"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 original and literal meaning is penis.
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."
According to Leo Rosten in "Hooray for Yiddish!", the pejorative use of the German "schmuck" derives from Schmock, which is closer to the original Yiddish word: and 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".
The Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that the term derives from Eastern Yiddish shmok, literally "penis", from Old Polish smok, "grass snake, dragon", but 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.
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
In Jewish homes in the United States, the word normally has been "regarded as so vulgar as to be taboo". 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 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 who still viewed it as an obscene reference to a penis.
In popular culture
Although schmuck is considered an obscene term in the Yiddish, it has become a common American idiom for "jerk" or "idiot". It can be taken as offensive, however, by some Jewish people, 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 review, 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".
- Gross, David C. English-Yiddish, Yiddish-English Dictionary: Romanized Hippocrene Books, 1995. p.144. ISBN 0-7818-0439-6
- "Schmuck" Leo – Online German-English Dictionary. Retrieved 13 Mar 2010, the pp. 360-362
- Goldberg, Jeffrey. "Sister Schmuck Takes A Stand". The Atlantic (May 2011)
- Rosten, Leo. Hooray for Yiddish! New York: Simons and Schuster, 1982. ISBN 0-671-43025-4
- "Schmuck" in Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 17 Jan 2011.
- Rosten, Leo. The Joys of Yiddish. New York, Pocket Books, 1968. 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
- Rosten, Leo. The Joys of Yiddish. New York, Pocket Books, 1968.
- 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". New York Times. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
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