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.