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The 'Schlong' Revisionist Analysis We've Been Waiting For?

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AP Photo / Ross D. Franklin

I will only say about this person that the age and geography are right. And the writer's politics are such that it's basically inconceivable that this is memory clouded by ideological sympathy.

I'll start by confessing that I am a couple generations removed from any meaningful acquaintance with Yiddish, though I know plenty of Yiddish phrases. But I wasn't familiar with this use as a verb.

It also seems hard to believe the etymology isn't just what it seems. After all, we're all familiar with numerous phrases - you're screwed, you're fucked, etc. which play on the same basic logic - a word that means to be sexually penetrated takes on a more general meaning which is some mix of "defeated", "destroyed", "out of luck", etc.

It seems almost impossible to imagine that this isn't the same. And yet it's also true that these phrases often get used with little conscious sense of their original meaning. The best example I can think of is the slightly, but not much, different popularity of the word "sucks", which is now used in virtually any context these days, with little conscious sense of its origins or meaning or any inappropriateness, even though its roots are in the supposed denigration of a person who performs oral sex on a man.

But it actually gets more complicated. This piece in The Washington Post quotes Harvard University linguist suggesting that Trump either consciously or unintentionally invented this usage.

Sexism for Trump, however, is nothing new. In an email to The Washington Post, Harvard University’s Steven Pinker, a noted researcher on language and cognition, pointed out that Trump, using a term that comes to English via Yiddish and Middle High German, may simply have been trying to say something else.

“Given Trump’s history of vulgarity and misogyny, it’s entirely possible that he had created a sexist term for ‘defeat’ (as far as I know there is no such slang verb in Yiddish),” Pinker wrote. “But given his history with sloppy language it’s also possible that it’s a malaprop.”

Trump’s problem? He’s a gentile who, linguistically, may have wandered too far from home.

“Many goyim are confused by the large number of Yiddish terms beginning with ‘schl’ or ‘schm’ (schlemiel, schlemazzle, schmeggegge, schlub, schlock, schlep, schmutz, schnook), and use them incorrectly or interchangeably,” he wrote. “And headline writers often ransack the language for onomatopoeic synonyms for ‘defeat’ such as drub, whomp, thump, wallop, whack, trounce, clobber, smash, trample, and Obama’s own favorite, shellac (which in fact sounds a bit like schlong). So an alternative explanation is that Trump reached for what he thought was a Yinglish word for ‘beat’ and inadvertently coined an obscene one.”

This was actually my assumption, since I'd never heard the word used this way before: that Trump was just riffing and made the usage up, just took a Yiddish word for penis and used it as a crude equivalent of 'she got hosed.' (I feel better, less alone in my ignorance too.) But I'm pretty sure Pinker and the Post are just wrong. Whatever the books say about it I trust my acquaintance's memory that it was a common usage in the outer boroughs of New York fifty years ago. Perhaps it is a purely Queens/Long Island City Yiddish neologism?

In any case, does this have any great meaning. No, I do not think it does. But I find it interesting that this might actually be a usage Trump knows from his childhood that he might use with less consciously sexual meaning that we might imagine. This isn't defending Trump. As I noted this morning, I found his description of Clinton's using the restroom as "disgusting" wildly more offensive than "schlonged." We have more than enough examples of Trump's calling women "fat pigs" and a long catalog of other woman-hating phrases to make a clear judgment on the guy. Still, I find the linguistic history fascinating and possibly even a sign of the continued relevance of Yiddish to American political discourse.