Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A Schmuck Defined

In one of my most embarrassing professional experiences, I got into a public food fight with network newswoman Diane Sawyer, which was played out in the Washington Post and then picked up by other media outlets.  It was pretty ugly and, if I had been working for a less tolerant boss than Congressman Jim Olin at the time, I might very well have been fired.  It's a long story and I don't have time to go into all the gory details.

But aside from the large public embarrassment of having her accuse me of being an overpaid congressional hack who is insensitive to the poor and needy in our society, there was a mini-embarrassment over my use of the word "schmuck."  I was quoted in the Post saying something like, "where does she get off portraying me as some schmuck...."

In the middle of the firestorm that the larger argument caused, there was a letter from a Jewish woman.  I honestly don't remember whether she wrote it directly to the Congressman or  it was published in the Post.  I think the former.  But she enlightened me on the true definition of the word schmuck.  It means flaccid penis and she found my use of it deeply offensive and not fit for family reading in a newspaper.  Who knew?

So, it was with amusement that I read today's Huffington Post piece by Marty Kaplan entitled Springtime for Schmucks about this very issue and the extent to which the word schmuck has evolved in common usage.  He writes:
It is arguable that its original meaning - a Yiddish profanity for penis, often part of an insult beginning with "You are such a - " and ending with an exclamation point - has been so diluted by widespread usage that nowadays it's no more offensive than any other common synonym for "jerk." This would explain why, at High Holy Day services at my synagogue last year, the associate rabbi, a lovely mother of three young children, could innocently say the word from the pulpit without imagining for a moment that it would cause the shocked sharp intake of breath among half the congregants that followed.
What's interesting about Kaplan article is his belief that schmuck has only recently become acceptable in polite conversation.  When I used the word I had no idea it had any sexual connotation whatsoever.  I thought then, in 1987, what Kaplan bemoans as only recently having come to pass, that the word has become the moral equivalent of jerk.

But what's most interesting from reading his piece is learning that Mel Brooks has launched a campaign to save the word schmuck.  Again, who knew?  He has a Facebook page dedicated to this cause, Schmucks for Schmuck.  Of course, I quickly joined.

Growing up enjoying the vast numbers of Jewish comics who entertained me in my youth helped me appreciate Yiddish.  The language is tailor made for humor.  But it may also desensitized me to its scatological elements.  Are there a lot of scatological elements?  Are there other words like schmuck, which sound harmless, but offend true Yiddish speaker?

As a goy, I'll probably never know.  But, if Yiddish didn't exist, we'd certainly need to invent it.



3 comments:

Camelia said...

Bill, this is hilarious. Incidentally, I've been waiting for the release of "Dinner for Schmucks" - a remake of the French Le Dinner des Cons, a pretty funny French comedy. I'm wondering how the cultural paradigms will shift between the French and American versions. But at least now I know what schmuck really means.

Jeff said...

In his popular compendium of Yiddish, "The Joys of Yiddish," Leo Rosten warned of words that you shouldn't say around your mother. This was probably one of them, but, you're right, it "assimilated" into American English as something less offensive, though still not something you would CALL your mother.

Philologos, a nom de plume for someone who's been writing cleverly about Yiddish in the Jewish Forward for years, recently wrote about "schmuck" upon the announcement of "Dinner for Schmucks, which Camelia mentions. (See: http://www.forward.com/articles/127941/) He's very philosophical about it, of course.

"In short, what, in the way the word is used, makes a schmuck a schmuck? And in what way is a schmuck different... from a schlemiel, a schlimazel, a schmendrik or a plain old jerk?"

He concludes: "A schmuck is, in short, someone who lacks not intelligence, but all insight into what is humanly appropriate and what is not. This makes his condition remediable. A schlemiel, a schlimazel and a schmendrik are irredeemably what they are. A schmuck can be enlightened. He can acquire, through a painful process of self-examination, the moral and social understanding that he has been missing. He can become... a mentsh."

That's a long way from flaccid penis.

For more on this misunderstood word, go to to Schmuck University -- aka Schmuck U -- at http://www.schmucku.com.

Anonymous said...

So how does it differ from a putz?