Friday, November 2, 2007

more on schmoozing

DSL said he was sure schmoozing meant simply social talk rather than sycophancy; I said I had always thought of it as social with talk with connotations of a possible pay-off; D said:

I'm not sure about that. I've certainly seen synagogues here advertising
social evenings involving "schmoozing", and I don't take the implication to
be that lots of business deals will be conducted on the premises.

I then checked out the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary online, which says:

to talk informally with someone, especially in a way that is not sincere or to gain some advantage for yourself:

He spent the entire evening schmoozing with the senator.

This certainly tallies with my first instinct, which was to associate it with the sort of thing Bill Clinton and Tina Brown do so well. I do wonder, though. It could be that in the Jewish community the word is used simply as a synonym for 'chat', while in the larger pool of English speakers it carries with it the idea of chatting with ulterior motives. Or perhaps there is a pattern of usage but it does not fall along confessional lines. Hm.

Be that as it may, Pons seems to be decidedly unhelpful to Germans who come across Yiddish terms in common English use: nebbish, mensch, schlemiel, kibitz, kvetsh, shtik and chutzpah are all beneath the radar. 'Chuzpe' does turn up in my Deutsch-Englisch für Schule und Studium, defined as 'gall'. The thing that has dropped out, obviously, is that in English we have the word 'gall', which is pejorative, and we have the word 'chutzpah' which is a term expressive of admiration referring to the same thing. Many centuries ago the English responded to the Norman invasion by enriching the language: we have cows, pigs and sheep (the animals downtrodden peasants raise by the sweat of their brow) and we have beef, veal, pork and mutton (the comestible version that turns up on the oppressor's plate). Thanks to Yiddish we now have affectionate lexemes for all sorts of things for which the language already had unamused equivalents. This is exactly where one looks to a dictionary for guidance: if Chuzpe is pejorative in German, the user needs to know that it is in common use in English but does not have pejorative connotations.

There is another twist, though, which is that English-speakers often perceive Germans as brusque and unpleasantly direct. In other words, while 'gall' is undoubtedly pejorative in English, it's entirely possible that Chutzpe is not actually pejorative in German, it's simply the 'Let's call a spade a spade' term for the quality. In other words, it could be that it is only the English-speaker's search for the impossible dream, the perfect euphemism, that perceived 'gall' as harsh in the first place and felt a need for a friendlier term.


I had a quick look at the Cambridge American English Dictionary online.

schmooze, shmooze
verb [I]
to talk informally with someone
Mike's out on the porch schmoozing with the neighbors.

So does this mean that, in the view of Cambridge lexicographers, schmooze means 'talk informally especially with an ulterior motive' while in American English it just means 'talk informally'? (But DSL is British.)

Curiouser and curiouser.


The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary offers this for chutzpah:

imaginative and shocking behaviour, involving taking risks but not feeling guilt

(And is there really no German word for this?)


The Cambridge American Dictionary defines chutzpah as

noun [U]
behavior that is extremely confident and often rude, with no respect for the opinions or abilities of anyone else

The movie was made with a little money and a lot of chutzpah.
I wonder who had the chutzpah to disagree with him?



Jenny Davidson said...

But might it not be that you and David are both right, but just with slightly different orientation towards the fact of it?!? Take the synagogue example, which seems to me suggestive. "Schmoozing"--well, religious institutions do have these sort of social events which are frankly not just, like, what it might mean if I have a party (get drunk! have literary and other funny conversation!) but fall rather under the rubric of something like social networking. i.e. people join churches for this sort of motive too, only "ulterior" though literally truthful is more disparaging in connotations than necessary. So: not business deals; but what about if you meet someone who's starting up a private web-design business, and you're excited you've found someone to solve web problems and they're excited to find a new client; or you meet a mother whose kids can do a playgroup with yours; or someone who needs help with his lawn maintenance business and you are out of work and could use casual labor? (Or your granddaughter is single and needs a date!) You know what I'm saying--doesn't solve the dictionary dissatisfyingness of course...

Ithaca said...

Well, I suppose there's a difference between performing an activity in various contexts, some of which are likelier to lead to advantage, and having a term for an activity whose connotations include 'doing X with a view to advantage'. After all, people get drunk in all sorts of context, some of which are likelier to lead to advantage, but I don't think there's a word meaning 'get drunk with someone in the hope of advancing one's career/finding a babysitter/other'.

Language said...

In Yiddish (according to Uriel Weinreich) shmuesn is simply 'talk, converse, chat' (the noun is shmues 'talk, conversation, chat' and it appears to be from Hebrew-Yiddish shmue 'rumor, piece of news'). I hate to say it, but I suspect the tinge of 'doing X with a view to advantage' may have been imported by people who picked up the word from Jews and assumed that Jews didn't do anything without a view to advantage. It seems to me when I was living in NYC I heard it used both ways.

peanut and planet said...

I keep thinking of the difference between "hitting on [someone]" as opposed to "romancing [someone]."

I think that schmoozing someone is more toward romancing the person, as opposed to something so crass as hitting on them. Not that schmoozing has anything to do with picking up people, I'm just talking about the attitude, and the goal-oriented nature of the activity. Schmoozing, when done well, does not have the feel of oiliness, or cheese. It is just having good social skills, and having a purpose to use them.

I shall ask all my relatives at Thanksgiving on their definitions of chutzpah and schmoozing. Oy.

Anonymous said...

I want to add that this is not at all the way one uses chotzpa in the army/where I grew up. It has no positive attributes and is just used as a word stronger than rude. (because regular rude just isn't strong enough for israelis)


Ithaca said...

language, I was going to say something milky along the lines of, yes, this may have been the original reason the word took on the connotations it did but perhaps non-Jewish English speakers also felt the need for a word that meant more than 'chat', which they already had

p&p not sure, to me 'romancing' actually sounds oilier than 'hitting on'

but then I saw smb's comment, this is fabulous - but couldn't it be that chutzpe in Yiddish too had its original German meaning of gall, and it has actually been converted to a term for something likable, even admirable, in English?

Language said...

But Yiddish is very very different in all ways from Israeli Hebrew (which aggressively displaced it), and I don't think much is to be gained by trying to compare connotations. Not to put too fine a point on it, Israelis are some of the rudest people on earth. Not discounting other fine qualities, obviously, but smb's remarks do not surprise me in the least.

Ithaca said...

language - if Hebrew did aggressively displace Yiddish in Israel it seems chutzpe was too indispensable to be swept out with the rest; but yes, it somehow does seem unsurprising that Israelis felt the need for a term to express exceptionally outrageous behaviour while unassertive English speakers felt the need for a nice way to refer to behaviour that might otherwise have called for a term that might be perceived as harsh.

Anonymous said...

I want to add that very rarely, the meaning in yiddish is used. I can only think of one setting when this happens--in newspaper articles, where the sentence "The fact that A had the chotzpa to do this....allowed for..." in that case, chotzpa also implies bravery, although I think the subtlties sometimes go unoticed by some Israelis, and then meaning is changed. It could be that the positive attributes are still there, in the fact that if being Israeli is being rude, then isn't being totally rude being totally present, totally yourself? I too find it hard to accept when a word almost completly flips sides, but in all practicality, and ignoring the subtlties and causes, this is what happened.