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I recently watched A Series Of Unfortunate Events, and I was puzzled by the expression "Josephine, Schmosephine". The narrator explains that when you don't care about something or someone, you repeat their name, changing the first syllable by "schm-".

Is this a real thing? I haven't been able to find anything about that on the Internet (and it's not the easiest thing to Google).

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    I can't say for sure, but the phenomenon you're talking about probably has Yiddish roots. The "schm" prefix is quite common in that language. Yiddish, by the way, has been defined as "The language historically of Ashkenazic Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, resulting from a fusion of elements derived principally from medieval German dialects and secondarily from Hebrew and Aramaic, various Slavic languages, and Old French and Old Italian" (see thefreedictionary.com/Yiddish). Don – rhetorician Mar 23 '17 at 15:54
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    Yes, it is real: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shm-reduplication – herisson Mar 23 '17 at 15:58
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    Here in Germany it's used quite often in my experience. Mostly it also expresses to show zero respect for a person. – AlexioVay Mar 23 '17 at 20:49
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    Narrator, shmarrator. You can't trust that guy. – MissMonicaE Mar 24 '17 at 12:31
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    It’s worth noting that — as far as I caught it — every trivia fact that the narrator explains is correct. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 24 '17 at 12:38
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+50

Leo Rosten, Hooray for Yiddish (1982) has a lengthy entry about this phenomenon under the modest title "sh—":

sh—

shm—

Yinglish. As in Yiddish, these prefatory particles mock or negate the word they prefix.

  1. Sh— designates scorn or dismissal when used to prefix a word" "Sick-shtick, he should be in the office!" ...

In addition to such snickery, the sh— sound introduces an astonishing number of Yiddish/Yinglish words to describe character, and freights the with disdain: shlemazl, shlemiel, shlepper, shlock, shlump, shmatte, shmeer, shmegegge, shmendick, shmo, shmontses, shmuck, shnorer, shnuk, shreck, shtunk, shtus, shvantz

...

  1. Shm— extends the scorn (as seen in the list above) by adding the nasal phoneme m to the soothing but ironic sibilants. "Clone-shmone, how will they keep their identity?" ...

The fusion of the derisive shm— to a word in order to deflate it has been called "mock-language" (by Noah Prylucki). Max Weinreich remarks that the shm— prefix "became universalized only toward the end of the nineteenth century; earlier, forms with shp—, shm—, or simply with p- or m- would do" (History of the Yiddish Language, page 623).

Examples of the shm— gambit have been found by Ernest Henri Levi in German dialects as far back as the thirteenth century. The oldest written evidence (so far) of a shm— usage is in a manuscript of 1600, written near Augsburg.

Some of the mock-words Jews used were part of "secret" language—the disguising of certain words about whose usage Jews harbored anxiety (e.g., the Trinity).

in German the use of this mock-mechanism (sh—, shm—) was never extensive, and has progressively declined since the Middle Ages; the cases recorded from modern German dialects seem to be loans from Yiddish. This, of course, does not preclude the beginning of the phenomenon from having been German, but we have no complete certainty....

—MAX WEINREICH, op. cit., pages 623–24

Although Rosten is more of a popular writer than a scholar, Max Weinreich is a pure academic. His massive History of the Yiddish Language was first published (in Yiddish) in 1974, five years after his death. It appeared in English translation in 2008 in an edition published by Yale University Press that runs to almost 1,800 pages.

I take seriously Rosten's basic argument that the shm— mock repetition mechanism goes back a long way in Yiddish and German, and that (as Weinreich says) "it became universalized only toward the end of the nineteenth century."


I searched for a number of mock-repetition words in Google Books, and the earliest (and most popular) one was fancy-shmancy (or fancy-schmancy), which appears in publications dating back to the 1940s. For example, from Stephen Longstreet, The Last Man Comes Home: American Travel Journals, 1941-1942 (1942) [combined snippets]:

The pushers are stiff with shoving it along all night. The warehouses are full. Crates of chickens speak to each other, compare eggs. Golden-brown corn, Country Gentleman, sweet on the cob, great tubs of salt butter, the good bitter tang of dill pickles, the tubs of schmaltz herring, the fancy-schmancy pheasant, rabbit and deer cadavers for the tender, trained stomachs of ...

From Carlton Brown, Brainstorm (1944) [combined snippets]:

The next day I told Helen about the perplexing state of affairs I had run into at Max's, and said that I guessed he was getting a little too fancy-shmancy for me, tasting a suspicion of envy as I said it.

From American Aviation, volume 10 (1946) [text not visible in snippet view]:

LITTLE KNOWN FACTS Here are 3 new Little Known Facts About Well-Known Planes, each of which has gotten its sender a fancy-shmancy commission as Perch Pilot (bottom rung). If you know a "Fact" as interesting as these and send it in ...

And from Hiram Haydn, The Time Is Noon (1948) [combined snippets]:

He could tell himself that she was plenty free and easy with anyone who wore pants, but he knew she liked him particularly, all the same—and he didn't want to get mixed up in that kind of stuff now. Partly because of Ben, but only partly. Maybe he was fancy-schmancy about it, but ever since meeting Sand—

"Meeting" was right. He still couldn't understand it. Chewing the hamburg thoughtfully, he went back over the whole business. ...

I have always thought of fancy-shmancy as being a Yiddish-inflected equivalent of hoity-toity, which Merriam-Webster identifies as "rhyming compound fr. E dial. hoit to play the fool" and dates to 1668.

In The Joys of Yinglish (1989), Leo Rosten argues that the sh- forms are orthographically preferable for Yiddish terms:

IMPORTANT NOTE: I strongly disapprove of using sch or schm instead of sh for English transliterations of Yiddish words. Sch is German; sh is Yiddish—which in fact, uses a single letter (shin) for the sh sound. There is no letter for sch in Yiddish. I use the sh and exile the sch whenever possible.

Nevertheless, in searching for examples of sh- and sch- mock-repetition words in Google Books, I found that the sch- forms tended to be somewhat more common than the sh- forms.

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The Shm- is a carryover from Yiddish, as American port cities like New York at the turn of century came to embrace Eastern European Jews, with their food (knishes, bagels, matzo ball soup) and Yiddish inflected English (Oy, gotta have chutzpah, kvetching, schvitzing bullets, saying mazel tov, shmoozing someone, a shmear of cream cheese, or needing to shmear someone's palm, shmatta business, Eddie Durante's shnoz, zaftig coloratura, a nice tush -- from Yiddish tuchis from the Hebrew tachas or bottom). In the Hebrew alphabet, Sh is a single letter.

Yiddishism--

A linguistic feature of Yiddish, especially a Yiddish idiom or phrasing that appears in another language. - American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Ed.

In Yiddish, the sound of Shm- is 'funny' to the ear, endlessly. So funny, it's worth doubling down on: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shm-reduplication.

Here is a similar case directly in English: With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good--

...an ugly name that sounds like it might be a secret obscenity. - Discussion of the Smuckers slogan that mocks its own name

Tutorial on Shlemiel and Shlemazel--

First, Yiddish humor: "Okay, so Shl- is not Shm-!" Now, Lemele was a role in the Second Avenue theater (Yiddish Broadway of old). Since Lemele was pathetic, Shlemiel is more so. Mazel is luck, so Shlemazel is unlucky, a loser. Putting it all together...

When soup is served, it is always the Shlemiel who spills it, with the lap of the Shlemazel conveniently there to catch it...every time.

Side note on 'funny' sounds in English--

In English, the K sound in ICK and UCK sounds 'funny' for the staccato quality, which gave rise to many words that have shock value. You can probably come up with 4-6 examples with no trouble.

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    You forgot buying a tchotchke at the gift shop. I love this answer – OldBunny2800 Mar 24 '17 at 11:44
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    Nice answer, Yosef! Don – rhetorician Mar 24 '17 at 16:43
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    So shock has shock value? – mbomb007 Mar 24 '17 at 18:47
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    Am I the only one who doesn't understand the joke? – Pharap Mar 25 '17 at 5:24
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    @marcellothearcane - The other way around, as Yiddish is based on an old German, with lots of Hebrew religious terms and Aramaic talmudic terms thrown in with modified pronunciation. – Yosef Baskin May 30 '17 at 14:06
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It is a type of productive reduplication forming a Yiddish “despective”, also known as shm-reduplication. (sometimes schm)

Reduplication in English ranges from baby talk such as no-no and boo-boo, to rhyming (teeney-weeney, itty-bitty) to ablaut reduplication such as knick-knack and bric-a-brac.

The above are non-productive reduplication in that they are fixed and new words are not usually formed from the repeated patterns.

In comparison, shm-reduplication is productive, and new words can be formed by dropping the first consonant (or cluster) and using the affix "schm" to front the first vowel of the word. [Many words in Yiddish beginning with Sch or Shm are already disparaging, such as schmendrick, schmuck, and schlemiel.]

Fancy-schmancy and Joe-Schmoe are common, but new words can be made when the speaker is making disparaging comments about the referent.

Free example:

"Collusion schmollusion, they were talking to each other!"

More information about the phonological properties of schm reduplication can be found at the Project Gutenberg.

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It's absolutely a real thing. Try plugging a few combinations into Google. Examples:

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I can't say for sure, but the phenomenon you're talking about probably has Yiddish roots. The "schm" prefix is quite common in that language. Yiddish, by the way, has been defined as "The language historically of Ashkenazic Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, resulting from a fusion of elements derived principally from medieval German dialects and secondarily from Hebrew and Aramaic, various Slavic languages, and Old French and Old Italian."

An example of a Yiddish word is schmendrick, which means a stupid person. It is likely derived from Hebrew for "fat person." Another example is the Yiddish word schmuck, which in English we might translate dick or tool, as in

He's such a dick!

Or,

He's such a tool!

Schmuck-head, a common derivative, is just a bit more graphic, if you know what I mean (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

  • Alexis Manaster-Ramer wrote a paper on the subject, but I can't remember the title. – John Lawler Mar 6 at 20:02
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i think that specific example is a feminine spin on "Joe Schmoe". (outside the Yiddish context, it might be "Joe Blow".)

so she's "just your average Jo[sephine]", but a girl or woman. (i think "Joe Schmoe" and "just your average Joe" share some common meaning.)

or just some unremarkable or non-noteworthy Josephine that one is indifferent to.

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    I don't think this is right. There is a difference between "the average Josephine" and "a Josephine that I don't care about," and the question says that "Josephine, Shmosephine" is supposed to refer to the latter. – herisson Mar 25 '17 at 3:45
  • thank you for scrutinizing the difference. i will modify the answer. – robert bristow-johnson Mar 25 '17 at 3:49
  • Thank you for elaborating. I am still not sure there is a connection between "Josephine, Schmosephine" and "Joe Schmo," but perhaps they are related as you say via this "unremarkable" meaning – herisson Mar 25 '17 at 4:02

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