"the whole schlemiel"

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Aug 20 21:19:02 UTC 2009

That (being a simple malapropism) would be true if this really was
"schlemiel" for "s(c)me(e/a)r". But would you still insist that it was a
simple malapropism if it was based on "s(c)(h)p(i/e)el". Or something
that also should sound familiar: _the whole megillah_. Another one is
"the whole mishpu(k/c)h(a/e)(h)" (clearly no relation to "schlemiel" ;-).

All three are well matched with some variant of Yiddish
*gansah/gantzeh*, which means, basically, "whole"--I don't believe the
same goes for "schmear". (I actually don't know the details of Yiddish
morphology, so I must rely on external sources for this one.)

When I was poking around in my memory banks, the version that came up
first was "the whole schpiel", which actually makes sense (unlike "the
whole schmeer", which may be an yidcorn*--a very popular one--of its
own). The other two also sound familiar, but I can't recall ever
noticing "the whole schmear" (I am sure I've heard it, without paying
attention, but it would never occur to me to use it, but I've used the
other three in the past).

There are plenty of examples of the latter (schpiel), no matter how you
spell it (see all the parentheses above). Oddly enough, there are 5
times as many of "the whole shmeer" type, but more than 90% with one
spelling (schmear). But not all cites are created equal--I checked
rather far into "the whole schmeer" list and they all (175K) appear to
be legit. But of the 2.4 mil ghits on "the whole schmear" many appear to
be irrelevant.

Then, there is this gem:

schmeer also schmear or shmear (shmîr)
n. Slang
A number of things that go together; an aggregate: /bought the whole

In case you were wondering where this is from, it's AHD4. Same citation
on Dictionary.com also gives

schmear (n.)
1961, "bribery," from Yiddish shmir "spread," from shmirn "to grease,
smear," from M.H.G. smiren, from O.H.G. smirwen "to smear" (see smear
(v.); cf. slang to grease (someone's) palm "to bribe"). Phrase the whole
schmear "the entire affair" is attested from 1969, originally show
business jargon

This one is from the "Online etymology dictionary". There is also a
whole piece on schmear in the Forward, but "Philologos".


"One common meaning of the word “shmear” that is indigenous to neither
Yiddish nor German, and that is an entirely American development, is
that which is given by my Encarta (it actually lists it first) as “an
entire set or group of related things.” This of course comes from the
expression “the whole shmear,” meaning “everything” or “the works.” To
what exactly “the whole shmear” originally referred has not been
researched extensively, but it’s highly likely that it comes from the
Sunday bagel breakfast so beloved of American Jews (who were eating
bagels long before anyone else had even heard of them)."

I'll stick with schpiel, unless context demands megillah or mishpukhah.
But there is an interesting twist on that too--the way I've heard people
use "schpiel", it seems to indicate "story", so being very similar to
"megillah". But that is not the actual meaning--in Dutch and in German
"spiel" is "game" (Dutch "speller" means "player"). One of many online
Yiddish glossaries makes the same suggestion:

> > Also, colloquially, a story, a sales pitch, a speech. "Don't give me
the whole shpiel. Just tell me how much this is going to cost me."

I am wondering if there isn't a backwards derivation here, from "the
whole schpiel" and "the whole megillah" to the assumption that the two
are equivalent.

And now that I've thought about it for a bit, "schmear", which
originally meaning "grease" (unlike "schmaltz", which means "fat" and
cannot be used as a verb**), also acquired the meaning of "spread", as
in, "to spread cream cheese on a bagel". "The whole spread"--at least to
me--means abundance, although, of course, it's a slightly different
gloss for "spread". But why not "schmear" for both once the word
migrates into American English?


*yidcorn--I'll admit, I just made up the word. It made sense to use
something that represents the attitude, "If it sounds Yiddish, it must
be good!" There are a number of expressions where originally Yiddish
words are either twisted virtually beyond recognition or are used
interchangeably without justification (as in the present case). A
feature of yidcorns is that they appear to be directly involved in the
production of yidclones--four of which appear in the first paragraph of
this post. As to whether one must distinguish between eggcorns and
yidcorns (or snow clones and Yidclones) is up to you.

**schmaltz--as I had a moment to reflect on it, "schmaltz" is
occasionally used as a verb, although it does not mean "to fatten". To
"schmear" has an obvious meaning of bribing someone, "greasing the
palm". To "schmaltz" someone has been used to mean "to flatter", "to
butter up". Fatten, flatter--it's all the same if it's Yiddish!

PS: Are there no Yiddish scholars on this list??

PPS: I don't believe the original subject is a "simple malaprop".
Someone who says it clearly tried to make sense of it, recognized the
Yiddish connection, and made an effort to fill the mysterious gap with
the closest Yiddish word he knows. So, yes, that's a yidcorn. I'll leave
the determination as to whether it is an eggcorn or not to experts.

Laurence Horn wrote:
> At 1:07 PM -0500 8/20/09, Jim Parish wrote:
>> David A. Daniel wrote:
>>>  Unless I missed something here... MW has schlemiel as "an unlucky
>>>  bungler" so what you've got here is, I guess, a malapropism (for whole
>>>  shmear) as it certainly could never, ever, under any circumstances, be
>>>  an eggcorn.
>> Has anyone claimed that it is?
> Not unless it's guilt by association.  Victor Steinbok mentioned it
> as a yidcorn, which is not necessarily an eggcorn, and in the same
> sentence alluded to the reanalysis of "mano a mano" as 'man to man'
> (see also my previous message), which *does* involve eggcorns (as
> noted there).  But I agree "the whole shlemiel" is a simple
> malapropism.
> LH
>> I mentioned only as an interesting
>> construction, that I had never encountered it before. (We do discuss
>> other things besides eggcorns, do we not?)
>> Jim Parish

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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