Yiddish, Shmiddish

No, I agree that it’s perfectly valid to challenge folk etymology. What has got me puzzled is Motcha’s emphatic confidence when his evidence really is the same kind of evidence as offered by Rosten and the others.

To (over-)simplify, if Motch’s proposition is – “I know people who speak Yiddish; therefore, I am right.” Then we can compare this proposition to the evidence offered by Rosten and the others. Can they also say “I know people who speak Yiddish; therefore, I am right”? I suspect that many of them can. Did Rosten know a lot of people who spoke Yiddish? (I’m guessing yes.) Did any of the writers of dictionaries know people who spoke Yiddish? (Okay, maybe less probable.) Did any of the Jewish-American entertainers know people who spoke Yiddish? (I’ll guess yes again.)

I’m not saying that means that Motch is wrong, but that the kind of argument he is offering and the manner in which he offers it doesn’t seem to quite jive. Now, the other evidence regarding the dates and stuff, that seems more concrete.

Furthermore, Motch started off by saying that at least some of his Yiddish-speaking associates were prolific swearers. Then he says, well, really, their style of swearing does not employ vulgarity. Well, so how is that evidence relevant when examining what is proposed as a vulgar term?

(As an aside, I think “schmuck” would qualify more as a vulgarity than a profanity – there doesn’t seem to be any reference to god.)

Dex said

Your guess sounds correct to me. In keeping with the theme, the word putz seems to have appeared in print in 1902 in The New York Times Magazine thusly:

Wozzer! I never knew they grew that big or got so fancy! :eek:

Of course, a putz in 1902 was

from the **OED**.

Well, I don’t believe it’s Italian. “Shm-” & “shn-” are not native Italian sound combinations.
But we knew that, right?

Anyway, didn’t Rosten say that “putz” & “shmuck” meant the same things? (ornament, as in those Pennsylvania Nativity scenes, & penis) I think it’s just a parallel usage of two Germanic words meaning “ornament.”


I get two impressions from your posts on this thread. One, you haven’t bothered to accurately notice exactly what I have been saying; two, if someone rebuts your arguments you simply find another misrepresentation to complain about concerning my arguments.

This indicates to me that there really isn’t any point in responding to your statements. One, you’ll just misread me again; two, you’ll just move on to another complaint about me.

When I have an intellecual discussion, I like to deal with what as actually been said. I haven’t said the things you think I have said, so we’re obviously not discussing the same thing. I suspect that you are discussing ME, instead of the issue. I don’t care to discuss ME with you. I don’t even care to discuss YOU with you.

There’s no “shm” sound in Italian? Well, that blows MY theory there. (I know nothing of the Italian language.)

Still, it’s fascinating to me that the first people I ever heard use the word “schmuck” were Italians. And it rolled so trippingly off their tongues. But as I said, they were talking to Jews at the time, so they may have just used a Yiddish word, if that’s what it is.

It occurs to me that 1892 is NOT too early for it have come from Yiddish. All it would have taken were two or three Yiddish-speaking people in traveling vaudeville to spread the word around America. On the othr hand, I’m not quite sure if there WERE Yiddish-speaking entertainers in vaudeville that early, or even what the state of vaudeville was back then. I think vaudeville was more of a religious revival kind of thing back then, or at least some types were. Maybe someone here can elaborate on that.

It seems to me that it’s no longer a Yiddish word; it’s an English word that came from Yiddish. As such, it’s no surprise to find it used by Italians and others; after all, you live in New York, a town with large and long-standing Jewish and Italian populations, and such a transfer could have happened a long time ago. In fact, if it’s as vulgar as some say it is, it might be more common among non-Yiddish-speaking people for that reason.

Well, it wouldn’t STOP being a Yiddish word just because another language or clture adopted the word.

“Meshuggah” and “Chutzpah” have not stopped being Hebrew just because Americans use those words also, to nake just two examples. Likewise, French words adopted by Anglo-Saxon did not stop being French words, at least not at the time.

Still, I can see how your approach could work. For your approach to work, the word would have had to gain a worse connotation in ENglish than it originally had in Yiddish. Now that is VERY possible, and has definitely happened.

For example, it has happened with the word “chutzpah.” Americans seem to define “chutzpah” (and I wonder if this is in the Leo Rosten book as well) as the highest level of gall, but in Yiddish and Hebrew it is used to mean ANY level of gall.

So “schmuck” (and I don’t feel good even writing that word) might have undergone that sort of metamorphosis, and been expunged from most of Yiddish society.

I suppose it is possible.

But the thing is, schmuck doesn’t mean “penis” in American English, and never really has. It means simply “idiot, jerk” - it doesn’t even have as strong a connotation as “prick.” Many people are surprised to learn that it is supposed to mean “penis” in Yiddish. (I grew up in an Irish-Italian neighborhood in the Bronx where there were very few Jews. Everybody used the word “schmuck,” but always in the sense of “idiot”, not “prick.” No one knew the latter meaning. If you really wanted to curse somebody out you would use the southern Italian “stu’gotz!” [testa di cazzo = “dickhead”].) The fact that it is used casually in many contexts - and by many people - where a word as strong as “prick” would never be used. The same goes for “putz,” which you agree does mean “penis” in Yiddish. “Putz” in English, like schmuck, normally connotes “fool, moron,” and nothing more severe than that.

“Schmuck” is innocuous in standard German, and a relatively mild insult in American English. It was somewhere in between the two that it became an obscenity.

Actually, if I said that :wally means penis, I was wrong. I’ve never heard it to mean that. It is used to mean a fool, or moron, and I have heard it used by Yiddish-speaking people, and IIRC, in Yiddish sentences.

I think that’s what I meant to say. ;j

Sorry if I misunderstood you. I took the above to mean that “putz” is the word Yiddish speakers use for “penis.”

Incidently, I know a guy named Jack Putz. A source of much merriment.

In fact, the word “putz” is a legitimate Hebrew word that has othing to do with profanity, morons, or cursing. It’s not a very commonly used word, though. If I remember correctly, it has something to do with expansion, diffusion, that sort of thing.

I mean that the Hebrew word “puts” is in no way associated with the Yiddish (if that’s what it is) slang word “putz.” ;j