Monday, June 7, 2010

Is "Schmuck" Ever Fit to Print? New York Times Agonizes Over New Film Title

Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks may not have realized what they were getting into when they announced the title of their new movie starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd.

The film, Dinner for Schmucks, directed by Jay Roach, arrives in theaters on July 23.  The plot involves a competition among businessmen for who can invite the biggest idiot to a monthly dinner.  

As word spread about its title and subject matter, film critics and Yiddishologists went to the sources -- Yiddish language dictionaries, language experts, and Jewish parents and grandparents -- to clarify whether the word is being used correctly in the film, and to what extent the media, and especially the New York Times, will print the potentially offensive word.

The Times, of course, with the bold declaration on its masthead, "All the News That's Fit to Print," has been agonizing over how many times they can legitimately use the "S-word."

As Michael Cieply writes in the Times' Movie section,
At The New York Times, where the word is still considered potentially offensive, the title of Mr. Roach’s film may be mentioned only sparingly. Still, advertisements for the movie would probably pass muster, said Steph Jespersen, director of advertising acceptability for The Times, though a final decision will be subject to review by a standards editor and possibly a “rabbi or two.” 
Anyone who knows even a little bit of Yiddish is likely to have an opinion about the correct use of the word.  The director and writers seem to think that the oddballs invited to the dinner are the schmucks, but the consensus among knowledgable Yiddish mavens is that the real schmuck is the jerk who is doing the inviting.  The invitees are more likely schlemiels, schlimazels, schmegegges, or schmendriks.

As Philologos writes in The Forward,
Anyone familiar with these words knows that a schmuck is very different. In Yiddish and Judeo-English parlance, a schmuck is not haplessly inept like a schlemiel, an inveterate blunderer like a schlimazel or a pathetic sad sack like a schmendrik — all types one feels sorry for without being tempted to help them, since un-helpability is one of their salient traits. Nor is a schmuck quite the same as a jerk, because while the two have much in common, a schmuck is more dangerous and can cause serious damage, while a jerk is too ineffectual to do much harm. This makes “schmuck” a stronger term of opprobrium.
And yet we still have not said what a schmuck is commonly thought to be.  Is he, as my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language states, someone “regarded as clumsy or stupid; an oaf”? Not at all. The American Heritage is defining a schlemiel, schlimazel or schmendrik. A schmuck can just as well be brainy, graceful and charming. He can be first in his college class, win a prize for ballroom dancing and break hearts as easily as dishes.
We agree with Philologos' assessment.  As we noted in our series on Yiddishology, a schmendrik is the guy who cleans up the soup that the schlemiel dropped on the schlimazel.  But none of these poor souls qualifies as a schmuck.  If we had to include a schmuck in this scenario, we would nominate the guy who trips the schlemiel, causing him to drop the soup into the lap of the schlimazel.

What do you think?  Weigh in with your comments after you watch the trailer below, and keep an eye open for the movie debut on July 23.


  1. The Competition to Define Schmuck is hysterical!!! In Yiddish, 'Schmuck' is & always has been semi-offensive, or completely offensive because it literally means Penis...more to the true base meaning as Prick, Dick or Cock! All Yiddish comics tell a joke referring to someone's schmuck! ...So the word used in the title has a powerful, double-meaning...that the writers, director & producers are surely aware of and I'm sure will happily march to the bank about....Everyone else is probably embarrassed and are referring to Yiddish Dictionaries & elders who no longer use their schmucks!
    ...Re: the above so called "Yiddish mavens" defining that 'the real schmuck is the jerk who is doing the inviting and the invitees are more likely schlemiels, schlimazels, schmegegges, or schmendriks' is all cover...anyone who writes that & strays with cutsy covering, avoiding the truth, is a schmuck!

  2. Although I agree with June 20 Anonymous in general about the use of "schmuck," the use for the movie is an attempt to translate from "cons" in the French original title, "Le Dîner de cons," in which "cons" means assholes. In this case, it definitely means the invitees from the point of view of the hosts or inviters. The audience can decide that the hosts are more worthy of the term. "Cons" is another one of those tough words to translate.

  3. Folks,

    I know it's years after publication, but has no one yet noticed?!?
    This article glaringly misquotes the article it refers to in making a 2ndary point.

    From the next-to-last paragraph: "As we noted in our series on Yiddishology, a schmendrik is the guy who cleans up the soup that the schlemiel dropped on the schlimazel."

    However, para 3 in the linked article on "Yiddishology" states, "Well, it turns out that the shmegegge is the one who cleans up the soup that was spilled on the shlimazel by the shlemiel."

    So, at this ponit the author here has clearly demonstrated that a shlemiel can be his (her) own shlimazel. (By throwing yourself under the bus for the sake of our understanding, you are clearly also a mensch!)

    I'm not so sure, however, that this means a schmendrik is necessesarily also the shmegeg[g]e.