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Yiddish, Shmiddish

Yiddish has had a very interesting influence on American English.

Some of it came in the form of borrowed words, such as “bagel” (yes, really), “chutzpah,” “glitch,” “klutz,”  and “maven.”  I myself am particularly fond of using the word “kvetch.”

Jewish Americans have also given us some of our common expressions, such as “It wouldn’t hurt,” “get lost,” and “oy vey.”

But that’s not the interesting part.  Borrowing words and phrases from other languages is common and easily done.

I’ll give you a few word examples to illustrate:

  • Schmuck: a foolish person
  • Schmooze: to gossip
  • Schmutz: dirt
  • Schmaltz: excessive sentimentality
  • Shpiel: a sales pitch
  • Schnozz: a nose, especially a large one

You probably noticed that none of these words are especially complimentary.  And they all begin with the “sh” sound, several beginning “shm.”

It has actually become a convention (albeit an informal one) in American English that, to disparage something, you can replace the beginning sound with “sh” or “shm,” such as the commonly used “fancy shmancy” and “Joe Shmoe.”  Linguistically speaking, this is called reduplication.

For example, if your class is reading Hamlet, and you are fully fed up with the title character’s whining, you might say “Hamlet, schmamlet.  Let’s just watch the movie.”

If your friend just won’t shut up about the how much better the Niners are than the Raiders, you can say “Niners, shminers.  They still suck.”

The Yiddish influence on American English dates to Jewish immigration to the United States in the 1800s, and continued to increase as Jewish Americans gained prominence in the movie industry.

A while back, I read a fascinating article online about the Yiddish influence on English, but for the life of me I can’t find it.  If you’ve found anything interesting on this topic, please put a link in the comments!

Related Articles:

From Yiddish to English: The Humor of it All

The Yiddish Handbook: 40 Words You Should Know

Yiddish-Language and Ethnic-Jewish Influence in SAE

Spanglish and Yiddish (on the evolution of Yiddish)

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