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Shemozzle

Pronounced /ʃɪˈmɒz(ə)l/Help with pronunciation

A shemozzle is a state of confusion and chaos. It might simply be a muddle, or it could be a ruckus, row, quarrel or loud commotion.

“No end of a shemozzle there’s been there lately,” he said. “Marina Gregg’s been having hysterics most days. Said some coffee she was given was poisoned.”

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, by Agatha Christie, 1962.

It looks Yiddish, fitting the pattern of a group of terms that that are best known in American English through the influence of Yiddish-speaking immigrants: schlock, schlemiel, schmaltz, schlepper, schmuck, schlimazel. (Much variation exists in the way they are spelled.) However, many of these are known earlier in the speech of German immigrants to Britain.

Shemozzle grew up as part of the slang of London’s East End more than a century ago, a creation of bookmakers and racecourse touts. Jonathon Green has found early examples of shemozzle in articles by the racing journalist Arthur Binstead, who penned “gloriously non-PC” columns in the Sporting Times at the end of the nineteenth century under the pseudonym “Morris the Mohel”. (Mohel is a person who is qualified to perform the Jewish rite of circumcision.)

Shemozzle has since spread around the world:

The money is starting to dry up. ... I’m now fighting to get anything. They are not responding to my emails. It’s been a shemozzle, a complete and utter waste of time and money.

Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Feb. 2010.

It looks Yiddish, but is it in fact Yiddish? No consensus exists. Leo Rosten denied in The Joys of Yiddish that it had any connection with that language and others argue similarly that it was invented in imitation of other Yiddish words but isn’t one.

Some references cautiously suggest that it was loosely based on the Yiddish slim mazel, which became schlimazel in the US. Yiddish was originally a German dialect whose vocabulary includes lots of Hebrew words. Slim mazel is a good example: slim is old German, meaning “crooked”, while mazel is from Hebrew mazzal, a star or planet, though its main meaning is “luck”. So slim mazel may be translated as “crooked luck”, roughly the opposite of the Yiddish mazel tov, good luck. But how that changed to mean a rumpus is far from obvious.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 15 May 2010

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 15 May 2010.