Filed under: Current Events, modern life | Tags: CitiCorp, copyright, plagerism
It was recently big news in legal and banking circles when Citigroup, the American investment banking and financial services corporation, claimed to own the words “thank you” and filed suit against AT&T for infringing on its intellectual property.
For many years, Citigroup has used the words THANKYOU, CITI THANKYOU and similar terms as part of its customer loyalty programs. How dare AT&T use “AT&T THANKS” in its new marketing campaign?
This got us thinking: We, too, could make some words all caps, squish them together, and own them. We’ll be calling our trademark lawyer to get him working on IAMALWAYSRIGHT and LISTENTOYOURMOTHER. When the substitute teacher writes LISTENTOYOURTEACHER on the blackboard, he won’t even know he’s treading on thin ice. We could file a lawsuit.
We’ve been writers for more than 25 years, and we know that words belong to the person who wrote them. That’s why we’re thrilled when we get a byline and see our names in print. We know enough to attribute quotes when we refer to something someone else has written. We taught our kids that they couldn’t copy straight out of the encyclopedia or just cut and paste from Wikipedia.
“Yes, you need to put quote marks around ‘I have a dream,’ unless it’s you dreaming about an ice cream sundae for dessert.”
The copy center clerk knows you can get in trouble for photocopying when you don’t own the copyright. But when we brought in a newspaper clipping of an article we had written, the clerk refused to help us resize and copy it. We took out our driver’s licenses to prove we were the authors, and that still wasn’t good enough.
“All rights revert back to the author one week after publication!” we shouted, trying to impress him by flaunting our copyright knowledge, but it was no use.We felt like criminals when we had to push the “print” button on our own to make 10 copies of our article. We’ve been unknowingly violating copyrights and skirting the law for years.
Until recently, Warner/Chappell Music owned the rights to the classic song “Happy Birthday.” Violators caught singing the song in public risked a $150,000 fine. Well, we’ve done that hundreds of time. Through the years, when we belted out “Happy Birthday” at our kids’ parties in bowling alleys, skating rinks, and mini golf courses (public places), we knew we were risking embarrassment but not possible arrest and a hefty fine. Happily, last December the song entered the public domain. Phew! We have a birthday coming up next week and we know we’ll be singing.
We’ve gotten away with violating a music copyright, but one of our sons did not. Back in the day when online music sharing sites were born, our kids were thrilled to be able to download “free music” from Napster. We weren’t thrilled when we got angry emails from our internet service provider, warning us that our computer had been traced to illegal music downloads and cautioning us to cease and desist. Now our kids can get all the free music they want from Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes, because it’s our credit card that’s saved in the account.
As bloggers, we need photos to illustrate our words, so when Pinterest and Google Images became popular, we were happy to click and copy like everyone else. If we were writing about wedding cakes, Google could serve up more than 9,000 images for us to choose from, and we could even sort the fabulous photos of cakes by “over the top,” “buttercream,” and “purple.”
If Reader’s Digest and the Huffington Post, two respected publications, can scan the internet for content they want to use, so can we, right? Not so fast, as it turns out.
Hormel Foods Corp., the 125-year-old pork processing giant, didn’t take kindly to our posting a picture of its most famous “canned meat product” to illustrate our essay about junky spam messages clogging up our inbox. A lawyer friend advised us that big corporations don’t have much of a sense of humor, so we deleted the photo.
And then there was the beautiful photo of crispy potato pancakes that we found online. In our blog, we gave a shout out in the caption to the talented chef who actually made them, but that wasn’t good enough. Two days later, we got an irate email from the chef who recognized her latkes and asked us to take the photo down. Oops.
We’ve wised up since then. We no longer “borrow” random online images of delicious desserts. We’ve learned that if we take the picture ourselves, we own it and there’s no question of copyright. That’s why you’ll find us snapping photos of the fruit tarts and takeout sushi in our local gourmet supermarket. Or baking it ourselves, to snap a photo.
So when we go to the copy center next week to make copies of this article, and the clerk doesn’t believe that we’re the authors, we’re going to do it anyway. We know the law. And if he turns us in and the judge sends us up the river, you’ll find us “stuck in Folsom prison and time keeps draggin’ on.”*
*Folsom Prison Blues©, written and sung by Johnny Cash, 1957 Sun Records.
This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer 8/7/16
Filed under: modern life, Uncategorized | Tags: Beyonce, Crock-Pot, CSA, fads, fashion, slow cookers, Snap Kitchen, trends, TV dinners, wawa
Back in the day, you didn’t have to ask if the gefilte fish was “free range.” You knew it was because the carp had been swimming free in your bathtub the day before.
When we were kids, we didn’t know from “locally sourced.” We didn’t think about where our food came from; it just appeared on the kitchen table three times a day. In the summer, the supermarket was loaded with blueberries, cantaloupes and peaches; in winter the selection dwindled to oranges and grapefruit. There were certainly no year-round grapes from Chile or avocados from Mexico. You couldn’t get raspberries in January.
Now, if you are one of those people who will only eat food that is locally sourced, you’ll be eating the mushrooms that spring up in your backyard after a rainstorm. If you’re lucky, there’s a cilantro farm down the road and your neighbor has a goat whose milk makes the most delicious cheese. We don’t have any of that. Finding locally sourced food isn’t always easy in the suburbs. That’s why when we signed up for a community-supported agriculture program, we got beets and turnips in our box week after week.
If you wait long enough, everything old comes back around – but it’s not always new and improved.
TV dinners have come full circle. We have fond memories of the Swanson turkey dinner with whipped potatoes in a divided aluminum foil tray. Our moms would heat it in the oven for 45 minutes to undo the deep freeze. We never touched the little compartment of diced carrots and canned peas; our favorite part was the apple cobbler dessert. We felt so space-age and cool eating dinner on our snack table in front of the TV.
Now, single-serving, ready-to-eat dinners are available everywhere – from Wawa to the new hip chain Snap Kitchen. Snap’s takeout meals include Bison Quinoa Hash and Grilled Kale Hoppin’ John. All of their “nutrient-dense, portion-controlled” meals come in plastic, microwave-ready containers with calorie counts on the label. For dessert, their 160-calorie Chia Seed & Date Pudding is advertised as “gluten-free, non-dairy, paleo, sodium conscious and vegan.” If we eat that for dessert, we’d be back in the kitchen to hunt for a cookie at 10 p.m.
Then there are kitchen trends. Along with electric knives and fondue sets, Crock-Pots were a popular bridal shower gift some 30 years ago. The Crock-Pot would come with a tiny booklet of recipes: Chicken Mexicana that called for chicken thighs and canned green beans, Dr. Pepper pulled pork, and beef stew with Lipton’s onion soup mix and ketchup as the main components of the sauce.
While we blinked, we discovered that slow cookers are back in style with busy millennials. There are 97 Pinterest boards filled with organic recipes, vegan recipes and ways to use your cooker to make everything from bread pudding to cinnamon rolls.
All this hype sent us to the store to buy a new model. Ours was 33 years old – a shower gift. It was harvest gold with a tasteful daisy design and one switch for off, low and high. You dumped in the ingredients and hoped it cooked all the way through and didn’t burn on the bottom.
Nowadays, slow cookers are silver and sleek and digital and programmable. You can set them to cook dinner while you’re at work building a new app. We bought one, read the 23-page instruction booklet, and returned the cooker to the store the next day. If we can’t figure out where our favorite show is — on Netflix, Amazon or Hulu ? — how can we set the digital timer for “delay start” to cook lemon bourbon chicken for dinner?
Everyone knows that fashions come back around. After a 30-year hiatus, jumpsuits are back in style. For women our age, it’s not a good idea to make it any more difficult to get to the bathroom. Remember when you stopped putting your toddler in overalls so they could make it to the potty in time? That’s just one of the reasons why we don’t wear a jumpsuit.
If you saved your acid-washed denim jumpsuit from 1982 hoping it would come back in style – and you can still fit into it – congratulations. However, we have some bad news. You’re not Beyonce. When a style comes back, it’s meant for your daughter, not you.
Our daughters have asked us if we’ve saved any cool clothes from the 1970s. Do we have white vinyl go-go boots and hot pants, a fringed leather vest, or a gold lame disco dress that we could pass on to them? No, we gave them to Goodwill long ago. We never thought they’d come back in style.
Filed under: culture, Uncategorized | Tags: club card, coupons, frequent shopper, Plenti, rewards points, shopping, supermarket
As we waited in the airport for a plane back to Philadelphia recently, we glanced at our boarding passes and were pleasantly surprised to see Group 1 printed at the bottom. Group 1? We are usually in Group 4, along with the woman who forgot she has a 24-ounce bottle of shampoo in her purse.
When the agent announced that the plane was ready for priority boarding, we got up from the plastic seats, ready to go. Then he welcomed those seated in first class. Then families with small children were “welcome to board.” Then, “any uniformed members of the Armed Forces.” That seemed fair. They served our country.
We moved toward the front: Group 1 had to be next. Then he called for “all members of the Admirals Club, the Advantage Club and those with elite status: the diamond, ruby and emerald credit card holders.” What credit card did we use to buy these plane tickets with again? As our fellow passengers streamed by, it seemed like everyone but us had E-ZPass. By the time he preboarded all the “special people,” we were standing alone. Turns out, Group 1 wasn’t very special at all.
We know that when we don’t pay $18 for extra legroom, we’ll be squished in our seats. That’s what we bargained for. But we didn’t bargain for this, and we don’t recall ever even being invited to join the “elite diamond club.”
Many other clubs do want us as members, and not a day goes by without them emailing us with offers of bonus points, free food, rewards, and advantages. Sometimes the advantages are dubious, but if you ask us, we’ll likely sign up — just in case. We once stood in line to try a cronut and found ourselves signing up for the delicious cronut loyalty club — just in case we have the urge to spend $5 on a trendy iced pastry, in a city we once visited, again.
When the clerk in the frozen yogurt store looked at our cups overflowing with Oreo cookie crumbs and wet walnuts, she asked, “Do you want to join our frequent eater Yummy Yogurt club?” We couldn’t resist. We were hoping that the next time we flipped the handle to start the flow of mint chocolate chip, she’d announce: “All members of the super secret Yummy Yogurt club get free jimmies today.”
We can remember a time when we guarded our privacy, reluctant to divulge our email addresses and phone numbers to strangers. But now that we — and everyone else in the world — can see the front of our houses on Google Maps, we know that keeping our details private is a lost cause. Privacy is a pipe dream.
At the chain drug store, the employee at the register prods us to enter our Plenti rewards number before she’ll even think about ringing up our greeting cards and Q-tips. “You get points and some money off,” she chirps happily every time. We do as we’re told, but invariably, we get Plenti of nothin’. At the competing chain, our reward is a coupon for $4 off — next week. Since we just bought $45 worth of cold medicine, it’s unlikely we’ll need to come back in time to use that coupon. It’ll expire on the floor of our car.
We do like our supermarket loyalty program, which provides instant gratification. After we rack up hundreds of dollars in groceries, we scan our super shopper card and watch the discounts come off with a “ding.” Blueberries: — $2.50. English muffins: — 50 cents. At the end of the receipt is the proof: We saved $23.76. Woohoo! That $20 will cover our impulse purchases of caramel sea salt gelato and organic cucumber face wash.
Even though the club cards clutter up our wallets, we prefer them to clipping coupons and then searching for each item in the store. We never mastered the art of extreme couponing. And those computer-savvy companies who use reward apps? We’ve downloaded some that promise to keep track of what we eat and what we earn, but it’s hard to remember our user name and password, and when we do, we have to swipe through five screens to choose our salad ingredients online so we can get credit for our purchase.
So what do these loyalty clubs get us? When a friend wanted to get a speedy appointment with a world-famous gastroenterologist, her membership in the Rita’s Water Ice cool customer club didn’t impress the receptionist enough to get her in to see the doctor. Maybe it would have worked if she were a member of the “elite diamond club.”
This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 25, 2016
Filed under: Passover | Tags: gluten-free, hametz, Israeli products, Jewish food, Jewish holidays, Manischewitz, Passover, Pesach, shop-Rite
Passover is almost here and we have lots to ponder –
After all these years of spreading peanut butter on matzah and pretending we are Sephardic, it’s now official! We can now legally eat kitniyot during Passover. This past December 2015, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly voted 19-1 to end certain food restrictions that they said are no longer necessary.
Kitniyot is the term for foods that are traditionally eaten by Sephardic Jews – rice, corn, soy beans, string beans, peas, lentils and peanuts – but not by Ashkenazic Jews during Passover. These foods were staples of the Sephardic Mediterranean diet – so they didn’t cut them out. The prohibition against kitniyot began in 13th century France to avoid confusion about what was and was not hametz (food forbidden on Passover). Back then, who knew what else was mixed in the burlap sack along with your two rubles of rice?
In their recent ruling, the RA recognized that in modern times, most food stuff comes in a sealed package, the contents are inspected and regulated and consumers can reliably distinguish what might be hametz. They also stated that allowing people to eat rice and beans “would bring down the cost of making Pesah and support a healthier diet.”
So it took us only 700 years to be able to serve Spanish rice with roast chicken during the holiday.
There are still things to debate: Now that kitniyot is okay, what do we do with the Rice Chex? We usually banish it to the basement for the week of Passover, but maybe it’s technically OK this year. Rice is kitniyot, although we’ll feel funny having cold-cereal for breakfast during Passover. Once you’ve done fried matzah, bad breakfasts are one of the things to kvetch about on Pesach!
This whole new category of food made Passover shopping even more of an adventure this year. The ShopRite in the Promised Land of Cherry Hill, NJ, never disappoints with its variety and quantity of Passover items.
This year the Shop-Rite had a shelf of these newly approved products with a printed disclaimer that said, “Kitniyot for those who want it.”
We read that the official tally is 300 new food items that earned kosher for Passover certification this year. Some were expected, like Manischewitz’s new hazelnut chocolate macaroons and Gefen’s chunk light tuna. Others caught us by surprise, such as the “hamburger buns” from Chantilly Bakery in Flatbush, NY. Passover buns? How do they do that? They use grains that are gluten-free. Their buns look delicious, as did their frosted Passover Black Forest cake. With all the new gluten-free foods on the market, those who avoid gluten because of dietary concerns have many more choices; they are free to eat pesachdik granola bars. We’ve tried those once, and once was enough. You can have our share of the pesachdik granola bars.
Some other items we saw:
On the way to buying a gallon of sweet Manischewitz wine, which we use for haroset and for the teens and Bubbes who prefer a “sweeter” wine, we came across MANNAge a’trois beer from Shmaltz Brewing Company. They call it a “3-way IPA” just in time for Passover. We’re not sure if it’s kosher for Passover (beer usually isn’t), but they certainly produce some cleverly named beverages, including Cir Cum Session and Genesis ales.
We like it that the ShopRite sells a lot of Israeli products for Passover.
Along with the usual jams, jellies and spices and the chocolate Nutella-like spread we love, we found Israeli shampoo. There was a choice of pink and white liquid in the bottles. Which is the conditioner? Is the pink one for curly hair? We’ll never know because the labels are all in Hebrew.
When our kids were young, they loved to play Candyland. So when we saw the Kosherland board game, we bought it for them. But spinning the dice and trying “not to mix milk with meat” was not nearly as much fun at going to King Kandy’s ice cream cone castle. This year we came across “Cholent: The Game.” Oy! The manufacturer describes it as a “slow-cooking, fast-moving strategy card game.” Players have to collect cards with ingredients for their cholent recipe. We like that they included a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words you might need when you’re cooking up your hearty stew. One word was shnorrer, the guest who will show up – uninvited – to eat your cholent.
Well, we won’t be making cholent for Pesach. We’ll be sticking with brisket and chicken and a lot of homemade haroset. One of us is hosting a seder for 20 where the highlight hopefully will be the 2016 edition of “Jewpardy,” in which the guests are asked to play a Pesach edition of the popular quiz show. The other one will pull out her bag of “vintage” Pesach masks. We wonder who will want to be the King of Kings this year.
Whether your seder is short or long, enjoy! The Word Mavens wish you a zissen (sweet) Pesach!
Preview Jewpardy question:
I’ll take “Jewish Before & After” for $400, Alex:
Q: In The Ten Commandments movie, he played Dathan the Jewish Overseer who was stranded on a desert island.
A: Who is Edward G. Robinson Crusoe?
Filed under: Jewish holidays, Purim | Tags: baby names, Haman, Hamantashen, Jewish culture, Jewish holidays, Purim, Purim carnival
As holidays go, Purim is underrated. It got a little more attention this year than usual because Passover is so darn late, but Purim usually doesn’t get the holiday cred it deserves.
With Purim there’s no need to cook and host a big family dinner (not that that’s always a bad thing). There’s no need to build a hut in the backyard or look for gifts for the cousins who say, “I don’t need a thing.” To us, Purim means a synagogue service where it’s not only okay to make noise – it’s encouraged. And a carnival with games, crafts and a moon bounce.
But most of all Purim means we get our fill of hamantaschen, those yummy, triangular-shaped, filled cookies that come around just once a year.
Hamantashen can be bought, baked, or shnorred. You can buy them at the supermarket and try to be satisfied with the preservative-laden pastries in a plastic shell that was probably packed back in February. You can pay a lot for them at a fancy bakery. You can also bake them yourself. Ellen did just that and then sent shalach manot (the traditional Purim gift packages given to family, friends and the needy) to children living on their own, children away at school and a mother-in-law who likes to get surprise packages. The flavors? Apricot, cherry, chocolate chip, lekvar and mun (poppy seed). Her husband loves the mun ones, and after years of being told “no one likes mun but you,” he was happy to discover that his nieces also like mun hummies.
The leftover levkar? You can spread it – instead of jam – on toast. Some people are as disgusted by this as we are by mun. We’re more upset that the supermarket has moved the leftover containers of hamantashen to the shelves with all the Pesach stuff.
Then there are those of us who shnorr hamantashen. We picked out the cherry ones at the oneg after services. Some came in the shalach manot basket from Sisterhood, and we ate some more when we went to a friend’s house for lunch.
When our children were young, we went with them to Purim carnivals, where they would ask us to buy more game tickets, watch them throw the bean bag at Haman, and help carry home all the chazerai they won. In their teenage years, as members of the synagogue youth group, they were charged with supervising the Purim carnival. They dressed up as Haman and volunteered to get hit in the face with shaving cream pies. They doled out the prizes, and we had a chance to join in the fun. Now that our kids are grown, we have not gone to a Purim carnival for several years. It’s one of those activities that require you to bring a kid.
Not going to the Purim carnival can be good news: We don’t have to take care of the goldfish the kids won.
The bad news: We don’t have a grandchild to take care of either.
Biblical names have always been popular. Jewish mothers ask, “Why name your daughter Brittney when you can go with something classic?” That’s why we have aunts named Ruth and Esther and friends named Rachel. We did not send a birthday gift to Gwyneth Paltrow’s son – Moses, but we did to a newborn named Noah. But we were surprised to read about a girl named Vashti. She is the daughter of former Eagles’ quarterback Randall Cunningham.
We know Queen Vashti, King Ahasuerus’s first wife, who was deposed by Esther, the heroine of the Purim story. But Vashti Cunningham? Maybe the Cunningham parents were familiar with Queen Vashti’s status as the original feminist. This brave woman risked her life by refusing her husband (the king) when he summoned her to “entertain” his drunken guests at a banquet.
And speaking of drunken guests …. on Purim there’s an open bar. Passover has the four cups of wine, but on Purim liquor is often offered in the back of the synagogue so congregants can indulge while listening to the megillah. You’re supposed to drink enough until you can no longer tell the difference between Mordechai (the good guy) and Haman (the bad guy). This is one tradition that we don’t have to nag our adult kids to observe; they are more than happy to embrace this aspect of their heritage.
Another Purim tradition is to make noise during the reading of the megillah to drown out Haman’s name. His name is mentioned quite a bit, which leads to a lot of shouting, clapping and turning the grager, the traditional Purim noisemaker.
Making noise, shouting and interrupting . . . It sounds a bit like some of the recent presidential debates. In fact we’d like to bring this tradition to the next Republican debate: We will shout and wave our gragers whenever Trump’s name is mentioned. Hmm: Who else has five letters in his name? Haman. Coincidence? We don’t think so.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: cherry blossoms, global warming, Punxasutawney Phil, snow, spring, weather
Twenty-three inches of snow ago, we were feeling pretty smug. We were proud that we didn’t waste money on a January vacation to the Riviera Maya like some of our friends did. We were glad we didn’t prepay for discount lift tickets at Jack Frost, whose ski trails were bare. We wondered whether anyone was buying the marked-down mittens and scarves at the post-Christmas sale when it was 70 degrees outside. We felt bad for the kids who wouldn’t have a snow day and the TV weather anchors who had to fake enthusiasm for a seven-day forecast of nothing but mid-40s temperatures and gray skies.
We thought winter would never come, that it would be like a magical fairy tale: We would wake up one day, after a few months of mild weather, and it would be April. All the cherry trees that prematurely flowered, the daffodils that poked up tenuous shoots, and the fat birds that just gave up trying to fly south because it wasn’t that cold anyway would be proven right. We had just skipped over winter.
Whenever we selfishly felt happy for the unseasonable warmth, we also had a pang of guilt about the polar bears and the shrinking ice caps. We would worry about the ecologically damaged world we are leaving for our children, but we enjoyed running errands in just a sweater.
We read the Jan. 19 Inquirer article reporting that 2015 “was by far the hottest year in 136 years of record keeping. For the most part, scientists blamed manmade global warming, with a boost from El Niño.”
This was all before our big snow.
Like most people on the East Coast, we were ready. We moved the shovels from the garage to the back door. Even though we have food stockpiled in our pantries that could take us through any emergency, we joined the throngs of neighbors at the supermarket to buy bagels, potato chips, and a hunk of brie. Then it started to snow and blow, and it kept up for a day.
We monitored the snowfall on the backyard patio table. We had never put it away because we knew that winter wasn’t coming this year. Until last weekend, it stood dry and lonely. As the snow fell, the table’s unobstructed, flat surface became a reliable measuring spot for the blizzard. The more than two feet of snow turned it into a vast white banquet tablecloth. Its chairs became large, marshmallow lumps.
As the snow fell, we hunkered down inside, making pots of soup and chili and using up the leftover bananas to make banana bread. We read books, we watched TV, and we knitted three more balls of yarn on the huge fuzzy afghan. We uploaded the photos from last year’s vacation, deleted 1,003 emails, and cleaned out the kitchen junk drawer. We drank three bottles of wine and binge-watched the first season of Fargo.
As the snow piled up on Saturday, we scrolled through Facebook photos of kids who were excited to play in the snow and of tiny dogs that had to go out even though the snow was over their heads. This was the rare time when we were glad to have neither kids nor dogs begging us to go out.
By Sunday, the snow had stopped. We ventured outside to offer moral support to our husbands’ efforts to shovel the driveway. We unburied the cars and started the engines. We admired our neighbor’s new snow blower, bought when the blizzard was first forecast. We had cabin fever, and by 1 p.m., we ventured to the supermarket, just to have somewhere to go, but it was cleaned out of all the good snacks.
TV weather people were happy to report that last weekend’s storm dropped a season’s worth of snow in two days. We weren’t happy, but we did enjoy staying in our pjs and having a good excuse not to leave the house.
Maybe we’re just optimists, but we believe that last weekend’s snow was just a blip on the weather calendar, that it is not the start of a long, cold winter. The robin perched on the huge snow bank and the budding pussy willow bush are telling us that spring is right around the corner. We’re certain that in a few days, Punxsutawney Phil will agree with us, too.
This article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday, January 29, 2016.
Filed under: culture, Dictionary of Jewish Words, Yiddish | Tags: curses, Donald Trump, Jewish words, penis, vulgar words, words, Yiddish
After 15 years of writing and speaking about Jewish words, we think we have a decent Yiddish vocabulary. But our audiences often surprise us with Yiddish words that are new to us, like feinshmeker. Huh? That’s how one woman described us. It means we don’t “put on airs.” That’s good because we pride ourselves on being haimish (unpretentious).
But it’s even more confusing when the word in question isn’t Yiddish at all, like spatula.
At one of our book talks, we met a woman who grew up thinking that the word spatula was a Yiddish word. It was what her Yiddish-speaking Bubby called for when she was baking rugelach. It was an unfamiliar word to a child who only knew from spoon and fork, so she assumed that spatula was another one of Bubby’s foreign words. We imagine that if an Italian grandmother asked for a colander to drain the spaghetti, her grandchild might make the same mistake –and think colander is Italian.
Another woman grew up thinking that the word traipse was Yiddish. Traipse means to drag, plod, or trudge along, to wander all over the place. It is not Yiddish; its origin is unknown, although our online dictionary lists shlep, a certified Yiddish word, as a synonym. To us, traipse sounds like treif, the Yiddish word for food that isn’t kosher. These two words can only intersect in a sentence like this: “We traipsed all the way to Chinatown for an order of pork lo mein.”
Some people think the word svelte is Yiddish, but we wouldn’t make that mistake. Svelte sounds tall, thin, blonde and Swedish to us. We learned that it’s from the French (svelte) and the Italian (svelto), both of which mean slim or slender. We are way more familiar with the Yiddish word zaftig, which literally means juicy. It describes a full-bodied, voluptuous, rounded woman.
Everyone’s using Yiddish these days. A Walmart ad describes a shopper laden with packages as shlepping through the store. Martha Stewart refers to herself as the maven of home décor, and everyone from congressmen to CEOs use the word shmooze to describe chatting with their co-workers.
We get upset when people misuse Yiddish words, like what happened with shpilkes. It literally means “pins,” and it describes impatience and nervous energy. A child with shpilkes has ants in his pants. So imagine our surprise when a non-Jewish newspaper writer described the late Sen. Arlen Specter as a “politician with real shpilkes.” We suspect the writer was looking for the word chutzpah, because Specter was known for being a fierce fighter for the causes he believed in.
The worst offender in recent memory is Donald Trump, who said that Hillary Clinton “got shlonged” by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. Besides the fact that his comment was totally rude and inappropriate, he turned a vulgar Yiddish noun for male genitalia — shlong means snake — into a verb. One doesn’t get penised by someone. It would have been more correct and a lot more polite to say, “She got klopped in the last election.” (Klop is a Yiddish word that means to smack or hit.)
Like English, Yiddish has a lot of nicknames for male private parts. Putz not only means penis but can also refer to someone who is not worthy of respect – worse than a jerk. Putz can be a verb, it means wasting time or fooling around, as in “Stop putzing around with that stupid video game.” Shmuck is another one of those dirty Yiddish words. It means penis, but it also refers to someone who allows himself to be taken advantage of, as in: “I was a shmuck to wait an hour for her, and she never showed up.” A shmuck is worse than a shmo, shnook or shlemiel.
When we presented our book talk (about writing our Dictionary of Jewish Words) in Harrisburg, a woman in the audience told us this story: She was waiting in line to renew her driver’s license in the PA capital building – not far from Amish country – when the woman ahead of her in line put her baby seat up on the counter. The clerk leaned over, clucked at the baby and said, “What a cute little shmuck.” The mother smiled and looked pleased. Our Jewish friend was stunned. What kind of a compliment was that?
We wondered that too, so we did a little research and found out that in German – and in Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a dialect of German – shmuck means jewel or ornament. It’s a term of endearment. Maybe that’s what the clerk meant.
In fact, we know it’s true, because we saw “mock schmuck” on a sign outside a costume jewelry store in Berlin. And if you know anyone with the last name of Shmuckler, it’s probably because their ancestors were jewelers.
When shmuck migrated to Yiddish, it came to mean “the family jewels” and took the leap from jewelry counter to slang for a body part. In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten (the father of all word mavens) wrote, “I never heard any elders, certainly not my father or mother, use shmuck, which was regarded as so vulgar as to be taboo.” We know that if Leo Roston had heard Donald Trump’s rant – and abuse of Yiddish – he would have plotzed.
A note about spelling Yiddish words: why we write shlong rather than schlong
Indeed schlong seems to have more oomph than shlong. It is longer with that extra “c.” But when we wrote the Dictionary of Jewish Words, we took a cue from Gene Bluestein’s book Anglish/Yinglish: Yiddish in American Life and Literature, in which he points out that the “sch” sound is a basically German approach. In Yiddish, the “sch” sound is made by the letter shin, which means that the “sh” spelling is technically more correct than the “sch” version. We did list them both ways in the book, so you could be sure to find your schmendrick –even if we spell it shmendrick.