Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

While I found the movie Dinner for Schmucks thoroughly enjoyable, I found the title a bit jarring*. Schmuck isn't a very polite word. It literally means penis, and is considered, among people familiar with Yiddish, a swear word. Or at least among the people familiar with Yiddish that I know. It's not a word you'd say around your Bubbe, at any rate.
But that got me thinking about Yiddish, a bit. Aside from Pennsylvania Dutch (first time I've ever spelled Pennsylvania right on the first try, BTW), it's the only language I know that's primarily based in religion, and not in region. 
I'd been under the impression that Yiddish was sort of a pidgin, or at least a sort of informal language. And I think that's understandable given the way I've often heard it used... I've always used it as a sort of slang - if I'm speaking or writing formally, so to speak, I'll tell you that I'm sweating. But if, for instance, I came in from a workout all hot and gross, I'd use schvitzing. Which I guess is a little unusual for a goy. 
It's also surprising, to me anyway, how may words from Yiddish have found their way into English relatively unchanged. It's not just your basic food words, like bagel and lox, and it's not just words that don't have a good English equivalent, like spiel (which, by the way, also means play, which I think is neat) and yenta. It's words that have a perfectly good English synonym, like tchotchkee (pronounced chach-key, meaning knick knack). When I worked in promotions, everybody, including a great many non-Jews called promo items tchotchkees. Some words, like nosh, I didn't even know were Yiddish in origin. 
So how come I only know about three Gaelic words, despite the fact that my grandfather spoke the language fluently, but so many Yiddish words? I suspect, at least in part, that the schma sound is so much fun to make.
Now, Wikipedia has this map, and it's got me wondering if people in, say, Arizona, use words like tchotchkee and stuff.
Also, I always used to think that when punk rockers were shouting Oy, a Yiddish word meaning something akin to FML (which did seem a little odd). They're shouting oi, an English slang term for hey you. That makes a little more sense.

Edit: I just noticed that I failed to point out that Yiddish is NOT a pigin, or informal, and it's been around for a really long time.
*The fact that I'm jarred by swears is, in turn, a bit jarring. I love swearing. I do it a lot. I've elevated it to an art form. I've always thought that the idea of words that are intrinsically bad is ridiculous, and had little patience for people who thought otherwise. Since then, however, I've become immersed in civilized society, where we watch our language around strangers and don't even shout profanities when we fall down the stairs at our workplace. We don't even swear in our blogs! Much. Recently, the phrase "holy frick" escaped my mouth unbidden. I feel like such a swearing sell-out. 


Adam said...

Okay, aside from the fact that Yiddish is related to German, Where'd you get that spiel was Yiddish? I'd wager that it was directly German, considering Yiddish spells it differently. I'd also wager that considering the large number of German speakers in the early US:

I guess an enterprising Yiddish listener could have simply taken the better of the two spellings for English - spiel looks better than spihl.

Anonymous said...

I thought penis was putz and schmuck was testicle.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

Adam (Sills, I presume?), you got me. Spiel is Yiddish, but, but the Online Etymology Dictionary says that it came to English through German, not Yiddish.
Not sure about the spelling thing - Yiddish doesn't use our alphabet, so technically it isn't spiel or spihl.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

A, putz and schmuck have both been slang terms for penis, although the Online Etymology dictionary does mention testicles too.

Anonymous said...

Sills indeed.

Reading this post gave me lots of bad memories of my German teacher. Though I did learn a new word (goy) so it wasn't all bad.