Ear­li­er this week, Josh Lam­bert wrote about how pub­li­ca­tions han­dle obscen­i­ties and how he came to write his newest book, Unclean Lips: Obscen­i­ty, Jews, and Amer­i­can Cul­ture (NYU Press). He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

One of the points I make in my book is that what’s dirty in Yid­dish isn’t always dirty in Eng­lish, and vice ver­sa. Here’s one exam­ple that I didn’t have space to include in its entirety. 

At Lenny Bruce’s obscen­i­ty tri­al in Los Ange­les, in Feb­ru­ary 1963, a Yid­dish-speak­ing police sergeant named Sher­man Block trans­lat­ed, for the jury’s ben­e­fit, a few of the Yid­dish words Bruce had used in his act. What Sher­man said, among oth­er things, was that through­out his nar­ra­tion, sus­pect [Bruce] inter­ject­ed the terms shmuck’ and putz,’ which are Yid­dish, and mean penis.’”

Bruce dis­agreed. On the 1965 album Lenny Bruce Is Out Again, he countered: 

Shmuk! The word shmuk is a Ger­man word. And it means lit­er­al­ly in Ger­man a man’s dec­o­ra­tion. Emes, a bou­ton­nière, a lapel watch. I don’t think, uh — in a Yid­dish dic­tio­nary, the Harkov [sic] dic­tio­nary, it says shmuk: A yard, a fool.’ So there we have the lit­er­al — I don’t think the col­lo­qui­al — any Jew gave it a dif­fer­ent infer­ence: You’re act­ing like a man’s penis.’ I’m not going to be a penis any­more, let Nate be the penis from now on. So shmuk don’t mean shmuk, except to some putz who digs it.

Bruce was a come­di­an, not a lin­guist, so it shouldn’t come as a sur­prise that this is fun­nier than it is, uh, true. Here’s the rel­e­vant entry from Alexan­der Harkavy’s 1928 Yid­dish-Eng­lish-Hebrew Dic­tio­nary:

To native speak­ers of Yid­dish, shmuk” still has just as much pow­er to offend as cojones” does in Span­ish, or as cock” or prick” do in Eng­lish. But that didn’t stop the word from becom­ing increas­ing­ly promi­nent in all sort of Eng­lish-lan­guage pub­li­ca­tions since the 1960s. Here’s the Google n-gram: 

You can say shmuck” in Eng­lish now on the radio, on bill­boards, even on a tele­vi­sion sta­tion as squeaky clean as QVC. So, is it a dirty word or a clean word? Sim­ply depends on who’s listening. 

Josh Lam­bert is the Aca­d­e­m­ic Direc­tor of the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter and as Vis­it­ing Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts, Amherst. He is the author of Unclean Lips: Obscen­i­ty, Jews, and Amer­i­can Cul­ture(2013) and Amer­i­can Jew­ish Fic­tion: A JPS Guide (2009), and a con­tribut­ing edi­tor to Tablet magazine.

Bonus Video: 7 Great Uses of Schmuck”

Josh Lam­bert is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan,and the author of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Fic­tion: A JPS Guide (2009). He con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly­to the For­ward, Next​book​.org, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and his web­site is epiko​res​.com.