A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Yiddish, shmiddish--why do we repeat a word but start it with "shm-"?

February 12, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

What is the origin of the practice of a dispraging a word by saying the word than dropping the first letter and replacing it with "schm?" For example, if you don't like baseball, you would say "baseball schmaseball."

It comes from Yiddish, of course. You have to ask?

Yiddish was the language of eastern European (or Ashkenazic) Jews. Yiddish is not Hebrew. Hebrew is the 3,000 year old language used by the Jews for prayer and religious ceremonies (along with Aramaic) and is the official language of the state of Israel.

Yiddish uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and is written from right to left (like Hebrew.) But less that a fifth of Yiddish words are of Hebrew origin. Perhaps as much as 75% of Yiddish vocabulary consists of adaptations of German words, with bits from Polish, Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian, various Slavic dialects, and (since the late 1880s) English. Spelling is largely phonetic, although there has been some standardization in the last century.

Around the tenth century, Jews from what is now northern France, who spoke Old French (and Hebrew), moved to towns along the Rhine, where they began to use the local German dialect, which they adopted and adapted. They wrote German phonetically with their Hebrew alphabet. They avoided Latin and its alphabet, because Latin was associated with Christendom and persecutions.

As Yiddish developed, there was obviously a heavy Hebrew influence (names, holidays, religious matters). Words were added from other languages as Jews traveled. Yiddish became the language of the home, as opposed to the sacred language Hebrew. Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, calls Yiddish a "linguistic melange" that flourished in eastern Europe, in the ghettos. (The Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215 prohibited Jews from living close to Christians and thus the ghettos were born.) Since the Jews were segregated, Yiddish did not evolve along with German, and thus, to a modern German speaker, Yiddish has irregularities in grammar and spelling.

Yiddish did evolve, of course, but independently. By the 15th century, when Jews moved to eastern Europe, Yiddish picked up new words and phrases mainly from the street and market.

Yiddish is only one of the many vernacular languages fashioned by Jews throughout the ages. You can still find Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Persian, Farsi-Tar used by Jews in the Caucasus Mountains, and Ladino used by Jews in the south of Europe. But Yiddish is the language that was the most widespread, adapted most vigorously, and has flourished best. At one time (1920s), about two-thirds of world Jewry spoke Yiddish; the Holocaust, of course, ended that.

I have to add a personal comment: during WWII, my father-in-law was in the American army, in one of the advance units moving into Germany. He was the translator when his unit encountered German civilians, because he spoke Yiddish--as close to German as his unit was going to get.

Linguistically, Yiddish is technically classified as Judeo-German, with bits of Old French and Old Italian. There are three types of Yiddish: Lithuanian, Polish, and Ukranian. Lithuanian Yiddish predominates in the U.S.

When Jews fled the pogroms (government-sponsored riots and persecutions) of Europe to the U.S. beginning in the late 1800s, they brought Yiddish with them. The language adapted with borrowed English words, which were given new case, mood, and inflection. Thoughts were rearranged to meet traditional Yiddish syntax ("Him you call a genius?"), logic was rearranged ("I didn't go and I didn't not go") and English words and names were cheerfully adapted (Abraham Lincohen, Judge Vashington).

The borrowing was two-way: American English adapted phrases from Yiddish. Nosh, shmo, schmuck, gonif, hoohah, yenta, -nik (as in beatnik), and several hundred others. Phrases such as "get lost," "you should live so long," "my son, the doctor," "alright already," "excuse the expression," "on him it looks good," "it shouldn't happen to a dog" . . . the list goes on.

Rosten says words and phrases aren't the main contribution of Yiddish to English, but linguistic devices (we're getting to your question, be patient).

Rosten cites the following wonderful array of insult and innuendo, adapted into English from Yiddish. The problem is whether to attend a concert being given by a niece. The same sentence is put through the following paces, depending on emphasis:

  1. I should buy two tickets for her concert?--meaning:, "After what she did to me?"
  2. I should buy two tickets for her concert?--meaning: "What, you're giving me a lesson in ethics?"
  3. I should buy two tickets for her concert?--meaning: I wouldn't go even if she were giving out free passes!
  4. I should buy two tickets for her concert?--meaning: I'm having enough trouble deciding whether it's worth one.
  5. I should buy two tickets for her concert?--She should be giving out free passes, or the hall will be empty.
  6. I should buy two tickets for her concert?--Did she buy tickets to our daughter's recital?
  7. I should buy two tickets for her concert?--You mean, they call what she does a "concert"?

In addition, Rosten cites the following examples of linguistic devices in English, that are Yiddish in origin, to "convey nuances of affection, compassion, displeasure, emphasis, disbelief, skepticism, ridicule, sarcasm, and scorn."

  • Mordant syntax: "Smart, he isn't."
  • Sarcasm through innocuous diction: "He only tried to shoot himself."
  • Scorn through reversed word order: "Already you're discouraged?"
  • Contempt through affirmation: "My partner, he wants to be."
  • Fearful curses sanctioned by nominal cancellation: "May all your teeth fall out except one, so that you can have a toothache, God forbid."
  • Derisive dismissal disguised an innocent interrogation: "I should pay him for such devoted service?"

And (finally, we get to it!):

  • Blithe dismissal via repetition with an sh- play-on-the-first-sound: "The mayor? Mayor, Shmayor, it's his wife who runs the town!"

The use of sh- or shm- isn't merely dismissal-- it's a pooh-poohing with blatant mockery. 

  • "The doctor says he has a serious virus? Virus, shmirus, as long as he's healthy."
  • "Who said that? Fred? Fred, Shmed, what does he know?"
  • "The psychiatrist says he has an Oedipus complex. Oedipus, Shmoedipus, so long as he loves his mother."

As to the origin of the sh- sound for this derision, we can only speculate. There are a number of Yiddish words of aspersion that start with sh- or shm-: shmo (a jerk) , shlemiel (the person who always spills the soup), shlmazel (the person on whom the soup gets spilled by the shlemiel), shnook (a meek patsy), schnorrer (beggar, panhandler, cheapskate, chiseler, bum), shloomp (a drip), schmuck (dick-head, son-of-a-bitch), et al. Perhaps that's the way it began.

While we're on the subject of Yiddish, another expression whose origin people wonder about is, "What am I, chopped liver?"

We consulted an excellent website about all things Jewish, Ask the Rabbi (www.ohr.org.il/web/index/askfull.htm).

According to this site, the phrase was coined in America. Chopped liver is a side dish and never a main course, so the phrase is used to express hurt and amazement when someone feels overlooked, i.e., treated as a "side dish."

As if I had to tell you.

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