It seems like everyone is using Yiddish expressions these days. Politicians, newspaper reporters and sportscasters are spicing up their language with Yiddish words – and they don’t always use them correctly!
When we presented our book talk (based on 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 carrier 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?
At first when we told this story, it ended right there – with a laugh. After all, in Yiddish, the literal meaning of shmuck is penis. 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.” The Word Mavens define the word as a derogatory insult for an obnoxious or detestable fellow, a harsher term than shnook or shmo.
But when we did a little research, we 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.
And if you know anyone with the last name of Shmuckler, it’s probably because their ancestors were jewelers!