Melody Belcher writes from Larue, Texas:
“I hope you will help out regarding the use of the word ‘schmuck.’ My husband and I are both 68 years old and have probably called persons at least once in our lifetime by that name. Yet in speaking with a gentleman today on another matter, he mentioned that a newspaper reporter had used the word in a story and that he was very offended because the word meant ‘penis.’ I assured him that I did not know that, but that I knew the reporter in question, who was not in my opinion a racist or someone who would hold any animus to a Jewish person or want to denigrate them. Although we have heard the word used in comedy skits and TV, we don’t want to use it if it is an offensive term. I’m a writer by profession and believe a person should understand the meaning of the words they use. And I normally do, and I thought I did here, and I didn’t.”
This is perhaps best answered with a letter of my own. Here it is.
Dear Melody Belcher,
It seems to me that you probably did understand the meaning of the word “schmuck” in American English well enough. It means “idiot,” no more and no less, and while calling a person a schmuck may have a slightly harsher ring than calling him an idiot, most of us wouldn’t like to be called an idiot, either.
It’s true that in Yiddish, where English “schmuck” has its etymological origins, shmok (with its vowel pronounced like the “a” in “law”) also means “penis.” Indeed, Yiddish shmok has very much the same ambience as English “pr—k,” which can denote either the male sexual organ or an idiot, and is considered vulgar by most English speakers. (Why so many languages connect the male organ with at least temporary mental incapacity is, I imagine, self-explanatory.) We do not generally, however, speak or understand words with their etymologies in mind. If someone calls me an idiot, I do not say to myself, “Well, that’s quite all right, because idiotos in Greek means an ordinary person or layman with no special professional training, and there’s nothing so terribly insulting about that.” By the same token, if I’m called a schmuck in English, the word’s Yiddish meaning is irrelevant.
The fact is, moreover, that it’s not only you and your husband who aren’t (or in your case, weren’t) aware of the meaning of Yiddish shmok. Neither are most American Jews. They may know or sense that “schmuck” is originally Yiddish, both because they tend to use it in their speech more than non-Jews and because “shm-” is an initial Yiddish phonetic cluster that is not native to English, but that’s about as far as their knowledge of its history goes. The average American Jew of your age doesn’t know much more Yiddish than do your neighbors in Larue.
Is “schmuck” an offensive word? If you’re the person being called one, of course it is, but so would be “imbecile,” “nincompoop,” “nitwit,” “birdbrain,” and “jackass.” Each has its own nuance and linguistic register, and if “schmuck” is nastier sounding than most of them, this probably has more to do with its rhyming with a certain other English word than with its meaning in Yiddish. It certainly isn’t like “kike.” I may despise another Jew and still be outraged by hearing him called a kike. Call him a schmuck, and I’ll say, “You bet he is.”
To be perfectly honest, I do have a slight psychological problem with a word like “schmuck” being used by non-Jews, but this has nothing to do with its offensiveness, and in any case it is my problem, not yours. Nor is it an exclusively Jewish one; I imagine that it exists for members of any minority group or subculture who find that a word or expression that was once uniquely their own has been adopted by the culture at large. One feels ambivalent about this. On the one hand, there’s a measure of satisfaction. (Look how we’ve influenced the world!) On the other hand, there’s a measure of resentment. (Who gave you permission to take our word?) As a Jew, I feel the same proprietary right to “schmuck” that I do to other “Jewish” words. When others use them, I feel a bit as if my personal property has been stolen.
But of course, that’s silly. No one owns a copyright on words. No language would ever develop if anyone did. Languages borrow from each other without asking permission, and groups of speakers within them do, too. If “schmuck” were mine to give you, I’d say, “You’re welcome to it.” But it isn’t. All I can say is, if I may resort to another Yiddishism, use it in good health.
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When To Call a Schmuck a Schmuck