In a word: schmutz

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


English, a bastard language, is also a promiscuous one. The offspring of Germanic Anglo-Saxon and Norman French has helped itself to borrowings from a fellow bastard language, Yiddish, the offspring of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, and others. 

English has been particularly receptive to earthy terms from Yiddish, including this week's featured word schmutz (pronounced SHMUTS, with a u as in put), also spelled shmutz. It means "dirt," "filth," "grime," or "rubbish." 

Sadly, though the Oxford English Dictionary and include it, a number of other dictionaries neglect it, and its adjectival form, schmutzig, has not crossed over. In the past week, however, it was admitted to the august precincts of the Scrabble dictionary. 

It comes from the Middle High German smutzen, "to soil." 

Merriam-Webster dates its use in English from 1940, and I recall a colleague from graduate school forty years ago who liked to say, "Life is just a bowl of schmutz." 

Example: From a 1999 New York Times article by Deborah Solomon, quoting Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem, on a Rothschild gift of a Gauguin, a Cezanne, and two van Goghs to the Israel Museum: "The moment you have received four paintings like that, you can't accept schmutz anymore."


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