Etiquette for Schmucks, Schlemiels, Schlimazels and Schmendriks

On Language

Schmendriks of a Feather: Tim (Steve Carell), left, and Barry (Paul Rudd) getting ready for dinner in the forthcoming ‘Dinner for Schmucks.’
DREAMWORKS
Schmendriks of a Feather: Tim (Steve Carell), left, and Barry (Paul Rudd) getting ready for dinner in the forthcoming ‘Dinner for Schmucks.’

By Philologos

Published May 12, 2010, issue of May 21, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Last week’s column, a reply to a reader’s query about the Yiddish word mentsh, invoked Michael Wex’s 2009 book, “How To Be a Mentsh (& not a Shmuck).” Today, we return to the second half of Wex’s title, spurred by Paramount Pictures’ announcement of the release, this summer, of a new comedy directed by Jay Roach, starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd and called “Dinner for Schmucks.”

A May 3 New York Times article by film writer Michael Cieply raised a number of questions about “Dinner for Schmucks.” Some had to do with etymology: Where does the Yiddish word shmok come from? (Wex has an original theory about this, which I’ll have to put off for another time.) Some had to do with propriety: Should “schmuck,” which is also Yiddish slang for a penis, be considered too offensive a word to appear on marquee and in newspaper ads? And some had to do with accuracy: Is “schmuck” the right term for either of the movie’s two main characters — one of them a misfit who has been cruelly invited to a dinner party in order to entertain the other guests with his “geeky behavior,” the other his sadistic host?

In short, what, in the way the word is used, makes a schmuck a schmuck? And in what way is a schmuck different, Cieply asks, from a schlemiel, a schlimazel, a schmendrik or a plain old jerk?

Anyone familiar with these words knows that a schmuck is very different. In Yiddish and Judeo-English parlance, a schmuck is not haplessly inept like a schlemiel, an inveterate blunderer like a schlimazel or a pathetic sad sack like a schmendrik — all types one feels sorry for without being tempted to help them, since un-helpability is one of their salient traits. Nor is a schmuck quite the same as a jerk, because while the two have much in common, a schmuck is more dangerous and can cause serious damage, while a jerk is too ineffectual to do much harm. This makes “schmuck” a stronger term of opprobrium.

And yet we still have not said what a schmuck is commonly thought to be. Is he, as my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language states, someone “regarded as clumsy or stupid; an oaf”? Not at all. The American Heritage is defining a schlemiel, schlimazel or schmendrik. A schmuck can just as well be brainy, graceful and charming. He can be first in his college class, win a prize for ballroom dancing and break hearts as easily as dishes.

Is he then, in the words of the Encarta World English Dictionary, someone “regarded as being unworthy of respect”? Of course he is — but this tells us nothing of value about him. Louts, cads, blackguards and knaves are unworthy of respect, too. One might as well define a skunk as “an animal that smells bad.”

Or is he, as Wex argues in his book, the opposite of a mentsh? If being a mentsh, Wex contends, is doing “what you know to be your human duty, even if the obligation is at odds with your own preferences,” those of us who are schmucks, he writes, though “we might think that we’re self-actualizing… are really self-centered and mean, with so powerful a sense of entitlement to whatever we think should be ours — whether it’s something we already have or something we want — that there’s no room for anyone to get in our way. We want it, we’re going to get it, and if it’s at someone else’s expense, who cares?”

A schmuck is thus, for Wex, the quintessential narcissist. He can be bright, talented or accomplished, but he never fails to do the wrong thing, because he thinks too much of himself.

But although this may be better than the American Heritage or Encarta definition, it, too, is inaccurate. Indeed, as Wex himself observes elsewhere in his book, a schmuck can just as well think too little of himself. As an example, Wex points to the character of Bontshe Shveig in I.L. Peretz’s well-known story by that name. When, upon arriving in heaven, Bontshe is told that his poverty and suffering on earth have entitled him to any reward he might ask for, he can bring himself to request only a fresh roll with butter every morning. And by the same token, you would be called a schmuck by most people if you found a buried treasure in the desert and turned it over to the nearest police station 500 miles away, or if you didn’t ask the girl you were in love with for a date because (though unbeknownst to you, she was secretly in love with you, too) you were afraid she would think you too bold.

A schmuck is, in short, someone who lacks not intelligence, but all insight into what is humanly appropriate and what is not. This makes his condition remediable. A schlemiel, a schlimazel and a schmendrik are irredeemably what they are. A schmuck can be enlightened. He can acquire, through a painful process of self-examination, the moral and social understanding that he has been missing. He can become, to revert to Wex’s dichotomy, a mentsh.

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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.