Grappling With Yiddish Words That Punch Above Their Weight

Could ‘Shlogn’ Be Related to ‘Slug?'

FIghting Words: An old-school boxer demonstrates the meaning of the Yiddish word shlogn.
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FIghting Words: An old-school boxer demonstrates the meaning of the Yiddish word shlogn.

By Philologos

Published April 14, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
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A reader identified as “JA” wants to know: “Does the English word ‘slug,’ as in to slug someone, come from Yiddish shlogn, to hit? They certainly sound very similar.”

My thinking about this went through three stages. Stage 1, my immediate reaction, was that “slug” and shlogn — or shlugn, in the Yiddish some of you are used to — are obviously related, not in the sense of one coming from the other like a son from a father, but rather like cousins who descend from a common ancestor.

Stage 2 followed consulting the dictionaries. It seemed I was wrong. “Slug” and shlogn, appearances to the contrary, are not related.

Stage 3 had me asking: Can it be that it’s the dictionaries that are wrong and “slug” and shlogn are related after all?

English and Yiddish are themselves cousins, and not too distant ones at that. Both belong to the Germanic family of languages, one of the many branches of the Indo-European clan, in which we find such widely dispersed kinsmen as French, Russian, Lithuanian, Greek, Persian and Hindi.

The original Indo-European language, known to linguists as proto-Indo-European, originated many thousands of years before the Common Era somewhere near the Black Sea and spread in different directions, producing a first generation of descendants that included ancient Latin, proto-Germanic, proto-Slavic, proto-Baltic, ancient Greek, Old Persian and Sanskrit.

Germanic’s offspring can be divided into East Germanic, North Germanic and West Germanic. East Germanic gave birth to languages like Gothic, Vandalic and Burgundian, all extinct today. From North Germanic come Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic. West Germanic’s main surviving children are German, Dutch and English, and Yiddish, its “grandchild,” is an offshoot of medieval German.

This is why so many English and Yiddish words with the same meaning look and sound alike, such as “hand” and hant, “foot” and fus, “nose” and noz, “milk” and milkh, “bread” and broyt, “butter” and putr, etc. And it’s why one would automatically think that “slug” and shlogn (from German schlagen, to hit — the final “n” is the German/Yiddish infinitive ending) must share a common Germanic root, too — especially since old Germanic “s,” while remaining “s” in English, turned into “sh” before a consonant in German/Yiddish. (Think of “sleep” and Yiddish shlofn, “swim” and Yiddish shvimn, “snow” and Yiddish shney, and so on.)

And yet when one asks the dictionaries, one is told this isn’t so. “To slug” in the sense of to hit, we are informed by the august Oxford English Dictionary, can first be documented as a variant form of “to slog” (a verb used today mainly in cricket, where it denotes hitting the ball hard but inelegantly) and is of “obscure origin.”


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