Three of the most common and effective epithets hurled at the competition by Yiddish-speaking drivers are yold, shmendrik, and kuneh-leml.
Yold (often pronounced yolt when it’s meant to be emphatic), which now means primarily “sap, sucker, dupe” and once in a while, “yokel, rube, hick,” comes from the Hebrew and originally meant “well-born boy, scion of a wealthy family,” whence it developed into “fop, popinjay. ” Think of a Jewish Andrew Aguecheek–wealthy, stupid, credulous and self-absorbed–and you’ll see how yold developed into what it is today. The yokel aspect developed out of the supposed credulousness of hicks in the hinterland, so that the word often has a sense of “mark, victim of a confidence scheme.”
Shmendrik and kuneh-leml both entered the language through the work of Abraham Goldfadn, the self-titled “Father of the Yiddish Theater” who really was the father of the Yiddish theater. Shmendrik and kuneh-leml were originally the names of characters who embody the qualities that have come to be associated with these terms. A shmendrik walks (or drives) into a wall because he expects it to get out of his way; a kuneh-leml didn’t notice the wall to begin with. A shmendrik is the sort of person who made FEMA so effective both before and after Hurricane Katrina; a yold believes the shmendrik’s claim that it wasn’t his fault, while the kuneh-leml wants to know when the hurricane’s going to hit.
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Mendele used ‘shmendrik’ in Vintshfingerl.
He did, indeed. The novel has been ably translated by Michael Wex.
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