimes we use “once upon a time” ironically to mean “a not so long time ago in the past,” as in the following:

Once upon a time “hooking up” was an innocuous expression used in the following way:

John: My flight was delayed, so I won’t be able to meet you at the breakfast. I should get to the conference by noon.

Kevin: That’s fine. There’s a lunch break at noon. We’ll hook up then.

John: Great! I’m looking forward to it.

In this context, “hook up” is very similar to “meet up.” Here’s another example, just to make the point:

Sarah: So did you have a chance to talk to John at the conference?

Kevin: No, his flight was delayed, and then he got stuck in traffic, and I was on the panel in the afternoon. We never managed to hook up.

However, in recent years the expression “hook up” or “hooking up” has taken on another meaning, which has just about supplanted the previous meaning. Here is an example of how you are likely to hear it used:

John: I really like Sarah, but I think she’s dating Kevin isn’t she?

Beth: Dating? I don’t know about that. They may have hooked up a couple of times back in college, but I think now they’re just friends.

John: Friends with benefits?

Beth: Maybe once upon a time. I doubt it in the present. Kevin lives with his girlfriend, and I hear she keeps him on a pretty tight leash. Honestly, I doubt that Sarah and Kevin are more than co-workers.

John: Wow. I don’t think I’d be too comfortable with that history if I was Kevin’s girlfriend!

Beth: Oh c’mon! What happens in college stays in college.


I’ll Be Back — Everyday Expressions and Phrases with Back

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in American English Grammar and Usage, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, Tutoring

“Back” is another one of those words with multiple meanings in English. The definition in the English Language Learner’s Dictionary is huge, and it doesn’t even cover some of the most common uses!

Most American native-English speakers will recognize the phrase “I’ll be back.” It was a line from the movie The Terminator. Arnold Swartzeneggar says it very menacingly – as a warning — before he leaves a store. Maybe it sounds scary in the movie BECAUSE it is such a commonly used phrase. The meaning is simple: “I will return.”

For this post, I’ve collected many of the common phrases you’ll here with back.  You’re likely to hear them on the street, in the office, on television, and just about everywhere else. (more…)


5 Easy Labor Day Weekend New York Getaway Day Trips

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Most of my students are newcomers to New York. Some already understand that New Yorkers love to get away from the city, especially on long weekends during the summer, but if you didn’t make plans, it’s not too late to have a fun three-day weekend. There a lots of interesting places to explore within the five boroughs of New York City, and there are plenty of easy day trips outside of the city that don’t require finding a “last minute”  car rental.

Here are five ideas for outdoor excersions that will feel like mini-vacations.

  1. Explore Manhattan’s Northern Tip

You can start by catching the A train to 207th Street. From there you can visit Fort Tryon Park. The park offers beautiful Hudson River views on winding paths. This is also where you can find visit The Cloisters. You can then walk to Inwood Hill Park, which offers hiking trails with old growth trees. There is also a Nature Center there where you can learn more about the local ecology. Sometimes there are additional activities sponsored by the Parks Department, such as kayaking. (more…)

Welcome to the Perfect English NYC Blog

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in American Culture and Holidays, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, New York Culture, Tutoring

This is the blog of the Perfect English NYC website. If you are looking for private 1:1 ESL/English lessons/tutoring, please go to the HOME page to get started. If you are looking for FREE resources to help you learn English, please check out the links to your right. Posts below may contain short lessons, ideas for self-study, and/or stories about American culture, holidays, traditions, etc — and especially about life in New York City for newcomers!