It’s funny how you can go for months without seeing “squirrel” in print, and then, bam, two sightings within three days.
The first squirrel is a red herring. It appears in Joseph Epstein’s Wall Street Journalreviewof Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist, a biography by Harriet Hyman Alonso of the man who wrote the lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “April in Paris,” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Harburg was born Isidore Hochberg in New York City in 1896; he changed his name to Edgar Y. Harburg in 1934 but was generally known as E.Y. Harburg or Yip Harburg.
Why “Yip”? In his review, Epstein says the nickname “came from the Yiddish word for squirrel, yipsl, which his parents called him when he was a child.” But the Yiddish word for squirrel is actually the Slavic-derived veverke; no Yiddish dictionary contains yipsl. According to Alonso, who devotes the first chapter of her book to the origin of “Yip,” Harburg related the yipsl-squirrel story to the oral historian Studs Terkel. Alonso passes it along without further comment, as does Epstein.
It’s entirely possible, though, that Harburg was pulling Terkel’s leg – or beingsquirrelly(“cunningly unforthcoming or reticent”). Because while yipsl has no meaning in Yiddish, the acronym YPSL is both meaningful and relevant: it stands for Young People’s Socialist League, which was founded in 1907 as the student arm of the American Socialist Party and whose members were known as – yep – “Yipsels.” In a 2004 column for The Jewish Daily Forward, the pseudonymous language columnist Philologos wrote that “Harburg was a political radical who was blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1940s, and it is possible that he was nicknamed ‘Yipsel,’ subsequently shortened to ‘Yip,’ because of his YPSL-like views even if he never was a YPSL member.” Other distinguished Yipsels or sympathizers included the political scientist Daniel Bell, the literary and social critic Irving Howe, the writer Saul Bellow, and the journalist (and eventual neoconservative) Irving Kristol.
The second squirrel is a semi-secret one.
Secret Squirrel Cold Brew Coffee is a bottled coffee concentrate; one 16-ounce bottle makes six to seven eight-ounce drinks. The company is based in Studio City (Los Angeles County), but according to the clumsily written FAQ the name has a different geographic origin:
Growing up in Washington DC area a secret squirrel was something like knowing a shortcut around traffic, or knowing the hideaway parking spot, or knowing the unknown electrical outlet in the coffee shop. It only seemed fitting for this centuries old method for brewing coffee that few people know about.
(That awkward dangler at the beginning of the paragraph is one good argument for editors. Another is knowing how to hyphenate compound adjectives. Elsewhere on the website, a proofreader would have caught “anyway” for “any way,” sentences that end without periods, and introductory clauses without commas. But I digress.)
I have no idea whether the D.C. story is true – anyone care to confirm? I do know, however, that “Secret Squirrel” was the title character of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon that aired for a few seasons in the mid-1960s and was briefly revived in the 1990s. The character was a spy; whether it got its name from the Washington shortcut or vice versa, I cannot say.
Finally, a few squirrel tidbits:
The Latin word for squirrel, sciurus, translates to “shadow tail.”
In many Germanic languages the word for “squirrel” translates to “oak kitten.” (It’s Eichhörnchen in German.)
The Spanish word for “squirrel,” ardilla, translates to “like a flame.” (From arder, to burn.)
See “squirrel” translated into almost 300 languages, including Klingon, here.
And here’s my favorite cinematic squirrel sighting, or near-sighting:
Whether it’s exploring a new city, checking out a friend’s movie recommendation, or just finding new activities for your weekends, Schemer lets you discover new things to do, share schemes with friends, and make the most of your day.
“Scheme” seems a bit hyperbolic for a plan shared with friends. A scheme—from Latin schema, “figure”—can be “a systematic plan of action,” “a chart or diagram,” or “a secret or devious plot.” I’m supposing that Google prefers the third definition; ergo “You’re looking diabolical!”
But I have another problem with Schemer: I keep seeing it as a Yiddish word. As in, “You want some schemer with that bagel?”
Schmear game from JET (Jewish Educational Toys). More on the meaning and derivation of “schmear” here.
Alternatively: “He’s a schmendrick, he’s a schmo, he’s a schmuck. What a schemer!” Yiddish is, after all, full of words that begin with sch- and have an m somewhere in the word. (See my post about Libros Schmibros.)
Which made me remember (not verbatim, of course; I had to look it up) this Philip Roth passage from Portnoy’s Complaint:
The novelist, what’s his name, Markfield, has written in a story somewhere that until he was fourteen he believed “aggravation” to be a Jewish word. Well, this was what I thought about “tumult” and “bedlam,” two favorite nouns of my mother’s. Also “spatula.”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, that gonif, took Roth’s idea and put it in the mouth of that nice Gentile girl Donna Moss in Season 2 of The West Wing. He has Donna say to Toby Ziegler, “You know what word should be Yiddish but isn’t? ‘Spatula.’ Also, ‘far-fetched.’” (Right—as if Donna would know!)
Even if you’re not bringing a Yiddish-y, bagel-inflected bias to the pronunciation, “Schemer” still strikes me as a little off-kilter. There’s nothing overtly furtive—or schematic, for that matter—about the sorts of activities that get through Schemer’s filters: baking cookies, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, reading the Steve Jobs biography, etc.
VentureBeat probes a little deeper and detects something sneaky after all:
Oh Google, your aptly named new product Schemer doesn’t have us fooled. We know you’re calling it a new way to discover things to do, but we see this for what it really is — an assault against Foursquare and the company’s hold over quality location-based content, city tips and to-dos.
Diabolical indeed! Clearly, in its pursuit of Internet domination, Google won’t settle for anything less than the whole schmear.
Two commercial examples of Yiddish-accentedreduplication, spotted within the same week.
I saw “Burglar Schmurglar” on a Bay Alarm truck in Oakland:
Flickr has the billboard version, with a clearer view of the corporate tagline “What Have You Got to Lose?” The signs are part of a long-running Bay Alarm ad campaign that I commended ina 2009 post. I’m pleased to see that the company has spruced up its web design and content since then.
Libros Schmibrosis a lending library and used bookstore that opened in July 2010 in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles; it's the labor of love of former San Francisco Chronicle book critic David Kipen. I took the photo at the Libros Schmibros temporary residence at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, where it will remain through November 5.
The store’s name reflects its current population (majority Latino) and its heritage (majority Jewish). My father grew up in Boyle Heights during the latter period; it was said that when they started to make money, the immigrant Jews of Los Angeles moved “from BH to BH”—Boyle Heights to Beverly Hills. Westwood lies just west of Beverly Hills.
The reduplicative pattern employed in Burglar Schmurglar and Libros Schmibros usually expresses disdain, disesteem, or a dismissive shrug: “poetry-shmoetry”; “facts-shmacts”; “virus-shmirus.” The formula is “pure Yinglish”—a blend of Yiddish and English—writes Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yinglish. In his entry on “fancy-shmancy,” Rosten says that “the sardonic shm- must have been among the earliest of what linguists call reduplications that was created or embroidered by Lower East Side Jews.” He devotes a separate entry to the particles sh-, shm-, sch-, and schm-, which he says are “solidly entrenched in Yinglish as prefatory expressions of mockery, scorn or derogation.” And he adds an “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 wherever possible.
The most famous example of the “x-ing shmx-ing” formula is, of course, the joke about the Jewish man whose psychoanalyst tells him he has an Oedipus complex. The punchline: “Oedipus-Shmoedipus, as long as he loves his mother!”
Swagger: Jay-Z has it. Old Spice has it. Rick Perry has a whole mess of it. And now JC Penney spokesman Steve Young, the Pro Football Hall of Famer, can get it for you wholesale.
Should that be “schwagger”?
I’m not surprised to see former Word of the Week swagger continuing its relentless lexical domination. But who knew that Steve Young, a great-great-great-grandson of Mormon pioneer Brigham Young, spoke Yiddish*?
* Schlub (also shlub, zhlub): “an insensitive, ill-mannered person”; “a clumsy, gauche, graceless person”; “an oaf, a yokel, a bumpkin.” From Slavic zhlob: “coarse fellow.” (Source: The Joys of Yiddish, by Leo Rosten.)
I swear to tell the truth: This is the actual name and bona fide logo of a real legal-services business.
Where to begin with Shpoonkle? Well, there’s this description of the logo as registered in the trademark filing:
At the center of the word, there are two O’s of which the left “O” is larger than the right “O” with two dots in them to give the effect of crossed eyes.
There have been a lot of crossed eyes in the legal community since Shpoonkle—an auction site that allows clients to bid for lawyers’ services—launched last month. “The name is absolutely awful. The concept far worse,” wrote Scott Greenfield, who blogs at Simple Justice, a New York criminal defense blog:
Any lawyer who signs up for this service should be immediately disbarred, then tarred and feathered, then publicly humiliated. It doesn’t matter how awful a lawyer you are, how pathetic your business, how grossly incapable you may be in getting any client to retain you. Those are all good reasons to apply for the assistant manager’s position at Dairy Queen. This is worse.
Thank you, counselor! Me, I’ll leave the legal judgments to the lawyers and stick to what I know. Which is this: “Shpoonkle” is a silly, ineffective name. It looks and sounds like a fad toy (Slinky meets Foozle?) or one of those new dog breeds (schipperke-schnauzer-poodle?). The double-O in the middle and -le at the end suggest a pale and passé imitation of “Google”: dumb coined -oo- names like Thoofwere all the rage in 2007and now sound contrived and dated. (Thoof—the business and the name—bit the dust in 2008.)
The list of infractions goes beyond the name. The logo would be amateurish for a babysitting business; it’s cringeworthy for an endeavor built on consumer trust and professional ethics. The website inspires even more skepticism with its poorly considered stock photos, cheesy music, and cheesier video. (Video highlights: US Constitution; Statue of Liberty with fireworks; “It’s a win-win situation!”) The generic-sounding voiceover actor sounds embarrassed to be intoning, “Come to Shpoonkle dot com!” As well he should be.
For those of you who aren't rolling on the floor laughing, allow me to translate:
Brit milah (Hebrew: בְּרִית מִילָה [b'rīt mī'lā], Ashkenazi pronunciation, bris milôh, "covenant of circumcision"; Yiddish pronunciation, bris) is a Jewish religious circumcision ceremony performed on 8-day-old male infants by a mohel. (Source: Wikipedia.)
Virtually every current ereader offers native support for the PDF format, but no PDF was designed for your ereader’s 5-7" screen. Briss, a cross-platform open-source tool, gives you several ways to trim PDFs to look better on your ereader.
The best stuff, naturally, is in the reader comments.
Next month marks the 92nd anniversary of the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States.” Twelve months after ratification, at midnight on January 17, 1920, the Prohibition Era began; it lasted until 1933, when the 21st Amendment was ratified.
You may think you know something about Prohibition—speakeasies, Al Capone, Eliot Ness, bathtub gin, bootleggers. You may even be picking up historical tidbits amid the entertaining fictions of Boardwalk Empire, the HBO series, produced by Martin Scorsese, that concludes its first season on Sunday night.But trust me: until you’ve read Daniel Okrent’s splendid history of the era, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition—published earlier this year—you’re as uninformed as I was about what the historian Taylor Branch, in a jacket blurb, calls “the one glaring ‘whoops!’ in our constitutional history.”
Okrent, who was the New York Times’s first public editor, did a staggering amount of research for Last Call—his “sources” section is almost 19 pages long—yet there isn’t a dry (pun intended) sentence in the book. It’s a thoroughly intoxicating read.
There’s the stranger-than-fiction cast of characters, including Mabel Walker Willebrandt, aka “The Prohibition Portia,” who served as assistant attorney general of the United States from 1921 to 1929 and liked to start her day with an ice-cold bath; Warren Bidwell Wheeler, general counsel of the Anti-Saloon League, who was considered by a critic to be “the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States”—and who is largely forgotten today; and Sam Bronfman, the Moldovan-Jewish-Canadian liquor magnate who supplied a thirsty United States with an endless stream of bootlegged liquor. “It was almost fated that the Bronfman family would make its fortune from alcoholic beverages,” Okrent writes; “in Yiddish, which was their mother tongue, bronfen is the word for ‘liquor.’”
Then there's Okrent’s writing, which is packed with wry humor and pungent turns of phrase. “The prevailing government parsimony” of the Prohibition era, he writes, “hovered like a scowl over the administrations of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.” Of the propaganda aimed at presidential candidate Al Smith, Okrent writes: “It was the sort of speculation that could make a Catholic-hater quiver with the joy that can be induced only by the thrill of loathing.”
For me, many of the book’s most fascinating revelations have to do with language and culture. From slang to brand names, from travel to politics, Prohibition had an impact that far outlasted its 13-year tenure.
Here are some of the ways Prohibition changed American English and the language of commerce.
It sorta-kinda means what they think it means. And yet . . .
San Francisco Chronicle, page A10, November 7, 2010.
Yes, it’s our good friends at CapitalOne with a new print ad in the “New School Banking” campaign I wrote about last month. In the BART station ads (which are still up), CapOne mocked customers for banking “like an Egyptian” or “like a Pilgrim.” Now we’re presumably being told not to bank like our beloved bubbe and zayde.
I refer, of course, to that word bupkus, which can also be transliterated as bupkes, bobkes, bobkis, or any of several other spellings. It’s a Yiddish word (originally from Russian), that Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, carefully tells us means “something trivial, worthless, insultingly disproportional to expectations.” In the ad, bupkus is used as a synonym for “nothing.” Rosten translates it as “beans,” adding that these beans are not the kind you put in the soup pot.
Bupkes means “nothing,” all right, but it’s a rather specific kind of nothing, as different from gornisht, the dictionary Yiddish for “nothing,” as “nothing” itself is from “sweet fuck-all.” The basic meaning of bupkes . . . is dung, specifically the dung of sheep or goats. Like the English “bullshit” or “horseshit,” bupkes was once fairly widespread as an expression of disbelief. A response of bupkes meant that you thought someone was talking nonsense; whatever he was saying, it was crap. . . .
Like much of the Yiddish that has found its way into English, bupkes has been downgraded from vulgar to cute; but unless you were discussing barnyard waste, you’d try to avoid the word in polite Yiddish conversation.
It’s not as though bupkes hasn’t already surfaced in polite American conversation. Back in 1965, there was an episode of The Dick Van Dyke show titled “Bupkis”; it centered on a song (also titled “Bupkis”) that Rob (Van Dyke) and his buddy had written during their army days.* Bupkes—along with a lot of other Yiddish words—has also been uttered on The Simpsons (notably by Krusty the Clown, the son of a rabbi).
And Yiddish has cropped up in a few ads, too: See my April 2010 on spritz as it’s used in ads for Poise pads (for “light bladder leakage”).
But as far as I can tell, this is a breakthrough (you should pardon the expression) for financial-services advertising. I’m not sure, though, whether it’s cause for kvellingor kvetching.
I learned this week about three business names that, while not technically descriptive—inadvisable from a trademark-law perspective—do express very clearly what they're all about.
2. Traif, a new restaurant in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, specializes in pork and shellfish, both of which are the ultimate in nonkosher foods—that is, they are traif (a Yiddish word sometimes spelled tref or treyf). In many parts of the country, such a restaurant would barely attract notice, but Williamsburg happens to be home to one of the largest communities of ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York. It's also home, as Bari Weiss reports in the Wall Street Journal, to a distinct yet equally devout sect: the hipsters.
The Artisten, as the Hasidim call them, obediently don their skinny jeans, fanny packs and granny glasses. They smoke Parliaments and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon while they bop, understatedly, to indie music. Irony is studied as carefully as the Talmud.
"Though there have been some blog posts praying for Traif's demise," Weiss writes, "as of this week, most Hasidim had not yet heard of the place. Those who had weren't offended. A Hasidic man I spoke to said he found the name 'kind of funny and cool'."
3. TBD, a common acronym for "To Be Determined," is the official name of a new Washington, DC, metro news site that encountered predicable naming challenges in its early days.** "We came very close to securing a name more than once," the TBD home page discloses, "but each time an obstacle – a divided staff, a greedy domain holder, a trademark problem – blocked the way." One of the founders, Erik Wemple, began signing his emails "Editor, TBD.com."
Before long, we realized Erik had stumbled upon the perfect name for our site. The traditional news culture is that you don’t publish or broadcast a story until all the questions are answered, all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted. The evening newscast or morning newspaper is presented as a finished product, the culmination of a day’s work for the news staff.
But TBD will never be a finished product. On the web, on mobile devices and on our 24-hours cable news channel, we’ll always be in motion: constantly updating, improving and evolving; seeking more details, reaction or community conversation. We’ll be a place you visit to watch the news unfold in real time.
"This has to be, in my opinion, the coolest new journalism brand I’ve seen come along in a very long time," gushed Cory Britton on Lost Remote, which covers hyperlocal journalism. "Now let’s see if the site, scheduled to launch this summer, will live up to the hype."
The first TBD.com story I'd like to see: an exposé of how much Wemple et al. paid for that highly desirable three-letter .com domain.
* This is a type of Turking, the wired world's version of piecework at slave wages.