The Joy of Yiddish

Posted by Masakim on May 09, 2002

In Reply to: The Joy of Yiddish posted by ESC on May 09, 2002

: : : : Hi,
: : : : I happened to know a book written by Fran Drescher. Its title is "Cancer Schmancer". I looked up several dictionaries but couldn't find it. Do you happen to know that word? Can you elaborate on that word. Many thanks.

: : : I believe this is a Yiddish thing (a theory supported possibly by the name of the author of the book). I used to work in a company that was predominantly Jewish, and noticed at the time that whenever anyone wanted to express amusingly that they didn't take a matter at all seriously, they'd replace the first syllable of the word concerned with "schm-". So, an example might be something like:-

: : : "They're asking for the quarterly sales forecasts tomorrow, you know?" "Forecasts, schmorecasts!"

: : : Basically it shows that the speakers assigns no importance to the issue under discussion, and presumably comes about because there are so many humorous and ironic slangy terms in Yiddish that start with "schm-", so it's felt amusing to coin new ones when wanting to show that things are not taken seriously. "Schmutter", "schmoozer", "schmerrel" and "schmock" are examples that instantly spring to mind.

: : : From my experience, the Jewish sense of humour is marvellously ironic and simply brilliant at attempting to laugh off or belittle matters that would normally be considered serious. I'd bet that is reflected in the content of the book that you mention.

: : That's right; that's what "shm-" is all about. Yiddish speakers (and some Jews who don't speak Yiddish but follow the traditions, as well as professional comics who do anything that gets a laugh) use the "shm-" sound, with reduplication, to dismiss something. In the straight use, one dismisses something minor as trivial ("Weren't you going to get a haircut today?" "Haircut, shmaircut, I'm staying home with a sick child"). In the humorous use, one dismisses something major as trivial. That book title comes from an old joke whose punchline is "Cancer, schmancer, as long as he's healthy." (I don't remember the rest of the joke. It's probably in Leo Rosten's book "The Joys of Yiddish.") "Schmancer" isn't in dictionaries because there's no such word.

: : The spelling may be "shm-" or "schm-."

: In the Preface, under "Colloquial Uses in English of Yiddish Linguistic Devices," there are nine devices listed. No. 1 is "blithe dismissal via repetition with an 'sh' play-on-the-first-sound. 'Fat-shmat, as long as she's happy.'" From "The Joy of Yiddish" by Leo Rosten (Pocket Books, New York, 2000)

See The Straight Dope, "Yiddish, shmiddish--why do we repeat a word but start it with 'shm-'?" at mailbag/myiddish.html