An ode to the wonderful “schm” sound.
I never knew Sol Steinmetz, the lexicographer and hall-of-fame word-herder who recently died. I wish I had. As the editor of many dictionaries and the author of word books, such as There’s a Word for It: The Explosion of the English Language Since 1900, he was a heavyweight in the word game. He also sounds like a wonderful human being, as indicated by comments from Oxford English Dictionary editor-at-large Jesse Sheidlower: “He never had a bad word to say about anyone ... And he knew a lot of bad words.”
Some of those bad words (and many of the great ones) are Yiddish—one of Steinmetz’s main interests, which he wrote about in Yiddish and English: A Century of Yiddish in America and as co-author of Meshuggenary: Celebrating the World of Yiddish. I’ve been looking for an excuse to talk about words such as “klutz,” “maven,” “kvetch,” “plotz,” and “kibosh” for years, so in honor of Steinmetz and his work, here’s a look at the wonderful legacy of Yiddish in English—but only one part of that legacy. I haven’t the space to do justice to the full impact of Yiddish, so I’m sticking with its most memorable and distinctive sound: “sch,” which remains so useful in English when you meet a schmuck or feel like a schmo.
As Steinmetz (who was an ordained rabbi) and co-authors Payson R. Stevens and Charles M. Levine put it in Meshuggenary, “Yiddish S-words fill the mouth, pucker the lips, and push the tongue against the hard palate. They’re meant to hiss or shush with that acid 's' or noisy 'sh' flowing off the first syllable. They sound funny and immediately evoke the image of whom they’re describing.” The poster child of such words has to be “schmuck,” a perennial put-down the Oxford English Dictionary first spots in 1892: “Becky's private refusal to entertain the addresses of such a Shmuck.” As its use in Dinner for Schmucks shows, “schmuck” is alive and well, though a few years ago it was a basis of a memorable Onion article titled “Mel Brooks Starts Nonprofit Foundation To Save Word 'Schmuck.'”
Schmuck-like Yiddish insults include “schlump,” “schmo,” “schmendrick,” “shlemiel,” “shlimatzel,” “shmeggege,” and “schnook.” The differences between these terms are subtle; a 1948 OED quote distinguishes between two of them: “Schlump is a friendlier, more sympathetic term than ‘schmo,’ which has completely replaced ‘jerk.’ A schmo, of course, is a person who stands watching a machine make doughnuts, and (1) cannot understand the process, (2) cannot get up will power to leave.” I think we all know a few schmos like that.
Meanwhile, Steinmetz and company write that the schlimazel is “...a good buddy of the schlemiel. You can distinguish them by remembering that a schlimazel gets soup spilled on him by a schlemiel.” “Schlong” can be used as a similar insult, though like “putz” it also means a part of the anatomy you can probably figure out from this 1969 Philip Roth quote: “His shlong brings to mind the fire hoses coiled along the corridors at school.” Even Larry David got in the act with his Curb Your Enthusiasm coinage “schmohawk,” which isn’t authentic Yiddish but sure sounds like it.
Other s-words are not insults, but have a schmeer of insulting flavor. “Schmutz” is gunk—never a crowd-pleaser. Schmoozing can be good or bad, but has a faintly ingratiating whiff. Schmaltz and schlock are, respectively, sentimental or shoddy stuff. Though sex and noses can be natural, beautiful things, there are definitely more respectful ways of describing them than “schtupping” and “schnozz." For info on shleppers, shnorrers, and shnuckles, check out David Geller’s 1934 piece on shoe-salesman slang, recently reprinted in Schott’s Vocab.
Yiddish s-words are so linked to insults that “schm” developed its own identity as a Swiss army knife-like, one-size-fits all diminisher, as mentioned in my column on linguistic reduplication of all sorts. The OED’s earliest example of schm-reduplication is from 1929: “‘I know he made Davy go to the Palace to-day with the idea of hastening on the crisis in his illness.’ ... ‘Crisis-shmisis!’ mocked Barnett disparagingly.” They collect other examples since such as “Time; schmime,” “Child, schmild,” “Trotsky-shmotsky,” “Oedipus, Schmoedipus,” “Gods, schmods,” and “Listen schmisten.” My favorite example dismissively refers to a certain rock in the sky as “moon-schmoon.”
For a thorough look at the history and vocabulary of Yiddish, you should read Meshuggenary—a fantastically entertaining and informative book you don’t need to be a word nerd to enjoy. In honor of Sol Steinmetz, the wonderful Yiddish language, and some of the many words I’ve neglected in this column, I urge you to make fuller use of Yinglish in your writing and speech, like so:
Don’t snack with experts—nosh with mavens. Don’t say “diddly-squat”—say “diddly-bupkis!” “Congratulations” is boring—go with “Mazel tov!” Don’t give trinkets, baubles, or knickknacks—give a tchotchke. Stop drooling about how voluptuous Christina Hendricks is—drool because she’s zaftig. And don’t call this paragraph a hodgepodge—call it a mishmash.
Using such words may take some testicular fortitude—wait, no it won’t. It will merely take a little chutzpah.