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December 26, 2008

A Putz By Any Other Name

The New York media are already having a field day with how much of a field day they're going to have with the Yiddish meaning of the last name of a certain recently acquired Mets reliever. "It's Pronounced "Puts," Until J.J. Screws Up, At Least," declared an NBC New York headline. The New York Times ran an entire article about the challenges posed by the fact that "the word 'putz' is vulgar Yiddish slang for penis."


A New York Putz. From shop.mlb.com

Of course, Mets fans on the internet are getting in on the fun as well. BrooklynMetFan, calls for Mets fans to ignore the preferred pronunciation of Putz's name, and opt for the Yiddish one instead, writing "Can you imagine 55K, er I mean 45K at New Shea in the bottom of the 8th screaming in unison, 'PUTZ! PUTZ! PUTZ! PUTZ!' before exploding on strike three?" Another fan on Mike Francesca's site chimes in "I can finally say Putz at a Mets game without someone thinking I'm speaking Yiddish." There's something appropriate about the traditionally nebbishy Mets signing a pitcher with the name Putz, as evidenced by Depressed Mets Fan, who writes, "I’m going to be buying a Putz jersey as soon as possible (as will every Yiddish-speaking Mets fan, which amounts to about 78% of the team’s fanbase)."

All of this putzing about raises an interesting point. There seems be an awful lot of Yiddish terms for the male organ. In addition to putz, there's schmuck, schlong, schvanz, and schmeckl, among others. There are some subtle distinctions between the terms. For instance, schmeckl, like petseleh, is generally meant to refer to a little boy's penis. Schlong literally means snake, and schwanz is actually German for tail. The difference between putz and schmuck is a debate for the ages. Bubbygram.com notes that "one is erect, the other is limp," while Michael Wex, noted author of Born to Kvetch, tells Gelf "You can use shmuck of yourself ('I'm standing there like a shmuck'), but not putz."

So why are there so many different ways to see penis in Yiddish? "We’re looking at a culture in which circumcision is the only indispensable ritual," says Wex. He says that Judaism is "a religion that defines male membership by the state of the male member in the second week of life. Dick-jokes are vulgar in any culture, but the Yiddish use of terms for the penis as insults or curses is as close as the language comes to conventionalized blasphemy of the 'Jesus H. Christ' type."

Gennady Estraikh, a professor of Yiddish intellectual history and sociolinguists at NYU, doesn't see Yiddish as all that penis-centric. "I find Yiddish very poor in this sense," he says. "Compare, e.g., with English. Similar to the English list, any Yiddish one includes words that belong to territorial varieties and used by various generations."

Estraikh has a point; there are many more synonyms on the English list, albeit some obscure ones (groin ferret?). While Wex is correct about the Jewish fascination with penises—from Genesis to Woody Allen—it is not unique to any culture. The main reason we think there are so many phallic words in Yiddish is likely because those are the selected few from a dying language that have crept into the English vernacular. However unwittingly, the Mets new reliever, Putz that he is, is helping to keep the tradition alive.

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