Rag Time

By Philologos

Published June 09, 2006, issue of June 09, 2006.
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An e-mailer signing off as Shlomo writes:

“A recent NPR broadcast (May 27, 2006) on the use of dog hair in cloth noted in passing that the word shmatte derives from a Catalan source. Jews in pre-1492 Spain were prominent in the dog cloth trade, it seems. Is Catalan actually the source of this Yiddish word?”

The radio program that Shlomo heard was a feature titled “Knitting With Dog Hair,” produced by Australian writer and researcher Natalie Kestecher. Although this program did point to medieval Catalonia as the place of origin of dog-hair clothing, I suspect that Kestecher was merely joking when she cited the Catalan language as the source of shmatte. In discussing her research, she has been quoted as saying, “Surprisingly, there was not a lot of information to be found… so I had to fill in some of the gaps with a little fiction.” A Catalan source for shmatte would seem to be one of these little fictions.

Actually, it’s a pretty big fiction, not only because it would take quite a leap of the imagination to explain how a Catalan word might have entered Yiddish, but also because the derivation of shmatte (or shmate, shmateh or schmate, to cite some of its other spellings) is perfectly clear. It’s from Polish szmata, “rag,” and neither dogs nor Catalonia has anything to do with it.

The primary meaning of shmatte in Yiddish is “rag,” too, of the common household variety. Yet a shmatte also can be an old or cheap piece of clothing and, by extension, an old or cheap anything, whether a gewgaw or a jalopy. It also can be a person. To call someone a shmatte in Yiddish is to call him a pushover, a spineless person who never stands up for himself.

The last of these meanings never really entered American Jewish English, or at least never gained much currency in it. The first of them, on the other hand, is extremely common. A shmatte can be an old dress, sweater or hat that one should have thrown out years ago, or a new one that someone — “Where did you get that shmatte?” — thinks should be thrown out.

In non-Jewish American English, shmatte is also sometimes heard in this sense. It is encountered more frequently, however, in the expression “the shmatte business,” which is a jocular way, originally restricted to Jews, of referring to the garment industry. When former secretary of state Colin Powell, for instance, addressing a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C., several years ago, was humorously introduced as “the son of an immigrant to the United States who entered the shmatte business,” he drew laughter by responding, “There are many people here who don’t know what that means, but I do.” (On the same occasion, incidentally, Powell clarified the long-circulating rumor that he spoke Yiddish by admitting, “Well, yes, I do understand a bisl.”)

It was for those “many people” that Forbes magazine, in a 2001 article about a lawsuit brought by designer Calvin Klein — who claimed that Warnaco executive Linda Wachner had sold his jeans to subsidiary outlets without a license — provided the following running translation:

“He had called her a gonif (con artist) and said he hated her like poison. She said he may be a big macher (bigshot), with the models and the beach house, but reminded him that he was in the shmatte (garment) business just like her. But on the eve of trial, Calvin Klein and Warnaco’s Linda Wachner settled their differences, avoiding the tsuris (worries) of a trial.”

This article was headlined “Rag Trade Battle Ends in Truce,” which raises an interesting question. “Rag trade” as a humorous expression for the clothing business is English in its own right. Which of the two, “rag trade” or “shmatte business,” came first? And did one influence the other, or are they two independent developments?

“Rag trade” in the sense of garment industry is attested to in England as far back as 1880, but there are older uses of “rag” or “rags” in the sense of clothing for sale, such as “rag fair” for an old-clothes market and “rag stabber” and “stab-rag” for a tailor. In Eastern European Yiddish, on the other hand, such expressions do not seem to have existed. If anyone spoke in Eastern Europe of dos shmate gesheft, the shmatte business, I have not come across it.

Is “shmatte business” then a Jewish adaptation of “rag trade” by Yiddish-speaking immigrant garment workers? This seems quite possible, especially in light of the fact that “rag trade” was originally more of a British expression than an American one, and that several of the earliest references to “shmatte business” that I have been able to trace come from Canada rather than from the United States — that is, from the part of North America in which British English had its greatest influence. If that’s so, “shmatte business” started out as a Canadian Jewish expression and from there spread south of the border. Canada would then be as close to Catalonia as shmatte ever will get.

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






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