Schmuck, or shmuck, in American English is a pejorative term meaning one who is stupid or foolish, or an obnoxious, contemptible or detestable person. The word came into the English language from Yiddish (שמאָק, shmok), where it has similar pejorative meanings, but where its literal meaning is a vulgar term for a penis.
The etymology of the pejorative meaning is a matter of some disagreement.
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."
The Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that the term derives from Eastern Yiddish shmok, literally "penis", from Old Polish smok, "grass snake, dragon", but in Hooray for Yiddish! 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.
In the German language the word Schmuck means "jewelry, adornment". It is a standard grammar nominalization of the German verb "schmücken" (to decorate) and as such unrelated to the word discussed in this article. The same is true for the Danish word "smuk", which simply means beautiful.
Because of its generally being considered a vulgarity, the word is often euphemized as schmoe, which was the source of Al Capp's cartoon strip creature the shmoo. Other variants include schmo and shmo.
In Jewish-American culture
Leo Rosten writes in The Joys of Yiddish that schmuck is commonly viewed among Jews as an obscene word that shouldn't be said lightly. Lenny Bruce, a Jewish stand-up 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".
In popular culture
Although schmuck is considered an obscene term in Yiddish, it has become a common American idiom for "jerk" or "idiot". It can be taken as offensive, however, by some Jews, particularly those 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.
The term was notably used in the 2010 comedy film Dinner for Schmucks, in which the plot centered on a competition among businessmen to see who could invite the biggest idiot to a monthly dinner. In her review of the film for the New York Times, film critic Debbie Schlussel took issue with the movie's use of the term "schmuck", and with its use of Yiddish at all, adding: “The more correct title would have been ‘Dinner for Schlemiels'.” She added, "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 might be more appropriately called "shmendriks".
In bodybuilding culture, the term "schmoe", or "smos", is used to describe a person, often a wealthy man who is less muscular and weaker than bodybuilders, who pays bodybuilders money for private posing sessions, wrestling, and prostitution.
- Gross, David C. English-Yiddish, Yiddish-English Dictionary: Romanized Hippocrene Books, 1995. p.144. ISBN 0-7818-0439-6
- Goldberg, Jeffrey. "Sister Schmuck Takes A Stand". The Atlantic (May 2011)
- "Schmuck" in Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 17 Jan 2011.
- Rosten, Leo. Hooray for Yiddish! New York: Simons and Schuster, 1982. ISBN 0-671-43025-4
- Rosten, Leo. The Joys of Yiddish. New York, Pocket Books, 1968. pp. 360-362
- "Schmuck" Leo – Online German-English Dictionary. Retrieved 13 Mar 2010, the pp. 360–362
- "Schmuck". dictionary.com. Retrieved 17 Jan 2011.
- Rosten, Leo. The New Joy of Yiddish. Crown Publishers, New York, 2001. pgs. 78, 162. ISBN 0-609-60785-5
- Paley, Maggie. The Book of the Penis New York: Grove Press, 2000. p.78. ISBN 0802136931
- Sherman, Allan. The Rape of the A*P*E*; the Official History of the Sex Revolution, 1945–1973. Chicago: Playboy, 1973. Print.
- Cieply, Michael (May 3, 2010). "Much Movie Title Meshugas". The New York Times. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
- "Schmoes In Bodybuilding". muscle-insider.com.
- Hildebrand, Bryan. "P.J. Braun: The Other Fans". www.rxmuscle.com.
- "IFBB Pro Undercover #16". 15 January 2003.
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