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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the weekend: What does the word ‘schmuck’ mean to you?

The title of Dinner for Schmucks has prompted some debate among a few friends of mine, who are astonished that the studio is actually using that word in their title, because to them it has connotations of naughtiness or, worse, because it’s naughty but also not appropriate for the story the film appears to be telling. I told them that not everyone speaks Yiddish like a Talmudic scholar, and that to the average American, schmuck means something like jerk, idiot, asshole… Perhaps to some schmuck might a more specific kind of jerk, idiot, or asshole, but that would be the extent of it. And if anyone finds it naughty, it’s because it rhymes with fuck, not because it means, basically, prick, in either the metaphoric or the literal sense.

But perhaps I’m wrong about this. Perhaps American moviegoers do have a more specific sense of what schmuck means, and perhaps more people than I realize are just as shocked by the title.
I’m curious, too, to hear what English speakers outside the U.S. think of the word. Because American slang has been greatly influenced by Yiddish, probably to a much greater extent than in other English-speaking countries. Which led to a tangent on the issue: If/when Dinner for Schmucks is released in other countries — it’s got a full slate of regular new releases through the rest of the year — will the title change? What about if/when it opens in Israel?

So: What does the word ‘schmuck’ mean to you? Don’t run to a dictionary or to your Jewish grandfather from the Old Country: just your own first impressions of the word.

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Kate

    I always thought it was something close to dummy, moron. I never got the aggressive, “jerk” connotation, maybe because it’s kind of a funny-sounding word.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Might be the cleverest part fo the movie: People thinks it means “Dinner for Losers”, referring go the guests, when it really means “Dinner for Dicks” referring to the hosts.

    Given how bad the movie apparently is, that’s likely not intentional.

  • Specifically, my understanding of “schmuck” was always someone who didn’t know that they were being played or was unaware the joke was on them. Which, as far as I can tell — I skipped the press screening because Twitter exploded in a wave of negative vibes from L.A. critic-folk, as well as a friend who compared it to Christmas With the Kranks, my least-favorite in-theater viewing experience ever — fits the characters at the dinner pretty well.

  • I_Sell_Books

    I knew what ‘schmuck’ means, but never thought it could translate to ‘Dinner with Dicks’ – wow, that really changes the whole meaning of the movie, doesn’t it?

    I find it interesting how most everyone apart from MaryAnn is raving about this movie. Mostly men. Again, fascinating.

  • Adina

    I’ve known that “schmuck” meant “prick” since I was in my teens; not because my parents spoke Yiddish (though they did), but because I read part of Leo Rosten’s _The Joys of Yiddish_.

    Yiddish isn’t a language for Talmudic scholars, by the way; it was the common language of Jews in Eastern Europe for hundreds of years. I learned Hebrew in school, but not Yiddish, so my parents used it to discuss things they didn’t want me to hear, including dirty jokes. :)

  • @I_Sell_Books:

    I think you are imagining things. I have heard almost nothing but flat-out, hateful pans. From everybody.

  • JoshDM

    Schmuck is no putz.

  • may

    To me it always meant “idiot,” or someone being played for a fool but entirely oblivious to that fact.

  • gah! no! a schmuck is definitely more like a jerk … someone who is oblivious to the feelings and effects on others! so, dinner with pricks would apply to the guys giving the dinner, not the hapless guests… they’re schlmeels or schmoes or some other pathetic soul.

  • Boingo

    I always thought it to mean jerk, sucker,immoral creep.
    I’m more fascinated with the word “schtupt (heard it
    first in the movies).” It sounds more “Onomatopoeia-ish.”

  • I_Sell_Books

    @ Tyler Foster:

    It’s that damned ad Hulu keeps showing with the ‘rave’ reviews. I seem to recall Big Names attached to the large font quotes (like what’s-his-face from Rolling Stone). Of course, the tv is some distance away from me… ;)

  • MaryAnn

    There are a lot of big names attached to that ad, and the movie around 50% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. So plenty of critics didn’t hate it.

  • Mo

    Sucker, loser, pushover, moron, dupe…

    Basically an oblivious fool, emphasis on the oblivious part. I’ve never heard it used with asshole type connotations, let alone anything more off-colour. But then I get the impression that few Yiddish words get absorbed into English with their original meaning intact.

  • Anne-Kari

    Schmuck = dick = jerk = tool. That’s my initial reaction.

  • Ide Cyan

    The French title that “Dinner for Schmucks” is based on was “Le dîner de cons”, so the translation makes sense to me.

    If you need a clue, look it up: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/con#French

  • Jan Willem

    I would have taken schmuck to mean ‘dupe’ or ‘sucker’, which would elegantly translate into Dutch as ‘slemiel’ (same as bronxbee’s shlemeel above): Yiddish translated into Yiddish!
    (In Dutch subtitles for movies about moviemaking, American ‘dailies’ are commonly translated as British ‘rushes’, the latter being the current phrase in the Dutch film industry.)

  • Lisa

    Not american – thought it meant idiot

  • Ed Duffy

    I think most gentiles on this side of the Pond are vaguely aware that it’s of Yiddish origin, but are ignorant of its actual meaning. We tend to think of it as a slightly old-fashioned American term for ‘dope’ or ‘loser’, usually employed by bad-tempered bosses in ’70s cop shows. Extra points if they’re chomping a cigar. :-)

    Sometimes the ruder meaning of a term can get lost over time. For example, the term “berk” is usually used here as a very mild curse, the sort of thing that can be used on TV before the watershed or even in kids’ shows. Few people are aware that it’s a shortened version of “Berkshire Hunt”, which is rhyming slang for something a good deal more profane.

  • Nati

    I’m an Israeli with Anglo parents, so I’m not sure if I count, but I’ve always seen schmuck as a tongue-in-cheek put-down, a little like “twit”. A kind of cheerful abuse. I’ve never heard it used as a serious insult. It does mean penis, but then so do about half of the words in Yiddish, so I don’t think there’s reason to get particularly excited. The sense would not really be translated into “dinner with penises”. Your friends are splitting hairs.

    The Israeli use (pronounced “shmock”) is a little more aggressive, for whatever reason, and is closer in meaning to “arsehole”. I don’t think it’d be translated literally, but not because they have problems with swearing. I at least think there have been a few movies coming out with swear words in their titles recently. On the other hand, they don’t seem to put much thought into the translation, so possibly they will translate it literally.

    The Talmudic guys spoke Aramaic, by the way. Those books belong to the days before Jews had a sense of humour, so Yiddish wouldn’t have served them very well, even if it had existed.

  • isobel

    I have a Jewish mother of Eastern European extraction, whose parents spoke fluent Yiddish, so I knew what schmuck meant (all the Yiddish that’s come down to my generation, though, is ‘oy gevalt’ and ‘tuchus’, pretty much). Most people in the UK would just think it meant a kind of sad and pathetic loser, I think.

  • RogerBW

    To me in the UK, it would mostly signify “this person is trying to sound Jewish and/or New York/Hollywood American” rather than having any meaning of its own.

  • Canadian goy, here. My understanding of the word came from my favourite movie rant ever, that of Terri Garr’s character in Tootsie when she discovers part of Dustin Hoffman’s duplicity (but only the part that directly affects her). From her heartfelt and furious “Smuck!”, I gathered the word meant a person (most probably a guy) who is an unfeeling, clumsy and cruel dickhead. I didn’t feel I had to look it up.

  • i Cannibal

    I for one am Jew that knows alot about Yiddish. As you may know Jewish males are to be circumcised when they are young. The foreskin of the Penis thats cut off the male genitalia is a schmuck. Meaning that the foreskin removed from the Jewish male’s penis is the schmuck

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