Why We’re All in a Shmood

The Yiddishism kids love

Illustration of a person wearing a crossword jacket and sitting at a desk, working on a crossword puzzle on a laptop. An "I Heart Crosswords" poster is taped up on the wall.
The Atlantic

Sign up for Caleb’s newsletter here.

Mood, like its cool cousins vibes and energy, has become an omnipresent multipurpose internet buzzword, used to indicate one’s identification with an image, aesthetic, demeanor, or attitude. Post a video of a Rollerblader eating it in a public park with the caption “mood,” and we get a general sense of how you feel. Respond “mood” to a friend telling you about how they don’t care anymore if it’s rude to leave a party after an hour to go to bed, and you’ll both know where you stand in the battle between social etiquette and self-care. The word, which comes from the Old English mot, meaning “state of mind,” hasn’t changed much semantically over time—besides recently gaining the ability to function on its own as a general affirmative, like mhmmm or aye. But in recent years it has exploded in usage, producing colloquial variants like big mood, a whole mood, and my personal favorite, shmood.

Playfully adding the sh- sound before a word starting with m is surprisingly common. Through a process called shm-reduplication, you can do it with just about any word. Actually … Word, shmord! You can do it with entire phrases! You could probably do it for a whole sentence if you had the time. Shm-reduplication—the repetition of a base with the addition of the shm- prefix—came to English in the early 1900s via Yiddish, the ninth-century Central European hybrid of Hebrew and High German spoken by the nascent Ashkenazi Jewish population. Shm-ifying something can mean many things. It can intensify it (fancy-shmancy), generalize it (Joe Schmoe), or demean it (breakfast, shmekfast). Most often, the shm- does all three—injecting an element of sarcastic and condescending scorn.

But today the sound has transcended this historical context. We began to use the shm- prefix without a base phrase to indicate a sense of ironic distance. A showy display of wealth might simply be called shmancy. The rapper Bobby Shmurda used it to playfully disguise the tropes of the genre in both his stage name and one of his biggest hits, “Shmoney Dance.” It’s used most commonly when humorously attempting to disguise language. If I were a sitcom character asking someone for a recommendation for the best wart cream for my ailing “friend,” I might call him Shmaleb Shmadison. Or if I were a parent trying to dissuade a fun uncle from buying my daughter the latest fidget spinner or whatever kids play with these days, and I were in the presence of said daughter, I might say, “Shme’s shmetting shmit for shmer shmerthday.”

There’s something inherently funny and enjoyable about starting a word with the shm- sound. It rolls off the front of the mouth like a drunken whisper, not changing the meaning per se, but prefacing the word with an attitude of cynical mischief. The shm- sound breathes a new dimension into everyday speech, like putting a wig on a word. Semantically, shmood functions almost identically to mood, save the slight tinge of irony and intensification from the Yiddish reduplication. Which leaves us with the Friday-level clue: “Too relatable.”

Play the rest of Friday’s crossword, and keep up with the week’s puzzles.


Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up here.