Remember Shpock (“Your mobile yard sale for beautiful things”) and Shpoonkle (“Justice you can afford!”)? This farshtinkener naming trend is still trending. I recently learned about Schmap, which calls its product “the world’s first Twitter-powered city guides.” (The official spelling includes two shoe-print exclamation marks, but I refuse to play that game.)
Schmap isn’t new: the company was founded in 2004 in Carrboro, North Carolina, and published its first guides in 2006. A TechCrunch article about Schmap’s new Demographics Pro service, which provides detailed reports on Twitter followers, brought it to my attention.
Here’s the thing about these Sh- and Sch- names: they aren’t neutral. For starters, Sh- and especially Shm- suggest “Yiddish.” Those phonemes show up at the beginning of dozens of Yiddish words; my copy of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish has 42 pages of sh- words, from shabbes to shvitzer. (The sch- spelling, Rosten noted elsewhere, is German rather than Yiddish.)
I’m sure Carrboro, North Carolina – “the Paris of the Piedmont” – is a lovely place, but I somehow doubt that you’ll hear a lot of Yiddish along its leafy boulevards.
It gets worse, because sh- and shm- carry a stigma: They’re “prefatory sounds, of mockery or dismissal, that ‘pooh-pooh’ the word they prefix,” writes Rosten:
A great many words of mockery and aspersion, words that jeer, sneer and scorn…begin with sh-: shlemiel, shlimazl, shloomp, shmegegge, shmo, shmuck, shnorrer.
Shm- words show up so frequently in snarky, Yiddish-inflected rhymes that linguists have a name for the category: shm- reduplication, “a form of reduplication in which the original word or its first syllable (the base) is repeated with the copy (the reduplicant) beginning with shm- (sometimes schm-), pronounced /ʃm/.” As the old punchline has it, “Oedipus-Shmoedipus – as long as he loves his mother!” (See also Libros Schmibros and Burglar Schmurglar. )
So nu? What’s with this fad-shmad? Here’s my guess: A generation of entrepreneurs has been influenced by schwag and schwing, two made-up words that caught on about 20 years ago. I wrote about this effect in a 2011 post, “Swag and Schwag”:
Sometime in the early 1990s swag became schwag, “perhaps after words of Yiddish origin” such as shmuck, says the OED—although Yinglish schlock (something of inferior quality) seems an equally likely influence. (Of course, one must never underestimate the influence of Wayne’s World [1988-1994] and schwing.)Besides being a synonym for bad marijuana, schwag can also be a modifier meaning simply “inferior.”
I appreciated a well-crafted playful name as much as the next wordslinger. But if you want your brand to be taken seriously, be careful with those fancy-shmancy coinages.