Shvigger: (SHVI-gehr) n. mother-in-law

Many see this Yiddish word as a built-in insult. It’s really anything but.

In Jewish tradition, it is forbidden to call one’s parents by their names. Rather, they are respectfully referred to as “Mother” and “Father.” Honoring our parents is actually one of the Ten Commandments, so it ranks right up there with revering G‑d’s name and not murdering.

This reverence extends to in-laws, who are called “shvigger” (mother-in-law) and “shver” (father-in-law) respectively.

How do we know this? We take our cue from King David, whose father in law (and primary tormentor) was King Saul. David called Saul, avi, “my father.”

Yet generations of Borscht Belt mother-in-law jokes and the insulting ring of the word have conspired to make “shvigger” anathematic to many English-speaking women, who just can’t imagine the term referring to them.

Note that “shvigger” bears no relation to “shveig,” the Yiddish word for “be quiet.” For that matter, neither does “shver” have anything to do with its homonym, “shver,” which means “heavy” or “difficult.” So even if you have a mother-in-law who you wish would be quiet and a father-in-law who is both difficult and overweight, rest assured that: a) you are not alone, b) this has nothing to do with their Yiddish titles, which they can still bear with pride.

While we’re on the subject, here are the Yiddish terms for the other in-laws:

  • Brother-in-law: Shvogger
  • Sister-in-law: Shvegeren
  • Son-in-law: Eidim (the only one not to begin with “sh”)
  • Daughter-in-law: Shnur
  • In-laws: Muchutonim. This term has two uses. Narrowly defined, people whose children are married (or even engaged) refer to each other as mechutonim (the male is a mechuton and the female is a mechuteniste). In a broader sense, entire clans that have been joined through matrimony can be called mechutonim.