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.