Thursday, December 04, 2008

What's a Shmendrik?

Recently, in a political discussion, someone referred to Joe Lieberman as a maverick. "He's not a maverick," I said. "He's a shmendrik"

Now "maverick" is a word that, after this election season, has become meaningless. Totally useless. If someone calls himself a maverick, don't believe it. If someone else calls him a maverick, think twice.

But what about shmendrik? It's a word that certainly isn't suffering from overuse these days. Besides the play on words with maverick, I figured the shoe fit Lieberman. But I quickly realized that I had only a vague notion of the meaning of shmendrik, and I was clueless about its etymology. I figured it was somehow related to such other Yiddish words as schmuck and schmeckle.

I had always assumed the word "schmuck" came from the German for "jewel," with a layover at "penis." When I traveled in Germany and Austria it tickled me to see shop signs that proudly proclaimed, "Schmuck." But it seems that this etymology may not be so clear-cut (luckily my mohel was no philologist).

According to one website:

schmuck n.
probably not related to Schmuck "jewelry, decoration, adornment": a jerk, oaf, fool. This word would normally not be included here because it probably does not come from German, but so many people have asked me about it that I am including an explanation. The mildly offensive English word schmuck is from the very offensive Yiddish word schmock, shmok "fool, penis." This much is certain.

Most dictionaries say the Yiddish word probably comes from Polish smok "snake, tail," although at least one says it probably comes from Slovenian, which, like Polish, is Slavic, not Germanic. The problem is that schmuck looks German, and there is even a German word Schmuck. One could even draw a connection between the Yiddish and German meanings ("penis" and "jewelry" respectively) with the expression "family jewels," but this is probably pure coincidence.

To complicate matters, at least one dictionary says the literal meaning of the Yiddish word is "a pendant" (which again could be a connection to jewelry) and that it is related to Old High German smocko, from which we get smock, a garment that hangs around one's neck.

It gets worse: One dictionary I found said the Yiddish word does indeed come from German Schmuck (without even a "probably"). Go figure.

Many dictionaries avoid the question altogether (or are extremely honest) and say "origin unknown" or leave it at "Yiddish" (if they include the entry at all).

Though you could say that schmuck and prick ultimately boil down to the same thing, in my own hierarchy a prick is much worse than a schmuck. To me "prick" definitely implies a malicious individual. A prick is, without a doubt, a bastard. But a schmuck could just be a jerk, or perhaps a dork, which is apparently a derivative of dick. And how did certain names become associated with the male member anyway? Mine is one of them, though thankfully I was never kidded as a kid, despite the fact that Screw magazine used to rate porn films on the Peter Meter. And where the hell did Johnson come from?

Schmeckle, I always figured, was an endearing diminutive of schmuck. A schmeckle might be a fuckup, but he's no prick. All right, maybe a little one.

And then there's "schlong," which also refers to the penis and comes from the Yiddish for "snake." I've never heard anybody referred to as a schlong, however. Nobody says, "That guy's a real schlong." Why is this? Why hasn't schlong been enlisted into the insult service?

But back to shmendrik. Shmendrik, unlike schmuck, schmeckle and schlong, has no penile connotations. I discovered, through Wikipedia, that Shmendrik was the name of a character in a Yiddish theater piece dating back to 1877. The article describes the Shmendrik of this play as "an idiotic and clueless mama's boy, a hopelessly poor student at a religious school, whose mother is completely blind to his faults." A shmendrik isn't really a schmuck. A shmendrick is more lovable, more forgivable, than a schmuck. A shmendrick is closer to a schlemiel, a bumbling bungler.

I probably should have called Lieberman a schmuck.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about "choad"? Isn't that another Yiddish word for genitalia?

11:52 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

I don't know from choad. It sounds like a biblical place name. "And he led the Israelites out of Choad..."

But here's what I found online:

It doesn't appear to be Yiddish.

10:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since you've determined Joementum is a shmendrik I guess that makes you a shmegege.

1:04 AM  
Anonymous JMG said...

Great post. Thanks!

4:07 PM  
Blogger lunchlady said...

what about putz?

12:09 AM  
Blogger Wholly Moses! said...

While schmuck and putz both have penis connotation, they are more often used to describe people - with the exception of the golfer who had his wife fondle his balls in order to straighten his putz! Certainly, at the age of 18, I used the word schmuck in front of my grandmother and was chastised severely for my bad (not foul) language.

Schmeckel, on the other hand, is almost always used to describe the actual penis. I can't think of an instance when a person would be described as a schmeckel.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My parents and grandparents often described people with various forms of these words---/including the rarely used SCHMENDRIK and schmegeggie, the latter being very endearing of a goofy, silly child . Miss these words!!

11:29 PM  

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