A Big-Headed Dandy

On Language

By Philologos

Published March 10, 2010, issue of March 19, 2010.
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Bernard Weill writes:

“I have often heard the Yiddish word ‘shvitzer’ applied to someone but have been too embarrassed to ask what it meant. Is it a derogatory term?”

A shvitzer is a braggart, and the term is definitely derogatory, though not in the extreme. A shvitzer need not necessarily be a bad, unkind or even unlikable person. He does, however, have a need to boast of his own virtues, achievements and connections, which certainly can make him disagreeable company at times.

Literally, shvitzer means “perspirer” or “one who sweats” in Yiddish, coming as it does from the verb shvitsn, “to sweat.” It also gives us the Yinglish verb “to shvitz,” as in a sentence like, “He’s always shvitzing about his daughter’s grades in college,” and the noun shvitz, or “sweat,” in the sense of “braggadocio” or “empty boastings.” “It’s all a lot of shvitz,” you might say of someone’s attempts at self-promotion.

Why Yiddish shvitsn developed such colloquial meanings is not clear. One theory is that it was influenced by the German verb schwätzen — to chat, chatter, prattle, blather or blab. This yields the noun Schwätzer, which is a chatterbox, gossip or windbag, and Schwätzerei, babble or hot air. Although German schwätzen and schwitzen, to sweat, are two entirely different words (the first descends from Middle High German swateren, the second from Middle High German switzen), it is quite possible that since Yiddish speakers did not have the verb shvetsn in their vocabulary, or else had it and subsequently lost it, they assimilated its meanings to shvitsn. From windbag to braggart, after all, is not very far.

Yet, shvitsn in the sense of “to brag” may also have been an indigenous Yiddish development. It is interesting that Alexander Harkavy, in his 1928 Yiddish-Hebrew-English Dictionary, gives to shvitzer, besides the meaning of “one who perspires,” the meaning not of “braggart,” but of “dandy or dude.” One can see, of course, how a dandy could turn into a braggart — a person seeking to make an impression by his clothing is not that different from a person seeking to make an impression by his words — but if shvitser meant “dandy” before it mean “braggart,” its meaning of “braggart” did not come from German schwätzen.

On the other hand, though it is easy to understand why shvitzer meaning “dandy” might have turned into shvitzer meaning “braggart,” it is far from easy to understand why “one who sweats” should have come to mean a “dandy” in the first place. Moreover, shvitzer has the same meaning of “braggart” in Israeli Hebrew as it has in American Jewish English, which indicates that — even though Harkavy does not define the word that way — this meaning already existed in Eastern European Yiddish before the latter’s speakers emigrated in different directions. It’s extremely unlikely that shvitzer in the sense of “braggart” was borrowed by American Jews from Israelis, or vice versa, especially since it has been in the speech of both since the 1920s or ’30s. Both, therefore, must have gotten it from a common Eastern European source.

The noun shvitzer has the same form in Hebrew that it does in English. “To shvitz” in Hebrew, however, is l’hashvitz, in which shvitz is first broken down, like most Hebrew verbs, into a tri-consonantal root (in this case, sh-v-tz), and then inflected according to one of Hebrew’s several binyanim, or verbal paradigms (in this case, the hif’il paradigm). Thus, “I shvitzed” is “Ani hishvatzti,” “We shvitz” is “Anaḥnu mashvitzim, “She will shvitz” is “Hi tashvitz” and so on. The Hebrew poet Avraham Shlonsky (1900–1973) once wrote some light verse with the lines, “She’mi’yom hishvitzu shvitzim lo hushvatz od shvitz kazeh,” which might be translated as, “Since the oldest shvitz’s shvitzing no such shvitz was ever shvitzed.”

Indeed, so rooted in Israeli speech did shvitzer become that, aware that they could never root it out completely, the Hebrew purists of several generations ago (who tended to have a strong anti-Yiddish bias) sought to translate it into “proper” Hebrew. In his authoritative Hebrew dictionary, first published in 1966, lexicographer Avraham Even-Shoshan has no entry for shvitzer, but he does have one for yaz’an — a word coined from yeza, “sweat”— with the accompanying note that it is a Hebrew “colloquialism” deriving from Yiddish shvitzer. Yet I myself have never heard a single Israeli say yaz’an, and Netiva Ben-Yehuda, co-author with Dahn Ben-Amotz of Israel’s pioneering Hebrew-slang dictionary, which appeared in 1982, had this to say on Even-Shoshan’s entry for yaz’an:

“Some colloquialism! If yaz’an is not an example of slangrification [slinguz — a term Ben-Yehuda and Ben-Amotz came up with to denote the attempt of some Israeli linguistic authorities to plant invented “slang” words in popular speech], I don’t know what slangrification is. The high-brows sit up there on their Olympus and fabricate ‘slang’ for the toiling masses! The shvitzerei this smells of is unbelievable.”

I hope I’ve saved Mr. Weill further embarrassment.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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