Etymology Linguistics Usage

Referendum, shmeferendum

Q: I caught the tail end of Pat’s comments on WNYC last month about “Referendum, Shmeferendum,” a headline on a news site in Amman, Jordan. So has Yiddish infiltrated Arab journalism?

A: Pat wasn’t the only one to raise an eyebrow over that headline. It also caught the attention of contributors to the Linguist List, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society, and prompted an exchange of comments in March.

For readers of the blog who haven’t seen the Feb. 28, 2012, headline on the English edition of Al Bawaba, here it is in full: “Referendum, Shmeferendum: A Famous ‘Yes’ as Syrian Celebs Vote For Assad.”

The article, with an accompanying slide show, is critical of nine Syrian celebrities—mostly movie stars—who supported the government of Bashar Assad in the Feb. 26 referendum.

So has Yiddish infiltrated Arab journalism?

Well, it’s true that rhyming jingles like “referendum, shmeferendum,” “fancy-shmancy,” and “gravity-shmavity” (from a 1990s ad for the Wonderbra) are characteristic of a Yiddish construction.

But this playfully derisive rhyming usage is thoroughly English by now, and many (if not most) English speakers who use it are probably unaware of its Yiddish origins.

In expressions like “referendum, shmeferendum,” the speaker or writer pooh-poohs a word by repeating it with “shm-” at the beginning, forming a rhyming compound.

The history of the Yiddish language is complicated and often unclear, but one thing is certain about this usage.

It didn’t (as many people believe) just spring into being on the Lower East Side after the waves of Jewish immigration to New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So where does this usage ultimately come from?

Many scholars of Yiddish linguistics believe the construction has Turkish roots and may date back as far as the 13th century.

This isn’t as weird as it may sound. As we wrote in a posting earlier this year, it was the Turks who gave Eastern European Jews the word pastrami.

And the familiar Yiddish word yarmulke (from Polish jarmułka and Ukrainian yarmulke) is ultimately of Turkic origin, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Recent scholarship suggests that Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews adopted  rhyming shm- doublets through contact with the native East Slavic languages—Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Russian—spoken in the regions where they lived.

And those languages, in turn, got the rhyming-couplet construction through contact with Turkish and other Turkic languages spoken in neighboring parts of central Asia.

The linguist Mark R. V. Southern has written that the East Slavic and the Turkic language families had their own parallel sets of rhyming compounds that were used in a mockingly humorous way.

But in their case, according to Southern, the prefix was m instead of shm-. Yiddish speakers just added the sh sound.

As Southern writes in his book Contagious Couplings: Transmission of Expressives in Yiddish Echo Phrases (2005), the spread of the “Turkic m- echo-pairs” led to the “development within West Germanic of Yiddish/‘Yinglish’ shm- echo-twins.”

To illustrate this development, linguists have pointed to Yiddish expressions like Liebe-shmiebe, Poezje-shmoezje, and gelt shmelt. (In English, these would translate as “love-shmove,” “poetry-shmoetry,” and “money-shmoney.”)

Meanwhile, examples from Turkish include sapka-mapka and kitap-mitap (“love-shmove” and “books-shmooks”).

So expressions like “fancy-shmancy” got their start in the Ottoman Empire, made their way into the East Slavic languages, were adopted into Yiddish, then migrated to New York and beyond. Fancy that!

This feature of Yiddish, linguists say, has also been absorbed into Israeli Hebrew, and to some extent into modern German. It’s even been re-borrowed from Yiddish into a handful of playful phrases in Russian.

In the last half-century or so, the tradition of rhyming “shm-” compounds has spread across the United States.

For instance, the language researcher Barry Popik has pointed out that in Texas, the phrase “Texas shmexas” is often used by people who don’t think that much of the state.

Why has the tradition become so popular? Perhaps because there’s something inherently humorous  in words starting with “shm-” or “shl-” (like “shlep,” “shlemiel,” “shmooze,” and “shlock”).

And using a rhyming compound to ridicule a person or a notion—as in “Freud-shmoid”—turns the sneer into a joke.

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