From Yiddish to British

How People in Glasgow Use the Word 'Schemozzle'

By Philologos

Published September 29, 2000.
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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.


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