Is “schmegeggy” really Yiddish?

Q: I love the word “shmegeggy,” but I hate to use it because I’m sure that I’ll  never spell it right. I assume it’s Yiddish for a nincompoop.

A: It’s safe to say that “schmegeggy” (the spelling in the Oxford English Dictionary) originated among Yiddish speakers in the United States.

But its precise origin is “obscure,” according to the OED, and “unknown,” according to the Yiddish language maven Leo Rosten.

The OED says “schmegeggy” has two meanings in English: (1) “a contemptible person, an idiot,” and (2) “rubbish, nonsense.”

The dictionary’s first citation for sense No. 1 is from Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog (1964). Simkin, Herzog’s lawyer, uses the term (spelled “shmegeggy”) in speaking about an opposing lawyer:

“I’m waiting for that affidavit. Tell him plaintiff will kick his ass if he can’t produce it. He better get it this afternoon, that ludicrous shmegeggy!” (We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)

The OED’s first citation for sense No. 2 is from The Joys of Yiddish (1968), by Rosten, who defines it as meaning “a lot of ‘hot air,’ ‘baloney,’ a cockamamy story. ‘Don’t give me that shmegegge!’ ”

You’ll notice that Rosten spells the word “shmegegge.” (Another spelling mentioned in the OED is “schmagagi.”)

In his bookRosten says the word originated as “Ameridish slang. Origin: unknown; probably, a dazzling onomatopoetic child of the Lower East Side.”

He defines sense No. 1 this way: “An unadmirable, petty person. 2. A maladroit, untalented type. 3. A sycophant, a shlepper, a whiner, a drip.”

Another commentator on the Yiddish language, Lillian M. Feinsilver, speculates in her book The Taste of Yiddish (1970) about the etymology of the term.

She says the “disdain” implied in sense No. 1 “prompts me to suggest that the term may be a combination of two other words for ‘fool’: the vulgar shmok … and yeke or its German antecedent Gecke.” 

Feinsilver also writes that “in American theatrical circles,” the word is “sometimes used in the sense of ‘malarkey’ or ‘bushwa.’ ”

So, is “schmegeggy” really Yiddish? Well, Rosten calls it “Yinglish,” which he describes as a “bright, brash, colorful amalgam of Yiddish and English” in his book The Joys of Yinglish (1972).

Whatever it is, don’t worry about spelling the word. No matter how you spell it, you won’t be a schmegeggy.

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