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 the English language 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]


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

The lexicographer Michael Wex, author of How to Be a Mentsh (And Not a Shmuck), writes that the Yiddish term and the German term are completely unrelated. "Basically, the Yiddish word comes out of baby talk," according to Wex. "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 indicates that the term derives 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.[2]

Popular Culture[edit]

Although schmuck is considered an obscene term in the Yiddish language, it has become a common American idiom for "jerk" or "idiot". It can be taken as offensive to some Jewish people, however, with strong Yiddish roots. Allan Sherman explained in his book The Rape of the A*P*E* that, if a 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 among 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 film, Dinner for Schmucks, in which the plot centered around a competition among businessmen to see who could invite the biggest idiot to a monthly dinner. In its review, the New York Times said of the film's its use of the English variant of schmuck in the title: "At The New York Times, where the word is still considered potentially offensive, the title of [the] film may be mentioned only sparingly. Still, advertisements for the movie would probably pass muster", and suggested that the main characters in the film were might be more appropriately called "shmendriks".[12] Film critic Debbie Schlussel took issue with the film's use of the term "schmuck", and also with its use of Yiddish at all, adding: “The more correct title would have been ‘Dinner for Schlemiels'.”[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. ^ a b 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. ^ a b Cieply, Michael (May 3, 2010). "Much Movie Title Meshugas". New York Times.  External link in |title= (help);

External links[edit]