(RNS) There he goes again: Donald Trump has said something crude, and about a woman, this time Hillary Clinton.
OK, at this point no one should be terribly surprised that Trump can be boorish, and will often target women when he is.
But apparently the Internet is shocked, and social media has been buzzing over the way the leading Republican presidential contender used a vulgar word for penis in describing what happened to Clinton in losing to Barack Obama in their 2008 matchup for the Democratic nomination.
“She was favored to win, and she got schlonged,” Trump told a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Monday (Dec. 21).
It was an unfortunate usage, to say the least, especially since “schlong” is technically a noun, not a verb.
But what’s also notable about this episode, and also not all that unusual, is that it’s yet another instance of gentiles in public life using Yiddish expressions, and badly.
To be sure, Yiddish is not easy to master. It’s a mashup of Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic and Germanic tongues and tones that originated centuries ago with Ashkenazic Jews in Central Europe. Their descendants brought it with them when they immigrated to the U.S., and many Yiddish terms assimilated so thoroughly that Leo Rosten, author of “The Joys of Yiddish,” referred to such neologisms as “Yinglish.”
But genuine Yiddishisms have become pretty commonplace, even for those living outside “Seinfeld Alley” on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
So what’s up with the goyim — if you want to use a possibly pejorative Yiddish term for nonmembers of the tribe — getting Yiddish wrong so often?
Remember Michele Bachmann? A GOP presidential candidate and Minnesota Lutheran, in 2011 she tried to rip President Obama for having the gall to talk about federal spending when Bachmann insisted he was the problem, not the solution.
Only, when she spoke about the president’s “chutzpah,” she bit down on a hard “ch” sound and failed to employ the more guttural pronunciation — originating in the back of the throat — that should start the word. Thus it came out as “CHOOT-spa” – and became an instant viral video. (And Bachmann once worked on a kibbutz in Israel!)
Or consider poor Mitt Romney, a Wonder Bread Mormon who did a bit better than Bachmann in 2011 — he won the GOP nomination, for example.
But when it came to Yiddish he still got dinged for totally whiffing the Hebrew “chet” sound in “chutzpah” when he told rival Herman Cain during a debate that he thought Cain had “HOOT-spa,” as in “FOOT-spa.” (Cain in fact had lots of genuine chutzpah, and ended his campaign amid allegations of sex scandals.)
Mispronunciations are one thing — mainly occasions for teasing, as one of the current campaign’s Republican contenders, Ben Carson, discovered this month when he spoke to an organization of Jewish Republicans and repeatedly pronounced the name of the militant Palestinian organization Hamas as “hummus,” which is in fact a popular Middle Eastern dish of mashed chickpeas and sesame paste, or tahini. (And it’s not even Yiddish.)
What’s really bad is when the goyim get the meaning wrong.
Take former N.J. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, “a dignified and well-brought-up woman,” as the late great language maven for The New York Times, William Safire, put it — a well-mannered WASP who declared in 1996 that candidates should not call their opponents a “schmuck.”
It’s easy to agree with Whitman’s message, though that was a more genteel era, and Whitman was the kind of moderate Republican who would make low-energy Jeb Bush look like a cage fighter.
But the point is that Whitman didn’t realize that schmuck is actually another vulgar word for penis, and as Leo Rosten noted, schmuck is considered obscene however much it has been domesticated. Safire concluded his column by declaring he wouldn’t use it.
Not everyone got the memo.
Two years later during a rough-and-tumble 1998 New York Senate race, incumbent Al D’Amato, who is Catholic, called his Democratic challenger Charles Schumer, who is Jewish, a “putzhead” in front of a Jewish audience. “Putz” is another Yiddish epithet for penis. (How many such synonyms any language needs is another debate.) D’Amato lost and Schumer went on to become a top Democrat in the Senate.
Still, Schumer continued to be the target of Yiddish-inspired derision from the goyim.
In 2008 Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, in an address at a conservative Baptist college in Texas, called Schumer a “schmuck.” Land later apologized and said he didn’t know it was a crude term: “If I had known that, I would never have used the word.” Land said he used it simply because the “sh” sound worked well with Schumer’s name, and he wanted to say something unflattering about the senator.
Worse even than getting the meaning wrong, however, is knowing that a Yiddish expression is rude but using it anyway because, well, it’s acceptable since it’s a foreign language.
Such as when N.J. Gov. Chris Christie in 2011 reportedly called the New York City mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, a putz. Perhaps no great surprise coming from Christie, who isn’t exactly shy about voicing his opinions, in any language.
Now we have Trump, a self-proclaimed Presbyterian, using “schlong,” and as a verb, in reference to a female candidate.
Did Trump mean what everyone took him as meaning? The other thing about non-Jews using Yiddish, or “Yinglish,” is that they can claim ignorance, or that the term is so common it’s no longer offensive, which is the tack Trump took on Twitter:
Speaking to The Washington Post, Harvard University language researcher Steven Pinker expressed some sympathy for Trump.
“Many goyim are confused by the large number of Yiddish terms beginning with ‘schl’ or ‘schm’ (schlemiel, schlemazzle, schmeggegge, schlub, schlock, schlep, schmutz, schnook), and use them incorrectly or interchangeably,” Pinker wrote in an email to the Post. “So an alternative explanation is that Trump reached for what he thought was a Yinglish word for ‘beat’ and inadvertently coined an obscene one.”
Or maybe he’s just a “nudnik” who knows exactly what he’s doing, as the Post’s Dana Milbank wrote in a bravura compilation of Trump-related Yiddishisms — and put-downs — that can only be read by gentiles with a copy of “The Joys of Yiddish” handy.
(David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS)