kibitz / kibitzer

Discuss word origins and meanings.
Post Reply

kibitz / kibitzer

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Nov 29, 2015 9:03 pm

<1986 “There were four rows of concrete tables with painted [[chess]] boards on their surfaces, and a pair of chess players, all men, at each. Some kibitzers stood over the boards.”—The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, page 247>
The verb kibitz and the one who does it, the noun kibitzer, are Yiddish words I grew up with and feel I know their meaning. But somehow my kibitzer just doesn’t seem to quite fit properly in the above quote.

I consulted my copy of Leo Rosten’s The Joy of Yiddish and found that there were other meanings of the word which I hadn’t been aware of. I called up my sister, Janet, who is much more steeped in Yiddish that I am and she agreed with my interpretation of the words and had never heard of the others. Our conclusion for the discrepancy was that New York City Yiddish (or perhaps U.S. Yiddish) had some differences from European Yiddish just as New York City English differs from Standard English.

I’ll begin by quoting Rosten’s definitions and then point out where we agree and where we disagree with yes’s no’s and comments:


KIBITZ (kib’ its) verb [from German: Kiebitz, “lapwing” [[a type of shorebird]] and “spectator at a card came.

1) To comment while watching a game. “I was kibitzing not playing.” [[no]]

2) To joke, fool around, wisecrack; [[yes]] to socialize aimlessly [[no]] “We were kibitzing around.”

3) To tease, needle, gibe. Second guess [[possibly, but that’s not the main aim of my type of kibitzing]]. “Don’t kibitz; he’s sensitive.”

4) To carry on a running commentary while another is working. “He was kibitzing us all the way” (advising, second-guessing, criticizing). “He’s not employed there, he just kibitzes>” [[no]]

The following quotes from archived sources illustrate my understanding of ‘kibitz’:
<1987 “After an appearance at a mayoral forum at the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center, he lingered so long to kibitz with departing audience members, people took note.”—Chicago Sun-Times (Chicago, Illinois), 14 February>

<1996 “He liked to kibitz with people and exchange jokes, . . .”—Daily News (Los Angeles, California), 26 January>

<2006 “The old timers, all we do is sit around and kibitz about the friendship we had."—Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts), 28 May>

<2013 “Quvenzhane Wallis, the pint-size Oscar nominee from the indie "Beasts of the Southern Wild," stopped by the White House, to kibitz with first fan Michelle Obama.”— Washington Post (D.C.), 4 February>

<2014 “Across the street in the Navy Reserve Station, we studied wire circuits, radio and radar and sat around to kibitz and drink coffee, like sailors.”— The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), 21 May>

<2015 “It was a place to 'fress' (Yiddish for eat a lot) and to 'schmooze' or ‘kibitz’ (gab), not only for the Jewish community but for their many fans.”— Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine), 21 January>

<2015 “. . . a family of farms where many regional chefs come to kibitz and buy supplies.”—Sunday Gazette-Mail (Charleston, West Virginia), 2 August>
[[The noun – Rosten continued]]

KIBITZER (kib’ itz er) noun [from the German for a bird, the kiebitz . . . a lapwing or peewit, reputed to be especially noisy and inquisitive, and called colloquially, Kibitzer. Staunch Yiddishists seem to forget that in German kiebitzen means to look over the shoulder of a card player.

1) Someone who kibitzes—that is gives un-asked-for advice or suggestions, especially, as a bystander-observer at a game (bridge, poker, checkers, chess (a ha!) [[no]]

2) Someone who buts into the affairs of others, sticks in his nose or his “two cents.” [[no]]

3) Someone who joshes or teases [[yes]].

4) Someone who flatters. [[no]]

5) Someone who humors one along [[yes]

I’ll dispense with any kibitzer quotes to support my meaning of the word and refer you to the above quotes in which the kibitzer is the one who kibitzes.

From the etymology of the words the original connection was with games (card playing, chess, checkers, poker) and, evidently, that connection still strongly holds and helps explain my quote at the top of this posting.

Here's a typical dictionary definition:


KIBITZER noun, Informal.

1) A spectator at a card game who looks at the players' cards over their shoulders, especially one who gives unsolicited advice.

2) A giver of uninvited or unwanted advice.

3) A person who jokes, chitchats, or makes wisecracks, especially while others are trying to work or to discuss something seriously.

I know this probably seems like overkill (if I haven't overkilled already), but I wouldn’t feel right without checking out the OED:


KIBITZ verb slang (originally U.S.)

Etymology: Yiddish from German kiebitzen to look at cards. kiebitz lapwing, pewit; interfering onlooker at cards.

intransitive: To look on at cards, or other activity, especially, in an interfering manner (e.g. by standing close to the shoulders of the players); to offer gratuitous advice to a player; to act as a kibitzer.

transitive: To watch (a game, a person, etc.), especially in an officious or meddling way.

The following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary:
<1955 “Drax. . . [sorted] his cards . . . only into reds and blacks, ungraded, making his hand very difficult to kibitz.”—Moonraker by I, Fleming, iv. page 43>

<1957 “Corey Brigham stood behind them, kibitzing.”—If Death Ever Slept (1958) by R. Stout, viii. page 106>

<1966 “Harry moved about, kibitzing on conversations here and there.”—Rat Race by P. J. Nicholson, i. iii. page 66>

<1967 (advertisement) Reilly—with one shipmate posing and two others kibitzing—is finishing off a watercolor.”—Scientific American, September, page 64/2> [[Note: It’s impossible to tell here, and in many instances, without some more context (or without someone telling us (in this case the OED), whether the two kibitzing were commenting on the painting or just joshing between themselves.]]
Draft Addition 2003:

Intransitive verb: To chat, banter, or joke, frequentlly. with a person; to behave in a lighthearted or informal manner, to fool around.
<1923 “Why do we always see Esther Lotto and Samuel Mendelson kibitzing every morning.”—High School Life, May, page 522/1>

<1930 “She don't like a voice like Lawrence Tibbett's, She'd rather have me around to kibitz.”—My Baby Just Cares for Me (song 5) by G.Kahn & W. Donaldson>

1969 “Fierce as the competition is, they cannot resist clowning and kibitzing around.”—Portnoy’s Complaint by P. Roth, page 244>

2002 “I served coffee, I told bad jokes, and good ones. I kibitzed. I schmoozed.”—National Review, 1 July, page 27/2>
KIBITZER noun slang (originally U.S.

Etymology: From Yiddish kibitser; compare kibitz, verb
An onlooker at cards, etc., especially one who offers unwanted advice; a busybody, an officious meddler.

<1927 “The trade journal. . . devotes an editorial. . . to the ‘kibitzer’. It defines ‘kibitzing’ as a slang expression used to indicate the act of offering gratuitous advice by an outsider.”—American Speech (1928) Vol. 4, page 159>

<1935 "Kibitzer, an onlooker of a card game who seldom plays but frequently criticizes the play of the contestants, and offers advice freely.”—Underworld Speaks by A. J. Pollock, page 66/2>

<1948 “I tried to outline several plans of attack, but, in the excitement, with many kibitzers moving the pieces, I was unable to concentrate.”—Chess Review, September, page 1>

<1950 “Keep your eyes closed to the kibitzers or wise guys.”—Championship Fighting by J. Dempsey, x. page 52>

<1970 "It was not until the growth of radio and films that Yiddishisms like Kibitzer, [etc.], . . . began to achieve wider circulation.”—The Taste of Yiddish by L. M. Feinsilver, iii, page 294>

Notice that the OED never got around to defining the humorous kibitzer and it was 2003 until they got around to the humorous verb. However, they did reveal some interesting information:

1) The expressions originated in the U.S. – that was a surprise.

2) The verb/noun, (kibitz/kibitzer, has several meaning, but they may be broken down into two general categories the humorous and the irritating/meddling

3) The older of the two pairs (kibitz/kibitzer) is the humorous josher (1923) and the younger is the meddler (1955). It would seem that it might be the reverse since the etymology tells us that the expression derives first from the interfering onlooker at cards.

And so, after all that, I think we can conclude that the kibitzers standing over the chess boards in the quote at the top of the page from Queens Gambit were of the pushy, meddling variety.

Ken – November 29, 2015


Post Reply