Q From Mary Clarke: Your piece on Joe Soap made me think of the phrase What am I? Chopped liver? Is this a New York expression or a Jewish expression? I ask this because we seem to eat more chopped liver here than anywhere else and because one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received was from a friend who said my chopped liver was better than her Jewish grandmother’s.
A This takes me back. In November 1999, when this newsletter had already reached issue 167, I mentioned that a reader had asked about this but as it was unfamiliar to me, I asked for elucidation. The resulting flood of emails was overwhelming. Though I summarised the results the following week, I realise now that I never went into detail, nor posted anything on my website.
A dish of chopped liver — fried chicken livers with eggs, spices and, if you’re being really traditional, schmaltz and gribenes (respectively rendered chicken fat and fried chicken skin as a form of crackling) — is common at Jewish celebratory meals. It’s also a standard dish in New York Jewish delicatessens. But it’s inexpensive and never a main dish, wherein lies the core of the idiom. Sol Steinmetz, the American linguist and Yiddish expert, explained that “Chopped liver is merely an appetizer or side dish, not as important as chicken soup or gefilte fish. Hence it was used among Jewish comedians as a humorous metaphor for something or someone insignificant.” Robert Chapman argued in his Dictionary of American Slang that the idiom originated in the 1930s in this sense.
Early in its development a negative reference to chopped liver developed, which instead suggested something excellent or impressive. It parallels another American idiom, that ain’t hay. The idiom appeared in various forms, such as it ain’t chopped liver, that’s not chopped liver, and it’s not exactly chopped liver. The first of these forms is noted by Jonathan Lighter in his Historical Dictionary of American Slang from a Jimmy Durante television show in 1954. It must surely be older. This is another version, from a little later:
Some of the critics put it right up there with “My Fair Lady.” Even before it lifts the curtain there is a million dollars in advance orders and this as the boys say is not chopped liver ...
The Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas), 8 Mar 1959.
The form that you mention appears in the historical record a few years later still. Somebody exclaiming What am I? Chopped liver? is expressing annoyance at being thought unworthy of attention: “What about me? Why am I being ignored? Don’t I matter?”
The earliest example that I’ve come across is this, in a cartoon strip in The Provo Herald of Utah, dated 22 December 1971.
It could be New York Jewish. It has the right cadence for a Yiddish exclamation and chopped liver, as we’ve seen, is an archetypal Jewish dish. And the experts suggest it grew out of a catchphrase of comedians in the Borscht Belt of the Catskill Mountains patronised by Jewish people from New York City. But there’s no certain connection. What is clear that it filled a need and that even by its earliest written appearances it had already reached places well away from centres of Jewish life.