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Can a woman be a mensch?

Q: Is there a feminine form of “mensch”? Is the word used only for men? I wouldn’t want to call a woman a “wensch” since she would surely confuse it with “wench.”

A: “Mensch” or “mensh” comes from Yiddish by way of the German word mensch, or “person.” The standard dictionaries I’ve checked define “mensch” (or “mensh”) as an admirable or honorable human being, which of course could go either way.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a more expansive explanation: “In Jewish usage: a person of integrity or rectitude; a person who is morally just, honest, or honourable.” Sounds unisex, no?

And yet by far most of the examples I come across refer to men. One rarely hears a woman referred to as a “mensch.”

But Leo Rosten, in his book The Joys of Yinglish, notes: “The most withering criticism one can make of someone else’s conduct or character, manners or taste is to say, ‘He’s not a mensh’ or ‘She did not act like a mensh.’ “

So it would seem that, at least according to Rosten, “mensh” (the spelling he prefers) is an equal-opportunity word. Too bad. I kind of like “wensch” (though Rosten would have spelled it “wensh”).

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