Schmuck (pejorative)

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Schmuck or shmuck in American English is a pejorative meaning one who is stupid or foolish; or an obnoxious, contemptible or detestable person. The word entered English from Yiddish (שמאָק, shmok), where it has similar pejorative meanings, but its original meaning in Yiddish is penis.[1] Because of its vulgarity,[2] the word is euphemized as schmoe, which was the source of Al Capp's cartoon strip creature the shmoo.[3] Variants include schmo and shmo.

In Jewish homes, the word was "regarded as so vulgar as to be taboo".[4] Lenny Bruce, a Jewish standup comedian, wrote that the use of the word during his performances in 1962 led to his arrest on the West Coast "by a Yiddish undercover agent who had been placed in the club several nights running to determine if [his] use of Yiddish terms was a cover for profanity".[5]


The German word Schmuck means "jewelry, adornment".[6] The etymology of the pejorative meaning is a matter of some disagreement.

According to the lexicographer Michael Wex, the author of How to Be a Mentsh (And Not a Shmuck), the Yiddish and German "schmucks" are completely unrelated. "Basically, the Yiddish word comes out of baby talk," Wex said. "A little boy’s penis is a shtekl, a 'little stick'. Shtekl became shmeckle, in a kind of baby-rhyming thing, and shmeckle became shmuck. Shmeckle is prepubescent and not a dirty word, but shmuck, the non-diminutive, became obscene."[7]

However, according to Leo Rosten in "Hooray for Yiddish!", the pejorative German "schmuck" would be Schmock, closer to the original Yiddish word. The transition of the word from meaning "jewel" to meaning "penis" is related to the description of a man's genitals as "the family jewels".[8]

The Online Etymology Dictionary derives it from Eastern Yiddish shmok, literally "penis", from Old Polish smok, "grass snake, dragon",[9] but Leo Rosten cites Dr. Shlomo Noble of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research as saying that shmok derives from shmuck and not the other way around.

Popular Culture[edit]

Although schmuck is considered an obscene term in the Yiddish language, it has become an American idiom for "jerk" or "idiot". It can be seen as offensive to some Jewish people with strong Yiddish roots. Allan Sherman explained in his book The Rape of the A*P*E* that, if the word is used frequently enough, it loses its shock value and comes into common usage without raising any eyebrows.[10]

In his book, The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten wrote "Never use schmuck lightly, or in the presence of women and children", which was a common view amongst Jewish people who felt a connection to the language and still viewed it as an obscene reference to a penis.[11]

The term was notably used in the 2010 comedy, Dinner for Schmucks, in which the plot was centered around a competition among businessmen for who can invite the biggest idiot to a monthly dinner. The New York Times reviewed the title of the film for using the English variant of the word.[12]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Gross, David C. English-Yiddish, Yiddish-English Dictionary: Romanized Hippocrene Books, 1995. p.144. ISBN 0-7818-0439-6
  2. ^ Rosten, Leo. The Joys of Yiddish. New York, Pocket Books, 1968. pp. 360-362
  3. ^ "Schmuck". Retrieved 17 Jan 2011.
  4. ^ Rosten, Leo. The New Joy of Yiddish. Crown Publishers, New York, 2001. pgs. 78, 162. ISBN 0-609-60785-5
  5. ^ Paley, Maggie. The Book of the Penis New York: Grove Press, 2000. p.78. ISBN 0802136931
  6. ^ "Schmuck" Leo – Online German-English Dictionary. Retrieved 13 Mar 2010, the pp. 360-362
  7. ^ Goldberg, Jeffrey. "Sister Schmuck Takes A Stand". The Atlantic (May 2011)
  8. ^ Rosten, Leo. Hooray for Yiddish! New York: Simons and Schuster, 1982. ISBN 0-671-43025-4
  9. ^ "Schmuck" in Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 17 Jan 2011.
  10. ^ Sherman, Allan. The Rape of the A*P*E*; the Official History of the Sex Revolution, 1945-1973. Chicago: Playboy, 1973. Print.
  11. ^ Rosten, Leo. The Joys of Yiddish. New York, Pocket Books, 1968.
  12. ^ Cieply, Michael (May 3, 2010). "Much Movie Title Meshugas". New York Times. 

External links[edit]