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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

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. 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.


International Foot Faults

While it’s true that hurling projectiles at a world leader's head during a press conference is bad manners in any culture, the fact that the offending objects flying in Bush's direction during a recent Iraqi press conference were shoes is particularly meaningful—and thus insulting—in Arab culture. That's because most Arabs consider shoes and feet to be unclean, and pretty much anything to do with them is considered to be disrespectful. The shoe-throwing is the latest in a long line of foot-related international incidents.


Hopejackers, Unite!

Are you a public figure or prominent organization whose prospects look dim? Do you feel the need for a little hope, and maybe, just maybe, more than a little change? Then it's high time you consider hitching your wagon to the star of the champion of change, the harbinger of hope, President-elect Barack Obama! Obama's coattails are, apparently, as long as his rhetoric is grandiose.


Extremism in Defense of Extremism

Announcing that Iran had just successfully tested a missile able to reach Europe, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad informed the world that "the Iranian nation defends its dignity. Should any power stand against the Iranian nation, the Iranian people will crush it under its foot and will strike it on the mouth." While the notion itself is somewhat unsettling, we can take comic relief in his choice of words—how exactly will the Iranian people crush a power under their feet while striking it in the mouth? We're not sure, but it reminds of some of the words used by fringe types of yesterday and today.


Burritos for Barack

Nate Silver, the statistician behind and Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA, has recently become something of media phenomenon. But while some have suggested that PECOTA's pre-season embrace of the Rays (who were dismissed by most analysts) augurs good news for Barack Obama (whom Silver projects to win the Presidency by a near-landslide margin), we can't help but wonder if another, lesser-known, exploit of Silver's can also help to predict his predicting acumen. We are referring, of course, to his ability to find the best taqueria in Chicago's Wicker Park.


Hip Brooklyn Heresy

The New York Times published an article yesterday chronicling several Park Slope neighbors who have committed the ultimate act of political heresy in the famously liberal 'hood—they've put up McCain signs. And, no, they haven't done it ironically. This made Gelf wonder what other actions might get you dirty looks from the tastemakers of hip Brooklyn.


The Year of Everything

2008 may have arrived as a rat, but apparently in its young life it has evolved into many, many other things. This eighth year of the International Decade of a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World (which raises the question, does the International Decade of a Culture of War and Violence for the Children of the World begin in 2011? And, if so, what can we do about it?) is not only an election year and a leap year. It's also a time of sanitation and intercultural dialogue, among other things.


Alabama: The Next Promised Land?

Are you Jewish? Need cash? Like Peanuts (the nut, not the comic strip)? You could get $50,000 just for relocating to Dothan, Alabama. A group in Dothan, a town of 58,000 in southeastern Alabama is offering Jews $50K to come on down, provided they stay for five years and get involved in the Temple Emanu-El. Larry Blumberg, the head of the program, has taken out ads in Jewish newspapers in Boston, Miami, Washington and Providence to try to entice the Chosen People of Israel to make their home in the buckle of the Bible Belt.


Wine Spectator Sells Its Credibility

Wine Spectator magazine is apparently in the business of handing out "Awards of Excellence" to restaurants with good wine lists—including fake ones. Writer Robin Goldstein proved this by making up a restaurant in Milan, complete with a website, phony menu, and reviews on Chowhound. He then wrote up a wine list, and submitted it to Wine Spectator for consideration, along with the $250 application fee. He won the award, despite the fact that the restaurant, Osteria l’Intrepido, does not exist, and, perhaps more damning, the wine list was not very good.

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