Pardon my French, but when did “shekel” become a bad word?
“Shekel” is, of course, not a French word. But the effort last week to put it on a list of banned words certainly is.
Those of us who studied French in high school recall learning about the French Academy. That’s a panel of so-called “immortals” formed in 1635 that has the duty of protecting the integrity of the French language by banning foreign words.
Perhaps it’s time we form an American Academy. I came to that conclusion last week after I wrote a column quoting a guy who grew up watching Borscht Belt comedians to the effect that Donald Trump has adopted the comic style of the Catskills.
The day after that column came out, Eric Trump found himself being pilloried by the p.c. police for having said on TV that journalist Bob Woodward’s new book about the Trump administration was “sensational nonsense” that had earned him “three extra shekels.”
Before long Trump was being denounced for uttering “an anti-Semitic dog whistle.”
If we’re going to ban terms from the English language, I would start with “dog whistle.” It’s a term that permits a speaker to be denounced not for what he said but for what someone else thinks he said.
Wall Street Journal language columnist – and Jersey guy – Ben Zimmer researched the term a few years ago. He cited a 1988 article by a Washington Post pollster in which he described the “dog whistle effect” in polling as a situation in which: “Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not.”
Before long, politicians both Democratic and Republican were being accused of employing “dog whistles” to convey hidden messages to voters, Zimmer wrote.
Fair enough, but maybe Eric Trump was just employing a common slang term. When I did a Nexis search on “shekels” I came up with hundreds of examples.
Typical was a 2013 San Francisco Chronicle article about the American Indian Film Festival. In it, native-American actress Tantoo Cardinal, who starred in “Dances with Wolves,” was quoted about her efforts to find funding for young filmmakers.
“It’s all about shaking a few shekels loose,” she said.
Cardinal is from Western Canada, so maybe that was a wolf whistle.
But no one accused the actress of dog whistling.
As for Eric Trump, he was accused of all sorts of evil motives. But his sister and brother-in-law are Jewish, so I would tend to give him the benefit of the doubt.
That’s especially true when you consider that he directed that term, which dates back to Biblical times, not at a Jew but at a WASP who grew up in Illinois and went to Yale.
Anyway, Eric’s got nothing on his dad. Zimmer reminded me of a column he wrote for Politico back in 2015 when The Donald was first emerging as a presidential contender.
In an interview in which Trump discussed Hillary Clinton’s performance in the 2008 primaries, he said, “She was favored to win and she got schlonged.”
Now, that’s crude – assuming you know that “schlong” derives from the Yiddish word for penis. But Trump was hardly alone in overlooking that etymology. Zimmer went on to document other uses of the term, such as when NPR talk-show host Neil Conan said in a 2011 broadcast that the 1984 Democratic ticket headed by Walter Mondale “went on to get schlonged at the polls.”
And then of course there is the word “schmuck,” which derives from the same root. The comedian Lenny Bruce was once arrested on obscenity charges for employing it in his stand-up routine.
So let’s put that on the list of banned words as well.
Better yet, let’s not. Unlike the French, we should be able to accept that words from other languages enrich our language.
That was illustrated by a Wall Street Journal article last week about the furor over New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon’s lunch choice – a cinnamon raisin bagel topped with lox, among other things.
“Lox,” as it happens, is the Yiddish word for salmon. But New Yorkers denounced Nixon not for dog-whistling but for dreadful taste.
“Lox her up,” one wag suggested. Another critic called her choice a “meshugas,” Yiddish for “mess.” Another called it a “shonda,” which means “shame.”
The biggest shonda is this effort to ascribe evil thoughts to people who use common slang terms.
Use those words while you still can. Once that academy starts up, you’re going to have to stick to English.