From Yiddish to British

How People in Glasgow Use the Word 'Schemozzle'

By Philologos

Published September 29, 2000.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Writes David Chanoff of Marlboro, Mass.: “You probably know of James Kelman, the Booker Prize winner who writes in Glaswegian dialect. In his book of stories, ‘The Good Times,’ there occurs the line of dialogue, ‘Heh, I was hearing about Smiddy’s funeral, some kind of schemozzle.’”

And Mr. Chanoff adds: “Meaning, apparently, something like ‘a shock’ or ‘a tragic shock.’ Hardly sounds Glaswegian, though. What’s going on?” I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, because when I asked a Glaswe- gian acquaintance of mine about the word, she tried it out in various charming Scottish lilts — shimazel? shmozzle? shmuzzle? — before declar- ing that she never had heard of it. But neither is James Kelman making it up. Via one channel or another, “shemozzle,” in the British slang sense of a difficulty or misfortune, definitely comes from our Jewish word shlimazel — which is composed of German schlimm, “bad,” plus Hebrew mazal, “luck.” As known to American Jews, of course, a schlimazel is a hopelessly unlucky person, and so he is in the Eastern European Yiddish that gave us the word; but in the Western European Yiddish once spoken in Germany and Holland, a schlamassel is mainly an unlucky event. Moreover, the Western meaning is probably the older one, since no form of German schlimm (from medieval German slimp) exists in Eastern Yiddish, which therefore can be assumed to have borrowed the word from points West.

Who brought schlamassel to Glasgow? Perhaps a gambler coming from London: According to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the word had currency in the East End (London’s equiv- alent of New York’s Lower East Side), especially among bookmakers, as far back as the 1880s. But although schlamassel wasn’t brought to England by Eastern European Jewish immigrants, it need not necessarily have arrived with an earlier and smaller wave of Western-European Jewish immigrants, either. Schlamassel was a word that, well before this period, had entered lower-class Dutch and German speech via Jewish-gentile con- tacts and could just as well have come to England by means of either of those languages. In fact, it is a word still used today both in Berlin and (as slimassel) in Amsterdam, where it means the same thing that it does to Mr. Kelman.

Nineteenth-century London slang had a number of words that ulti- mately derive from Western Yiddish. Some of these, such as “gonef,” a thief, are obvious; others do not reveal their origins so readily. Take, for instance, “shoful,” aka “showfull,” “shouful,” “shofle” and “schofell,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “counterfeit” or “counterfeit money.” Though few would guess it, the OED quite rightly gives the etymology of this word, which is documented in English from as early as 1851, as “German schofel, worthless stuff, rubbish (primarily Yiddish and thus adopted in London slang, though it has long been in ordinary German use)… representing the German-Jewish pronunciation of Hebrew shaphel, ‘low.’” In the sense of “shabby,” schofel remains a common German word.

This raises an interesting question. Can it be that, besides such often archaic British slang words as “schemozzle,” “gonef” and “shoful,” the Jewish origins of which are known, there are others whose Jewishness is still in hiding? This is likely because, unlike American etymologists who are aware of the enormous influence Jews have on American culture and are on the lookout for Yiddish derivations, their British counterparts do not tend to think in this direction. Consider, for example, Partridge’s entry for the now obsolete British slang term “moss”: “Money: ? orig. (- 1859), U.S., though adumbrated in early 17 C.; ob. Prob. ex a rolling stone gathers no moss.” Partridge found this explanation of “moss” in the OED, which cites the rolling stone proverb and states: “Used to imply that a man who restlessly roams from place to place, or constantly changes his employment, will never grow rich. Hence, in slang or allusive use, moss occas. = money.”

But this is far-fetched. Quite apart from the fact that the proverb is not generally used this way (I have always understood it to mean the opposite, namely, that someone who keeps on the move does not accumulate need- less possessions or stale ideas), there is not the slightest evidence that “moss” was used to mean “money” either in America or in the 17th century at all. Indeed, Partridge himself acknowledges its first recorded appearance in English to have been in the mid-19th century, which is about when the earliest Western Yiddish words began turning up in London. Moreover, a word for “money” in Western Yiddish is mo’os (with the vowel pronounced like the “oa” of “boat” but more elongated), from Hebrew ma’ot, “coins, money.” This word, too, entered colloquial German and Dutch and continues to be used in both. Surely this is a more likely etymology for English “moss” in the sense of money than the proverbial rolling stone!

I suspect there might be quite a few more such British slang words that derive from Western Yiddish without anyone having realized it. Since few of them are in use anymore, there is not much incentive for lexicographers to track them down, but they do tell a story that one would like to know more about.

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!
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













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

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.