Thursday, December 24, 2015


As the great sage Toby Ziegler once said, “Don’t bring the Yiddish unless you know what you’re doing.”

Donald Trump clearly does not. Earlier this month he was widely panned when his efforts to appeal to the members of the Republican Jewish Coalition devolved into a series of anti-Semitic tropes.

Now he has stumbled back into the turbulent waters of Yiddishkeit by saying that Hillary Clinton “got schlonged” in the previous election, and then insisting it was not the vulgar term for penis most believe it be.

“When I said Hillary got ‘schlonged’ ,” he tweeted, “that meant beaten badly.”

Of course, “shlong” (as it is spelled in standard Yiddish transcription) means nothing of the kind; it is not even a verb. The word means simply “snake,” which perhaps made it inevitable that its colloquial meaning of male genitalia would overtake its original definition.

As the journalist Jeff Sharlet wrote in response to Trump’s claims about the word, “Spent three years as editor of Pakn Treger, magazine of National Yiddish Book Center. Never heard schlong used to mean anything but dick.”

Arguing the other side, political analyst Jeff Greenfield wrote,  “Trump is right on this. ‘I got schlonged’ is a commonplace NY way of saying: ‘I lost big time,’ w/out genital reference.”

That they both may be right tells an interesting story about the way Yiddish has become part of American English.

In Trump’s defense, there is a Yiddish verb nearly identical to “shlong” that does mean something close to his preferred definition. The word is shlogn (pronounced shlugn in some dialects), which according to Weinreich’s Yiddish-English dictionary means “to hit, beat, or strike.”

Outside of Yiddish-speaking circles, one hears shlogn used mainly in reference to the Yom Kippur ritual known as shlogn kapores, in which devout Jews would ceremonially “beat” a chicken by swinging it three times over their heads, while saying prayers for the expiation of sins committed throughout the year.

“This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my expiation,” the shlogger says. “This chicken shall go to death and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace.”

Traditionally, the chicken would then be slaughtered for a post-holiday meal or donated to the poor. Recent interpretations of the ritual substitute money for the bird as an appropriate “atonement.”

Today the kapores ritual takes place most conspicuously in the Hasidic community, which means that once a year in New York there is quite a lot of shlogging going on.

Just three months ago, a court battle in the city failed to end the practice in Brooklyn. Thousands of chickens were shlogged that day. If pressed on his use of words, Trump may yet claim to have seen video.

As a native New Yorker, Trump is likely more aware of this ritual, and has probably heard more Yiddish, than many Americans. He may have even heard the verb “shlog” used in the context of “beating.”

If “schlonged” has indeed become “commonplace” for getting beaten in Trump’s hometown, this may be the reason why. In 1972, for example, when food prices soared across the United States, the New York based publisher of the Daily Fruit and Vegetable Reporter declared “this year everybody gets schlonged.”

The meaning here is neither obviously sexual nor clearly “beaten”, but rather a combination of the two that might best be translated as “screwed.”

In any case, if he is in the habit of confusing shlong and shlogn, Trump may have interesting ideas about what is involved in atoning for sins.


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