Q&A: The origin of ‘glitch’, ‘shemozzle’ and more…

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, a glitch in the Matrix…

Q: Hey AWC, where does “shemozzle“ come from?

A: As in, “it ended up being quite the shemozzle”?

Q: Well yeah, like a mess or chaos etc, right?

A: That’s the one. Macquarie Dictionary has it listed as a confused state of affairs; muddle. An uproar; row. Meanwhile, America’s Merriam-Webster offers a similar meaning, but lists the variant schemozzle first.

Q: Meh. Variant, schmariant…

A: Haha, well all this is giving clues as to where the word comes from.

Q: The land of Varia?

A: No such place. No, it’s Yiddish in origin.

Q: Oh, from the land of Yidd?

A: Fair enough. Let’s explain that term first. Yiddish was a term likely in use from the 1700s but that came to dictionaries in the 1870s from the High German word – judisch and then jiddisch. At this time, Jewish people were spread across the world and the Yiddish language evolved separately from Hebrew as a common tongue in these communities.

Q: Oh! My uncle once tried to get a job at a stamp-licker when he was young, but was told he had a common tongue.

A: Ummm, that’s something different. Anyway, Yiddish is always capitalised and started out just as the name for the language (like Dutch or French). Then in the late 1880s, it started being used as an adjective too. (“Yiddish music” etc.)

Q: And I’m guessing Yiddish loves its sh or sch words, yeah?

A: It sure does – mirroring its High German origins. And according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this one seems to have derived from the Yiddish word “schlemazel” – meaning “a born loser, or unlucky person”.

Q: That’s ALSO what they told my uncle. This is uncanny!

A: Haha. Shemozzle appears to have entered British slang quite early, in 1889 – meaning “an unhappy plight“. And the word’s unique onomatopoeic quality has likely helped it endure till today.

Q: Not unique in Yiddish though I bet. 

A: True. In fact, closely associated with being a schlemazelwas to be a schlemiel“ – more clumsy than unlucky. A popular quip compares the two by saying: A shlemiel is the fellow who climbs to the top of a ladder with a bucket of paint and then drops it. A schlemazel is the fellow on whose head the bucket falls!”

Q: Oh dear, what a klutz!

A: Yes – a schlemiel IS similar to being a klutz. And no prizes for guessing where that word comes from!

Q: Klutz is also Yiddish?

A: It sure is.

Q: Can I have a prize anyway? Because many will think it sounds German.

A: This was our earlier point. Yiddish started developing as a language in the Alsace region on the German/French border around 1000 years ago. As well as picking up elements from Hebrew, it drew heavily on Germanic words.

Q: What other Yiddish words do we commonly use in English today?

A: Good question! If a movie is overly sentimental, we might use the term schmaltzy – which comes from the Yiddish for “chicken fat”! It dates from 1935.

Q: Hilarious.

A: You’ve probably also heard people – usually men – being called a schmuck. It entered English in the 1890s as a term for a “contemptible person”; however Jewish typically found the word taboo, as it is another word for the male genitalia!

Q: Awkward.

A: Sticking with similar starting sounds, if you have something you’re known for doing, perhaps some kind of routine, that is your schtick. It came to English in 1959 as theatre jargon for a stage act or gimmick.

Q: So dancing in that funny rubber-legs way was Elvis Presley’s schtick?

A: It certainly was. Another word – spiel – comes from the German “to play” and was originally applied to playing circus music, then from 1896 as any kind of sales pitch.

Q: I didn’t realise we used so many Yiddish words!

A: Here’s another one: s(c)hmooze – another 1890s arrival to English and meaning “to chat intimately”

Q: Fascinating! One more?

A: How about glitch? That dates back to 1953 from the Yiddish word glitsh meaning “slip”. It was likely taken from the German ‘gleiten’ – to glide. It started its life as technical jargon, but became widespread during the US space program in the 1960s. 

Q: “Houston, we have a glitch!”

A: Exactly. And of course, despite some theories suggesting it was earlier, the term “glitch in the Matrix” – certainly in the context it’s used today – does indeed come from the 1999 film, The Matrix. 

Q: So, to recap – Yiddish evolved as a language with strong German influences, giving us a shemozzle of words that all sound kind of similar. Many entered English in the 1890s and the rest throughout the 20th century. How was that spiel?

A: Haha, you can schmooze with the best of them.

Q: Mazel Tov!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon


Nice one! You've added this to your cart