Khnyok — (Хнёк) is a sanctimonious religious prig. It is used by Jews who are religiously observant themselves for the holier-than-thou super-observant. The plural of khnyok is khnyokes, the adjective is khnyokish, and the past participle is farkhnyokt, which denotes someone who has become a khnyok or more khnyokish than he or she once was.
Weinreich defines khnyok as “bigot, philistine, petty, unreasonable, conservative” — more or less what one might have anticipated. But Harkavy is a surprise. A khnyok by him is a “mollycoddle” — or “A man lacking courage, someone as soft-hearted as a woman.” There’s nothing about bigotry or religious fanaticism. And for an etymology (Weinreich gives none), Harkavy tentatively proposes that of Russian khnyika, a whiner or crybaby.
Nahum Stutchkoff’s 1950 Yiddish thesaurus, Der Oytser fun der Yiddisher Shprakh. Stutchkoff gives khnyok 4 different meanings.
1. A derogatory word for a Hasid: khnyok, tslap, katshelap, flyaske.
2. An unkempt or slovenly person: khnyok, flyaske, tslap, katshelap, khlomidnik [a sloppy dresser].
3. A soft-hearted person: kvatsh [dishrag], shmatte [rag], khnyok.
4. A schlimazel: yolop [clumsy oaf], shmeyger [nincompoop], khnyok, lapenmitsl [awkward bungler].
Czech Jewish author Jirˇi Langer in his book about Hasidism, “Nine Gates,” which starts with an account of how, at the age of 19, he left his life as an assimilated young Jew in Prague to become a Belz Hasid. Describing how he mortified himself physically as part of his penitent return to Judaism, he writes, using the present tense:
“The mice nibble at my clothes. I sleep on the ground on a heap of old straw. My whole outward appearance testifies that I am gradually turning into a complete khnyok and katcherak. These two words are untranslatable nicknames used by the Hasidim to mock any of their fellows who are totally indifferent to their outward appearance.”
Langer was writing about the years 1913 and 1914 and his use of khnyok must reflect an early meaning — and, unexpectedly, the word seems to have started out not as an anti-Hasidic slur but as a term used by some Hasidim to disparage other Hasidim who went to ascetic extremes of personal hygiene and dress to demonstrate their contempt for worldly existence. (Langer’s katcherak is clearly a variant of Stutchkoff’s katshelap, of which tslap is a shortened form.) From there, the word left the confines of the Hasidic community and went off in different directions: Because unkemptness is associated with oafishness, it came to mean a bungler or schlimazel; because schlimazels are often doormats for others (it’s on the schlimazel, you’ll recall, that the schlemiel spills the chicken soup), it came to mean a whiner or mollycoddle, and because its original meaning of an extreme Hasid was picked up by misnagdim, or anti-Hasidic Jews, it eventually became a derogatory term both for Hasidim in general and for a religious fanatic of any stripe. Today, it survives only in the last of these meanings.