Daily Archives: July 19, 2009


You may have heard of Yiddish stories of three blunderers: Schmendrik, Schlemiel, and Schlimazel. All three characters are named for types of people; the first two are actually apparently eponyms – the common noun is based on the name of a person, in this case a character in a story. The third, schlimazel, is a a well-formed Yiddish word, as will see. All three have that sch (or sh) beginning that one often gets in Yiddish words and quite notably in derisory usage in the onset substitution schm: “Doctor, schmoctor. He’s a dentist.” It shows up on other derisory words too, notably schmuck (a word for a male body part, now applied to persons) and schmo (a euphemism for schmuck) as well as schmutz (junk, filth, undesirable stuff). Schlimazel doesn’t have the m but it does have a slippery sound that might to some ears have a sleazy side, or at least a messy, fuzzy buzz.

But a schlimazel is not a sleazebag or a fuzzball. One common definition is that if a waiter spills soup on a customer, the waiter is a schlemiel and the customer is a schlimazel. If you recognize the mazel in this word from mazel tov, you’re right on: it’s the word for “luck” and comes from Hebrew, as do many words in Yiddish. But Yiddish is not a Semitic language any more than English is a Romance language; no matter how many loan words a language takes from a source, its language type is determined by the source of the grammar and will generally be manifested in the sources of many of the basic words and affixes too. And for Yiddish, that source is German – it’s a dialect of Low German with Hebrew influence, long written with the Hebrew alphabet but now usually rendered with the Latin alphabet. (Low German is not “low-grade” German; the Low/High distinction in German is geographical.) We see this in the schlim (the double m in schlim mazel became a single one), which is from Middle High German slim “crooked” (yes, it’s the source of Modern English slim). This is emblematic of Yiddish in its mixing and also in its palatalization of the [s] initially.

So while Schlimazel’s companions are a naive fool (Schmedrik) and a clumsy oaf (Schlemiel), our hero du jour is just plain unlucky. How unlucky is he? Well, the word seems to have even had the bad luck to have been borrowed and mutated into a word for a messy situation, a complication, a quarrel, a row: shemozzle. This luckless lunk is being accused of causing the trouble – and they can’t even get his name right!