Yiddish, Shmiddish

I’m reasonably certain that “schmuck” is not of Yiddish origin. I suspect Italian slang, or something, but I have been unable to find it in any good Yiddish lexicon.

(And I don’t count Leo Rosten’s “Joys of Yiddish” as a GOOD Yiddish lexicon.)

It’s helpful if you provide the link to the Staff Report upon which you are commenting, so that everyone can follow your thoughts and references. In this case: Yiddish, shmiddish why do we repeat a word but start it with " shm-"?


Sorry, I thought I did that. Now I'm confused.

You gotta do better than that, Motcha. Given that “schmuck” is German for “jewelry, trinket,” there is an obvious derivation for its use as “penis” in Yiddish.

JUst as a point of information, the OED cites it first in print in English in 1892.

Which ones have you tried, just so I don’t duplicate your research?

In your favor, most of my English Etymology references don’t give a derivation, although they do for other Yiddish words. It may mean that the derivation is hard to prove, or it may mean that the derivation is obviously from German into Yiddish.

My Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (it was given to me in 1994, the copyright days 1991) defines schmuck (or shmuck) as slang for “an obnoxious or contemptible person,” and gives its origin as the word Yiddish shmok, a vulgar term for the penis.

Motcha: you seem to have posted this comment twice – once in the forum “About Cecil’s Columns” where you included a link, and once here where you didn’t. No biggie.

You might want to check a few other “dirty” words in your Yiddish lexicon… some dictionaries leave out naughty slang words, and “shmuck” would certainly be in that category.

And thanks, samclem, I would not have suspected it was that old (although I should have looked in the OED.)

I don’t actually remember which dictionaries I looked it up in. It was about ten years ago, after all.

I am a Yiddish speaker, and live among Yiddish speakers, and in all my life I have NEVER heard the word used in Yiddish. I have heard quite a few words, but never that one. I have heard people who speak English use that word to mean an idiot, but I have never heard anyone, in any language, use it to mean…

In case you’re wondering, the polite term used is acually a Hebrew one: Makom Milah, “place of circumcision.”

I suspect the word “schmuck” is directly from German, but never made it into Yiddish.

Well, I guess you know better than the OED. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I think some of Yiddish is just straight German.
Dex answered your comment before you made it, actually: it’s not the polite term, it’s a profanity. My impression is that it’s more severe in Yiddish than it is when English-speakers use it (when it’s usually not very serious)- likewise, I think “shmuck” is more severe in Yiddish than “dick” is in English.
I’m finding it tricky to do a search on the net that yields worthwhile results, but I think the German slang for penis is “pimmel.”
The things I learn when I get into silly arguments…

Contrary to academia’s obsessions with courses given by people with meaningless letters after their names, I happen to believe that practitioners and students of a culture DO know more about it than self-proclaimed “experts.” I have long lost count of the mistakes in “Jewish” Encylopediae.

So you don’t phaze me by quoting the OED. I have heard more Yiddish vernacular and profanity than any of its editors. My mother could curse like a sailor (if there is such a thing as Yiddish sailors). And not once have I ever heard anyone speaking Yiddish using the word “schmuck.” In fact, a large percentage of the people I know speak no other language but Yiddish, and not all of them are refined in any way (though actually I prefer the company of the refined, most of the time.

Which is not to say that I have never heard the word. I just never heard a Yiddish speaker use it. “Putz” is the word they usually use, not “schmuck.”

So I wouldn’t be impressed even if you quoted the Oxford YIDDISH Dictionary. If it comes from Yiddish, one has to wonder why Yiddish speakers don’t use the word.

OK, Motcha, given your background (and I took the liberty of checking your homepage to see where you were based) it seems you have a good case.

“Schmuck” definitely means “jewelry, decoration” in German, and “idiot, moron” in English. So how did we get from one to the other? An intermediate link through a slang usage for “penis” certainly seems plausible. The question is then, did “schmuck” acquire the slang meaning of “penis” in German or Yiddish?

Given your observations, it seems to me that there are two alternatives:

  • The slang meaning originated in German and passed directly into American English, presumably via German immigrants. If so, it would be interesting to hear from native German speakers whether they have ever encountered this usage in German.

  • The slang meaning might have originated in a subset - possibly geographical - of Yiddish speakers. On your home page, I see you are Hasidic. While I don’t doubt that you have encountered Yiddish speakers from many other backgrounds, I wonder whether the usage could have originated in an ethnic or cultural subset of Yiddish speakers with which you have less contact. I’m just speculating here.

Motcha I think that your distain for Leo Rosten as an etymologist-of-sorts is misplaced, at least in this instance.

To echo Marley ,

Even though I had a mother in whitebread America who “swore like a sailor,” she probably wouldn’t have used the term cunt as a swear word. Just too severe. So maybe Yiddish speakers feel the same about schmuck.

Rosten said “Never utter schmuck lightly, or in the presence of women and children. Indeed, it was uneasiness about schmuck that led to the truncated euphemism shmo.”

It was just too vulgar to be used by the Puritanical Jews.

Sounds right to me- the Jewish members of my family are not anywhere near Orthodox (they’re not Yiddish speakers either), but saying shmuck in front of the young ones is frowned upon anyway. Heheh, of course, when some of us want to curse, we just cut the crap and skip straight to English. Make sure everybody knows just what we mean. :slight_smile:

Motcha- is there any reason you suspected Italian slang?

So shmuck means “jewel” in German and “dick” in Yiddish. This connection is actually not unprecedented- I’m sure other people here have heard the euphemism “the family jewels,” yes? They’re not Mom’s earrings. :wink:


In defense of the column, I was simply using examples of words that emigrated from Yiddish into English, and “schmuck” was one of those that I didn’t even think twice about. The OED backing me up ain’t bad for support.

OTOH, the early appearance (1892) is somewhat before the period when Yiddish words were creeping into English (often through Vaudeville and theatre), which lends some additional credence to Motcha’s thoughts.

So, I guess we’re in limbo at the moment, unless someone wants to investigate further (we’d be glad for a volunteer to do a Staff Report on the origin of “schmuck”). We’ve got two possibilities:

(a) It did come from German through Yiddish into English, but is considered “really dirty” in Yiddish and so not used as a common swear word; or

(b) It came into English straight from German without going through pure Yiddish.

Word origins and histories can be quite interesting.

Only because my Italian acquaintances and friends use the word frequently. Of course they might have been using it around Jews because they think it’s Yiddish. I’m just guessing about that though.

My experience with Yiddish cursing, by the way, is that the true and experienced cursers didn’t use profanity. They were very inventive, and emotive. The more refined people didn’t curse others as well, but rather

I have translated Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” into Yiddish. I once performed it at a spoof convention (the first Contata), before a large group of people, known (or few, if any) of whom knew more than the few words of Yiddish known to the average New Yorker. I introduced the piece by explaining that Yiddish is never understood by its volcabulary anyway. It is more often understood by inflection and hand gestures. They therefore were at no disadvantage for not knowing Yiddish.

I then proceeded to EMOTE (instead of merely recite) my translation (which I called “Yabbervuck”), using hand gestures to describe the events of each stanza.

As with all the other performances, several people were recording it, but this time one person kept snapping his camera constantly as I performed. He wanted to get as many of my gestures as possible, since that was an integral part of the piece. The piece included performane on three levels: verbal, inflective, and through the hand gestures (I can’t think of an adjective for that concept – visual, perhaps?).

I think that good cursers in Yiddish are like that as well. They do not have to resort to actual profanity. They tend to get quite inventive, and very vehement.

I do concede the possibility that every Yiddish speaker I have ever spoken to considered the word too profane – whether it was bcause they were too refined to utter it, or because they had mercy on my tender, virgin (they thought) ears, I don’t know. I admit that I have not gone out of my way to seek out the lowest dregs of my society, and I am thankful they have not come searching for me. :wink: The people I “hang out with” consider even the word “putz” to be profane.

As far as German being a direct source, I took several sociology and immigration courses in college, but I’m durned if I can remember when the German influx was. I am pretty sure, though, that 1892 was AFTER the German-Jewish immigration, but those were mostly refined, upper-class Jews, and often rich. At least that’s what I seem to recall. I will yield before any evidence to the contrary, because I’m speaking from vague memories here.

You know, I wanted to end this post with a humorous example of a Yiddish curse (translated into English), but I never grew up hearing the humorous ones. All the ones I heard (and the few I remember – I’ve never personally been into cursing people) were calculated to turn a person’s hear white when he heard them, not to make people laugh.

As Albus Dumbledore said to Harry, “You HAVE done this thing right.” (Or words to that effect.)

Surely the possibility exists. I have met a broad cross range of Jews in my thus-far brief life (I’m just about 40, k’nein a’hora, to quote a badly mangled phrase now so commonly in use), but I cannot claim to have met ALL types in ALL settings. I have a strong investigative bent to me, and I seldom take anyone else’s word for things, so I have indeed experienced more than the average Jew from my background, but again, as Sam Gamgee said “There’s stories other than ours, and you can’t be everywhere, but I missed a lot, seemingly.” (It’s in Book 3, probably in Ithilien, before the crowning of the king, iirc.)

By the way, Dexter, I did not mean to imply that the article wasn’t a good one. It’s a good article, and an interesting one. It’s just that I have been wondering for years about the origin of the word “schmuck,” and why I have heard it from Italians and sometimes from English-speaking Jews, but never in a Yiddish sentence. Also, as I said in an earlier post, I once spent some time looking it up.

But I have no problem with the article.

I am speculating, however (humorously, not seriously), if the word “schmuck” itself is a derivative of the speech pattern the article was about. (I.e., replacing the first letter with the “schm” sound to be dismissive, as in “Expert, schmexpert, what does the OED know?”) One would have to wonder what original word “schmuck” came from. Could it have begun with the letter “f” you think? :wink:

I don’t know, Motcha. You deride Leo Rosten and you dismiss the evidence of scores of Jewish American comedians and other media personalities who rather consistently speak of “schmuck” as a Yiddish profanity and the “people with letters after their names” who write dictionaries are so much stuff to you.

However, in return, the evidence you offer is in essence “no Yiddish speaker I know uses the term.” Does that really put you in a position to liberally scoff at all the others?

Why should we not have confidence in Leo Rosten? Did he not personally know any speakers of Yiddish?

I have no problem with Motcha’s challenges, acsenray. Motcha’s comment was that Rosten’s book is not a lexicon. I have no dispute with that: it is not intended as a lexicon, it is more for “enjoyment” (if you will) than for scholarship.

And the fact that the Yiddish origin of “schmuck” is oft-repeated is rightly challengable by Motcha. Certainly us Straight Dopers know that mere repetition of a urban legend does not make it true.

While the wave of German-Jewish immigration would have predated the 1892 date, my point was that I don’t think English had absorbed many Yiddish words at that point. English began to pick up Yiddish in the 1920s, IIRC, or later, as a result of the large Jewish comic presence on stage and later screen. (I have not tried to research this, I offer it only as the tentative suggestions of the back of my foggy memory.) Thus, an early appearance of a word like “schmuck” in English suggests a different origin than some of the later Yiddishisms.