Shmidentity politics

What kind of relation is like identity but holds between a thing and itself (rather than between necessarily co-referring names, for example) by stipulation? Why, shmidentity, of course! The term “shmidentity” (actually “schmidentity,” but see infra on the spelling) was introduced by Saul Kripke in Naming and Necessity and, following his example, the “sh-“ or “shm-“ prefix is now often used in philosophy for properties or relations that resemble other properties or relations but have some feature that may be controversial in the case of the prototypes built in by stipulation.

No-commentary-on-a-fool

The linguist David L. Gold, in a paper in the Jewish Language Review (volume 3, 1983) entitled “A Story about Pocahontas, Geronimo, and Sitting Bull in Yiddish,” refers to the fact that languages in decline (such as Yiddish) often become “ludic languages, that is, languages used largely for jocular purposes, often only for low comedy and vulgar humor” (113). Having made this claim he cites, without quoting, a responsum by him to a reader’s query in an earlier issue of the journal which I here excerpt:

Since Yiddish word-initial /š/ + consonant sounds “funny” to a sizable number of English ears, any Yiddish word containing it is automatically recategorized [as humorous] when entering English (e.g. shmir). Perhaps the fact that initial /šm/ is a pejorizer in Yiddish and EAE [Eastern Ashkenazic English]… has contributed to this feeling among English-speakers. (Volume 2, 1982, 302)

The use of the term “shmidentity,” therefore (and similar neologisms in the philosophy literature) is culturally insensitive, appealing to the ‘funny’-sounding phonemes of a language that translated Freud, Einstein, Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson, among countless others, for a quick laugh now that that language has fallen on hard times and is forced to wear the fool’s motley. I recommend this usage be avoided in philosophy henceforth.

As for the spelling, “schmidentity” (the form used by Kripke himself) reflects the efforts of those who have sought to cast Yiddish as low German and transcribe it into Latin characters on the model of German spelling. It is, therefore, another blow to the dignity of Yiddish. Standard Yiddish Orthography romanizes /š/ as “sh.” If one must, therefore, continue to use this offensive neologism, I recommend that at least the spelling “shmidentity” be given.


This was to have been a footnote to a footnote to a footnote in my in-progress book. If anyone is interested, here is the tree of footnotes. This note on “shmidentity” [3] would have been a footnote to [2] a discussion of the title of Gold’s paper “A Story about Pocahontas, Geronimo, and Sitting Bull in Yiddish” and the question of whether the story, given in his paper, could really be said to be ‘about’ those figures. (I draw on Robin Jeshion’s views about the link between proper names and de re thought and talk and, obviously, on Kripke’s views about historical chains and reference.) This itself is a footnote to [1] a discussion of whether my Yiddish Batman meme commits the same kind of assault on the dignity of Yiddish that I here lay at the feet of “shmidentity.” (See this earlier post and the links to yet earlier posts it contains.) This, in turn, is a footnote to [0] the main text which is the commentary on my Yiddish Batman meme.

7 Replies to “Shmidentity politics”

  1. Interesting! I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the idea that š+consonant words sound funny to English speakers. I also never thought that people used terms like “shmidentity” for the sake of a quick laugh. I thought they used them for the same reason people using terms like identity* or identity sub 1 and stuff like that: merely to generate another term that sounds similar but is set off by some difference, and “shmidentity” is one of the conventional ways to do this.

    As for whoever started the convention (Kripke? Or at least Kripke in print and who knows who else beforehand?) I don’t know if they were joking either. Adding a š to the front of words is something many Jews are in the habit of doing (I certainly do it) because of its role as a pejorizer in Yiddish and EAE. So if I were casting about for a way to generate a new similar sounding word before any conventions existed in philosophy, I could easily imagine happening upon š addition, not for the sake of a laugh but for the sake of a term.

    If for instance the “you say tomato, I say tomato” distinction showed up in English spelling, one might have expected American philosophers of all stripes (not just Jewish ones) to have adopted that distinction as another way of generating similar words. You say identity, I say identity. But that won’t work in writing, so it never occurred to anyone as an option.

    I don’t know Jeshion’s views well, or anything much about this topic at all, but if it turns out that using shmidentity is offensive because it makes some Americans mirthful, I worry that this is going to render lots of things offensive to a degree that seems perhaps unintuitive. If for instance French sounds funny to Americans, is it offensive to use French?

    Or, alternatively, if it’s only offensive if one does it in order to be funny, this seems to let philosophers off the hook. Or perhaps I’m the only one who uses sh- words seriously rather than as a joke? I don’t detect a hint of joking in the Kripke. The other main example that I always think of is shmagency from David Enoch’s paper “Agency, Shmagency,” and I don’t detect a hint of joking in his usage of the term either. But maybe Kripe and Enoch are joking and I’m just not picking up on it. Or maybe non-Jews have been using these sorts of terms to make fun of us Jews the whole time, and we’ve never detected it because these terms sound normal (rather than funny) to us? I don’t know how happy I’d be if that were the case!

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  2. I think I’m still not sure exactly what it means to say that using words like shmidentity entails that someone “sees none of that any more but only an opportunity for a laugh.” Like I suggested, my impression was that at least some users of these words (Kripke, Enoch, myself) don’t see them as an opportunity for a laugh. So, my thought was that the person who “sees” can’t be the person using the word. It had to instead be, say, the typical American.

    But, your response suggests that a typical American finding these words amusing isn’t relevant either. So I’m still not sure who’s doing the “seeing” when it comes to seeing shmidentity and other words as opportunities for laughs. Does anyone see these words like this? If not the users of the words, and if not the typical American listeners (or English-speaking listeners all over?), then who?

    I’m also not sure exactly how using words like shmidentity entails not seeing that Yiddish has been used for a full range of literary and expressive activities. Is the idea that if I don’t use Yiddish for this full range then I give the impression that Yiddish can’t be used for that full range?

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    1. I think I’m sort of getting a handle on it, but the Native American mascot case seems different in four main ways:

      1) The mascots are caricatures that embody stereotypes, including racist stereotypes. Shmidentity and other shm- words don’t exhibit this feature.

      2) The mascots exist for the sake of being found amusing, wheres shmidentity and shm- words aren’t supposed to be amusing. I also didn’t think they were even amusing at all, but it sounds like they might be amusing to most non-Jewish English speakers, or at least most American English speakers who are not at all familiar with Yiddish? I still am not 100% sure about who exactly finds these terms amusing (if anyone!). I would start polling people but I live in India, and I’m not sure this is supposed to be a feature of English speakers outside America.

      3) The mascots aren’t at all authentic or anything approaching it. If, say, the Baltimore Ravens mascot were the Raven from the folklore of one of the various tribes in the Pacific Northwest, this would be an exception, but I don’t think there are any exceptions. Shmidentity and other words meanwhile are perfectly authentic Yinglish constructions, I take it. I was about to write that they’re like “nogoodnik” and other words with -nik appended at the end, but I just checked Wikipedia and it looks like that trend also started in Yinglish somehow, so those would presumably be offensive for the same reason (and also a good chunk of the -nik words actually are supposed to be amusing, since they’re Cold War coinages aimed at making fun of the USSR). A better example then would be people saying “mucho X” about some English X to describe a lot of it. That’s perfectly fine Spanglish. I could of course imagine it being done in a mocking manner, but that would take special effort on the part of the speaker. It’s not by default a mocking sort of construction meant to be laughed at.

      4) It seems like the mascots would still be in poor taste regardless of the history of Native Americans in America. If my neighbors and I form a baseball team and pick for our mascot a drunken Bavarian man decked out in lederhosen carrying a stein of beer and doing some sort of Bavarian dance, we’d be less blameworthy than if we picked a caricatured Native American or African or Chinese person or anyone else like that, but we’d still be doing something offensive. Here though you’re suggesting that the offensiveness of shm- words hinges on Yiddish’s dying status, so I take it there has to be something bad going on with the thing you’re drawing from to generate the offensiveness.

      So for things that exhibit all four of these worrying features, I certainly see the offensiveness – Native American mascots, for instance, or the way white supremacists like to talk about money by saying “shekels” (by which they certainly don’t mean the present Israeli currency, so they don’t even get a pass on #3). But something that lacks all four features, like the thousands if not millions of shm- words that Jews are coining all over the world each year and then immediately forgetting, plus the dozen or so that Jews (and perhaps some non-Jews) are coining in print in philosophy and that therefore stick around and get used by non-Jews, don’t seem to me as obviously to fit the offensive pattern. So what is it that I’m missing that renders them offensive but which doesn’t show up in my list? Am I just missing the mockery inherent in these terms? (And also, am I right to assume that all coinages are offensive, and not just the philosophy ones? That is, are all non-Yiddish usages of the prefix offensive?)

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