Q From Lila Schwartz: Within the past month, I have seen two references to the word tchotchke. One was in the Smithsonian Magazine: ‘Microsoft ... invites weary attendees loaded with product literature and promotional tchotchkes to rest on comfortable chairs positioned in front of software demonstrations’. Could you tell me the origin of this word and can I expect to see it any time soon in the Oxford Dictionary?
A It’s already in the big Oxford English Dictionary, as a matter of fact, though the entry is listed under the spelling tsatske, which is now rather rarer, at least in the USA. It’s one of those delightful Yiddishisms that do so much to enliven American prose. They’re used so often in certain situations that it’s easy to forget they’re not well known throughout the rest of the US, let alone elsewhere.
The basic sense is something inexpensive and decorative, a trinket, ornament, or souvenir. To Jewish people it means any useless gewgaw, but to non-Jews in America it has most commonly come to mean those promotional items that are handed out at trade shows. In that sense the fact that it’s Yiddish isn’t generally known (bagel has likewise moved away from its ethnic roots). The word has entered the technical goods marketing mainstream — some computer trade shows like Comdex give away Best Tchotchke awards. The writer you quote in the Smithsonian Magazine is using it in this sense.
At one time, according to Leo Rosten in his Joys of Yiddish, it could mean “a sexy but brainless broad”, but that sense has long since gone, if it was ever widely known in the US. However, I’m told that the word, in its tsatske form, appears in modern Hebrew slang in the closely similar sense of “a sexually loose and provocative young woman”.
It probably comes from an obsolete dialect Polish word czaczko, a trinket, knick-knack or ornament. American Jews say it as /ˈtʃɒtʃkə/ , roughly “choch-ka”, though I am told that when it is used in reference to promotional stuff people say it more like /ˈtʃɒtʃkiː/, roughly “choch-key”.