From the Vaults: American Speech, December 1961

This is a guest post by Michael Ezra

Surely not everything has to be about politics? Below I copy a letter published in the journal American Speech in 1961 that provides some academic credibility to the all important “Shm.”


American Speech, Vol. 36, No. 4 (December, 1961), pp. 302-303.

A decade ago, Leo Spitzer recorded some popular manifestations of the Yiddish shm- formula of derogation (fancy-shmancy, Plato-Shmato, and so on), in speech, comic strip, magazine, book, and movie.[1] Several years later the present writer added specimens from television and from magazine-quoted speech of official Washington.[2]

The usage has clearly become more widespread. In one issue of the New Yorker (Dec. 1, 1956, pp. 232 and 189), two different advertisements made use of the formula. One was by the conservative book publisher Macmillan, crying: ‘Sibling Schmibling! You need Baby Makes Four.’ The other was by a Philadelphia camera company (Konica) that declaimed a tongue-twisting: ‘Gadgets, Schmadgets ... as Long as It Takes Pictures!’ Another example is in a recent advertisement of the Berlitz Schools, inHarper’s, May, 1961, p. I5, headed ‘French-Schmench/It's All Greek to Me.’ The second of these three examples is, of course, a derivative of the old ‘Cancer, shmancer, abi gezunt’- ‘Cancer, shmancer, as long as you're healthy’ -which, as I have noted earlier,[3] was utilized in a Herblock cartoon on the Atomic Energy Commission: ‘Mutations, Shmutations-Long as You’re Healthy.’

Indeed, even greeting cards have ‘gotten into the act’: ‘Freud, Schmoid, as Long as It’s Enjoyed-Happy Anniversary.’

The recent animated film, ‘1001 Arabian Nights,’ featuring the nearsighted Mr. Magoo, contained the line: 'Magoo, Mashmoo, I'll kill the miserable wretch!’[4]

Even the toy market has been invaded. A construction set named ‘Krazy Ikes’ (Whitman Publishing Co., Racine, Wis.) provides a brochure illustrating many human and animal figures to be made with its plastic pieces, the models being given humorous names like ‘Crocodike,’ ‘Ikestrich,’ ‘Hunter- Ike,’ and so on, including ‘Shmike,’ a pathetic little creature without arms.

As I have noted before,[5] the formula has been applied with different punctuation, sometimes with a hyphen (fancy-shmancy), sometimes with a comma (pretty, shmetty) and sometimes, as in the example from the Macmillan advertisement quoted above, with no punctuation at all. In the New Yorker’s comment ‘Oh confusion schmooshun,’ quoted by Spitzer in his first cited work, we have not only the unpunctuated form, but one which is both shortened and changed in spelling. (The ‘classical’version would have been:confusion, conshmusion.)

A basically similar (unpunctuated and truncated) form recently appeared in my local Pennsylvania newspaper, the Easton Express, Feb. 18, 1960, p. 5, col. 2, in a letter disputing David Susskind’s evaluation of television’s Jack Paar: ‘“Deliciously Irreverent?” Irreverent Schmeverent!’ Still another version occurred in a communication to the New York Times (March 1, 1959, Section X, p. 3), in which the sh was retained and the m changed to fit the letter in the first half (Gwen, Schwen in place of Gwen, Shmen): ‘My husband spotted Gwen Verdon as a potential star ... so we have followed her career with interest, but Gwen, Schwen, the play’s the thing, and “Redhead” is an obvious, silly little story.’

This last may have been a printer’s error. Whether it is or not, we probably should expect additional variations on the ‘twin-form’ theme, which has been dealt with in scholarly detail by Spitzer. It is safe to surmise that these further usages, like the examples already quoted, will be offered with little awareness of the suggestive element in the shm- cluster. This element has been accorded definitive discussion in the cited article by Roback.[6]

Easton, Pennsylvania

[1] Leo Spitzer, ‘Confusion Schmooshun,’ Journal of English and Germanic Philology, LI (1952), 226-27.
[2]  ‘Yiddish and American English,’ Chicago Jewish Forum, XIV (1955-56), 71, and ‘TV Talks Yiddish,’ ibid., XV (1957), 228-29.
[3] ‘TV Talks Yiddish,’p. 229.
[4] This contains not only the deprecating shm- but- perhaps unwittingly- the much-discussed ‘shmoo’ of cartoonist Al Capp. See Leo Spitzer, ‘The Shmoo,’ American Speech, XXV (1950), 69-70; A. A. Roback, ‘Shmoo and Shmo: the Psychoanalytic Implications,’ Complex (Spring, 195 I), pp. 3-15; and Allan H. Orrick, ‘On the Etymology of “Shmoo,”’ American Speech, XXIX (1954), 156.
[5] See footnote 2.
[6] That article was not listed in the indexes and was apparently unknown to Spitzer, to Orrick, and to Thomas Pyles, who attempted a survey of Yiddish terms, including shmoo and shmo in his Words and Ways of American English (New York, 1952), as well as to Wentworth and Flexner, whose outspoken new compendium, Dictionary of American Slang, is surprisingly unaware in its treatment of shmo. For brief notes on schmo, see Pyles, op. cit., 208-10, and my ‘Shmo, Shmog, and Shnook,’ American Speech, XXXI (1956), 236-37. This last note too was written without knowledge of Roback’s contribution, which came to my attention quite by accident several years later.


Anonymous said…
My favorite

"oedipus, schmoedipus, what does it matter so long aa you love our mother"
Shatterface said…
Anonymous beat me to Schmoedipus but great post.
Noga said…
"Um-Shmum (Hebrew: או"ם שמום, where um is the Hebrew acronymic pronunciation for "U.N.", and the "shm"-prefix signifies contempt) is a phrase coined by David Ben-Gurion, on 29 March 1955, during a debate within his cabinet, as a scorning utterance towards the United Nations, and an expression that reflects, even as to date, the way many Israelis feel about this institution-body. In that very same debate, he also famously said: "What matters is not what the Gentiles will say, but what the Jews will do",[citation needed].

The original expression was uttered after Moshe Sharett responded to Ben-Gurion saying that there is a need to drive away the Egyptians out of Gaza due to the fedayeen's attacks from there. Moshe Sharett claimed that "The U.N should be treated with respect, since without it, the state of Israel would not have been established", and so Ben-Gurion replyed: "Only the daring of the Jews founded this country, not the resolutions of the U.N".

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