Language May 2011

Sister Schmuck Takes a Stand

A nun fights to recover her good name.
Hollis Bennett

It was not until Sister Mary Schmuck left her home state of Kentucky for the Sisters of Mercy convent in Brooklyn, N.Y., a borough that operates under the influence of Yiddish, that she was confronted full force with the knowledge that a person with her family name faces certain regrettable challenges. “People would do double takes on the phone,” she said. “They were deciding whether to laugh or say something or not.” Many New Yorkers were forthright in asking whether she was playing them for fools. “I went to the terminal at LaGuardia one day, and there was a nice-looking ticket agent named Carlos-something—not a Jewish person—and he took my ID and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’” She said she told Carlos, “Young man, schmuck is German for ‘jewel.’ It is fine that you grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. I live in one, too, near Williamsburg. Please give me my boarding pass.”

Sister Mary acknowledges, obviously, that schmuck, in Yiddish, a language derived from German and Hebrew, refers to what she calls “the dirty male part.” And she recognizes that schmuck serves as a broad-spectrum insult as well, corresponding, more or less, to “idiot” or worse. Not as much, however, in Kentucky. It was idyllic, growing up a Schmuck in Kentucky, Sister Mary said. “It is my understanding that Grandfather Schmuck came from a Lutheran family, but there had been some sort of move to or from the Catholic Church.” She does not know if the Schmucks among her German ancestors were jewelers, though it’s possible, and she’s proud that the cathedral in Cologne is home to the Schmuck Madonna, which many believers have adorned with jewels in gratitude for answered prayers.

Mary Schmuck, who is 72, first came to my attention last summer, when the Los Angeles Jewish Journal published a letter she wrote taking issue with the title of the recent film Dinner for Schmucks, and asked the newspaper’s readers—many of whom she thought (not incorrectly) might be associated in some manner with the film industry—for “awareness and sensitivity to various audiences out here.” I was moved by her pride, and I was also surprised to learn that there are actual Americans named Schmuck.

“At one point, there were 400 Schmucks in America,” she told me. “I’ve done some genealogy research on this.” She does not know the number of Schmucks in America today, however. “Whenever I go to another city, I look in the White Pages for Schmucks, but I don’t run across any.” In our conversation, I suggested, in a kindly way, that her mission to expunge the word schmuck from the American lexicon of insults was quixotic: Yiddish, particularly its more flamboyant expressions, has penetrated the American vernacular as much as the bagel has come to dominate the American breakfast table. “Yes, that may be so,” she said. “But human dignity is important. I think people should find another word to insult people with, or better yet, not insult one another at all.”

I noted to Sister Mary that hers is not the only challenging surname in America. June Putz, Thomas Putz, Cornelia Putz, Erik Putz, Wolfgang Putz—indeed, an apparently unending procession of people named Putz—are listed on Facebook, and seem emotionally whole (to the extent that one can assess such things online). “Schmuck seems to be a very popular insulting term, though,” Sister Mary noted, correctly.

How schmuck came to be a rude word for part of the male genitalia is not as obvious as one might think. Both Sister Mary and I thought the nether-region connotation of schmuck derived from the notion that the male genitals represent “the family jewels,” but according to the lexicographer Michael Wex, a top-tier Yiddishist and the author of How to Be a Mentsh (And Not a Shmuck), the Yiddish and German schmucks are completely unrelated.

“Basically, the Yiddish word comes out of baby talk,” Wex said. “A little boy’s penis is a shtekl, a ‘little stick.’ Shtekl became shmeckle, in a kind of baby-rhyming thing, and shmeckle became shmuck. Shmeckle is prepubescent and not a dirty word, but shmuck, the non-diminutive, became obscene.”

Sister Mary said she does not blame Yiddish for the unhappiness it has caused her: in part because the unhappiness has been mitigated by her return several years ago to Kentucky, where she devotes her life to serving impoverished people, who are grateful for her attention and unaware of her name’s connotations; in part because she is vocationally forgiving; and in part because she has a predisposition toward Jews, and not only Jesus.

“I was just telling somebody today that the world owes the Jewish community so much for theater, and especially for comedy,” she said, naming Al Jolson—“I’m showing my age”—George Burns, and Danny Kaye among her favorite Jewish performers. “Glory be to the heavens, what would we do without all the Jewish contributions to the arts?” she asked. “All those comedians! It’s a real gift to the rest of us.”

(A case in point, perhaps: Murray and Harry are visiting Tel Aviv, and they decide to rent camels and ride them through the city. They quickly fall into an argument. Murray is convinced his camel is male; Harry thinks otherwise. “What makes you so sure yours is a male?” Harry asks Murray. Murray says, “That’s easy. Just a few minutes ago, we passed this guy on the sidewalk, and he said, ‘Take a look at the schmuck on that camel!’”)

I noted to Sister Mary that many Jewish comedians, especially of the generation that appeals to her, are funny in part because of the influence of Yiddish, and that the word schmuck is a crucial component of so many excellent jokes. She paused for a moment, and then said, “Jewish comedians are a very creative people, my goodness. I’m sure there’s another word they can use.” And she gently suggested that I too would benefit from laying off her family name. I was duly chastened and have agreed to forswear the use of the word schmuck. At least until after Lent.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. Author of the book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, Goldberg also writes the magazine's advice column. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. Previously, he served as a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward, and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

His book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. Goldberg rthe recipient of the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism. He is also the recipient of 2005's Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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