Monday, June 14, 2010

Don’t Menschen It

Surely no other language has as many words for undesirable, unattractive, and hapless people as Yiddish.  It’s a treasure trove of descriptive nouns for jerks, dolts, bunglers, failures, boors, pests, slobs, and nonentities.   Each of them has its own nuanced meaning.

You can take your pick from the rich assortment that includes a schlemiel (an unlucky bungler), a schlimazel (an unlucky, inept, habitual failure), or a schnook (a stupid, unimportant, easily cheated dolt).  It’s been said that a schlemiel is the one who spills his coffee on the schlimazel—and the schnook has to mop it up. 

Then there's a schlub (a stupid, worthless unattractive boor) and a schlump (a sloppy, dowdy person).  The shmendrik--named for the title character of an 1877 operetta--is a clueless mama's boy.  The schnorrer is a wheedler.  

Perhaps the most offensive of all the offensive terms is schmuck, which was originally a term for the penis, but now means a jerk of the highest order.  It's synonymous with putz, which had the same original meaning. A schmo is a euphemistic variant of schmuck, and is also a jerk, but not such an odious one, and a yutz is a similarly inspired variant of putz.

The terms of opprobium are rounded out with nudnik (a pest, a pain in the neck), noodge (a nag, a whiner), nebbish (a pitiful, insignificant person), pisher (an inexperienced nobody), and everbody’s favorite—klutz (a clumsy person).

There seems to be only one word to describe a good person of integrity and honor, and that is mensch, something all of us schlimazels would like to be. 

Any one of the putdowns listed above would be a perfect fit for the Bard of Buffalo Bayou:

            When I was young and just a schnook
            I’d always get a dirty look
            From each and every person I would see.
            But then I grew up as a nudnik,
            A certified A-1 no-goodnik,
            And now the dirty looks all come from me.

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