When a Knish Is More Than a Knish.

Author:Wexler, Ellen
Position::JEWISH WORD / SCHMUCK, PUTZ, SCHLONG, ZAKH, DORTN... KNISH?
 
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During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump proclaimed at a rally that Hillary Clinton "got schlonged" in the 2008 primaries. Schlong, when used as a noun, is a Yiddish word for penis--and a pretty vulgar one at that. But when used as a verb, is it even a word? Should it be considered a misogynistic insult? A malapropism? Turns out, it's all of the above. While Trump defended his choice of words on Twitter, commentators like Frank Rich argued that "get schlonged" is used as a regional equivalent of "screwed" in New York (particularly in Long Island and Queens). But it's also possible Trump simply made a mistake. As language expert Steven Pinker told The Washington Post, many non-Jews "are confused by the large number of Yiddish terms beginning with schl or schm."

Probably the most common schm- Yid-dishism is schmuck. Another word for male genitals, schmuck is used all the time in English to describe someone who is foolish, obnoxious or detestable. Actor Harrison Ford made headlines last spring when, while landing his small plane at a California airport, he unwittingly touched down on the taxiway instead of the runway. Immediately realizing his mistake, he told air traffic control: "I'm the schmuck that landed on the taxiway."

While pretty much everyone--even non-Jews--knows that schmuck is Yiddish, few know much about its etymology. The word derives from shtekele (Yiddish for little stick), which turned into shmekle (a baby-talk equivalent of pee-wee or weenie), according to Michael Wex, author of the popular Yiddish primer Born to Kvetch. Just as shtekele became shmekle, shtok--a word for stick or club--became schmuck. But while "the shm- prefix makes diminutives like shmekl and shmekele cute and harmless," schmuck is considered obscene.

English speakers like Ford, who treat the word as a benign throwaway have no idea how vulgar the word is considered among Yiddish speakers. As linguist Paul Glasser says: "You can say schmuck in relatively polite company in English--you can't do that in Yiddish." Because schmuck is so vulgar, Yiddish speakers have traditionally invented workarounds so they don't have to say it outright. Some say shin mem kuf (which is how the word is spelled in Hebrew), while others use a tongue-in-cheek phrase like Shmuel Mikhl Kalmen (the first letters of each of these men's names spell schmuck). Another acronym is Shabbes Mikro Koydesh (Shabbat, Bible and holy). "Somebody must have thought that was really clever, to...

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