51 Comments

  1. I think you can add Angelenos and maybe other Californians to Arthur’s list. Basically anywhere that bagels are something of a staple, really.

  2. They really say “bagel with a schmear” all over now? I know that used to be a very New York thing. I guess as New Yorkers have colonized the rest of the rest of the country…

  3. I don’t know about “bagel with a schmear,” but in California schmear is pretty standard for whatever you spread on your bagel.

  4. Whatever the historical origins of “schmear”, there is something about the sound of it that must count into its popularity. Under the label (sub-morphemic) “phonetic symbolism” the “sh” sound substituted for “s” sound in English tends to carry some fairly consistent meanings (or at least, feelings).

    They may not be all that consistent, though. I think it makes a word have overtones of being sloppy, a mess, sticky, problematic. (That’s probably why I don’t find “schmear” appetizing.) But clearly the author of Mutts thinks it is sweet, appealingly childlike, like a lisp. Well, to each their own!

    But I think I see this Rubes sort of employing my kind of association. The substitution of “schmear” for “smear” is of course in the first instance just a way of landing the bagel-and-cream-cheese pun. But beyond that, if you ignore the pun, would you see a politician protesting a “schmear campaign” as casting it even worse than a mere “smear campaign”? It would have uglier accusations, and be harder to clean up.

  5. I may have first heard “bagel with a schmear” on an episode of HILL STREET BLUES, so you could add “whatever city that was supposedly set in” to the list of places where the term was known. Of course, it was never made clear just where HSB *was* allegedly set (Wikipedia says a combination of Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo).

    I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the term here in Minnesota, though we have a number of chain bagel shops (that I almost never go to). On the other hand, I’m a barbarian goy who buys supermarket bagels, toasts them, and often even then puts peanut butter on them, so you probably don’t want anything to do with my memories (or with my bagels. . .).

  6. Schmear is undoubtedly Yiddish and is connected with the German schmieren which means “to smear”, usually with something fatty or greasy in a lubrication sense, but not always. It’s not even unreasonable for the Pennsylvania Dutch use of it for butter, since it’s also cognate with the Scandinavian smör which means “butter”.

  7. I’ve never heard the term “schmear” in the D.C. area (neither recently nor when I was growing up there).

  8. “They really say “bagel with a schmear” all over now?”

    What? You put letters together in way which people in my immediate vicinity do not and the idea that people outside my vicinity might find meaning in letter combinations unfamiliar to me is confusing and frightening to me no matter how many times I see it! I am perplexed and must stay behind locked doors quivering in fear and confusion!

    No, we in California (who don’t go to Noah’s) don’t say bagel with a schmear unless we are being pretentious or attempting to put on affectations that do not come naturally or trying to impress others with our “more ethnic than thou” intellect (which everyone who does go to Noah’s does attempt to do) or, come from a place where they do say bagel with a schmear. *BUT* every single one of us have heard of the “schmear” and recognize it for exactly what it is.

    You see there is this thing called “media” and “travel” and “relatives” and even “relocation” which makes the idea of being aware of speech, mannerisms, cuisine, culture, etc. of other places… comprehensible.

  9. You’re right, Bill. Here in Norway you’d get butter. Or perhaps ski wax, if the season was right.

  10. “Outside of New York, I don’t think I’d feel confident that saying “a schmear” would get me cream cheese.”

    Either cream cheese or a blank look. I won’t get you anything that *isn’t* cream cheese.

    Okay, in a bagel shop it will get you cream cheese because the context is clear. In a deli it will get you a question “A smear of what? Hummus? Cream Cheese? Pesto?”. In a brothel…. I don’t want to speculate.

    In a cartoon of a bagel shop… no question.

    Of course a New Yorker in California would complain of our illiteracy that we don’t know that schmear means cream cheese and an insistence that the *entirety* 100% of *all* our bagels are blueberry, chocolate chip, sundried tomato and pesto. All of them. *Every* californian eats blueberry, chocolate chip, sundried tomato and pesto bagel and thinks that’s normal and that’s what the *entirety* of *all* our bagels sold.

  11. “the “sh” sound substituted for “s” sound in English tends to carry some fairly consistent meanings (or at least, feelings).”

    Bagel, schmagel. Schmear, schmear.

    I think media exposure extends Yiddish terms far beyond it’s natural audience… in a good many cases, to people who don’t recognize it as Yiddish.
    A LOT of television shows are set in New York. One of the ways to establish that your show set in New York is set in New York is…

  12. It is hard to believe that when I was a child bagels were not universally known. My goyish neighbor once cut them in half (so there was a left half C and a right half C) and put butter on them!

    Then again my father never called cream cheese “a schmear” (because he was from Philidelphia??????) but both he and my mother talked of schmearing the bagel with cream cheese.

  13. I suspect ‘bagel with a schmear’ is understood by anybody who has watched much American television.

    And if anybody’s interested, you can see the building they used for the outside shots of the Hill Street Precinct at 943 W Maxwell St in Chicago, south side of the street.

  14. “I suspect ‘bagel with a schmear’ is understood by anybody who has watched much American television.”

    Even if you haven’t…. what *else* would it mean?

  15. woozy, I’m rarely worried about people who don’t know things: I worry about people who don’t realize or won’t admit they don’t know things.

    And I’m not sure television is explicit about that the schmear specifically is (rightfully so, because that would make for very dull television)

  16. In German, when a word begins with an S followed by a consonant the S is pronounced like Sh, as in Johann Strauss (Shtrauss). So I can imagine a German person who hasn’t quite learned English pronunciation rules saying “smear” as “shmear”. Likewise “soup” as “zoup”, because S alone is pronounced like our Z.

  17. I’ve heard of “the whole schmear” but I’m not familiar with the phrase as discussed.

    The first online reference I found suggests “schmear” has a metaphoric context: greasing/flattering.

  18. @ MiB – I’ve never thought of it that way before, but in “Mutts”, perhaps Mooch’s oddly inserted “h” after “s” habit was intended as a Yiddischism, rather than a lishp.

  19. P.S. There is an exception to the “S(h)”+consonant rule in (dialectical) German: in some northwestern areas (such as Bremen), “sp…” and “st…” are prounounced with an “S” sound much like in English, rather than the “sch…” used in “standard” German. This variant is sometimes referred to as “spitzenstein” (it sounds very striking when a German says it with the sharp S-sounds).

  20. @ Mitch4 – McDonnell is not very consistent about how and where he inserts the “H” into Mooch’s dialog. I’ve noticed that it never appear when the “sh” sound would turn a normal “s” word into something with a different meaning. Thus, “something” to “shomething” is OK, but “sore” would not be altered to “shore”. However, there have been other examples where I could not figure out why McDonnell “forgot” to use the “sh” sound.

  21. @ Chak – “…anybody who has watched much American television…
    That cuts me out. I just can’t watch American series (especially sitcoms) any more. I spend too much time trying to deduce what the original words were.
    P.S. One particular weakness in German “synchronized” translations is the inability to adequately translate any jokes based on Yiddish humor or words.

  22. I’m in California; I knew schmear from before (possibly from my New Jersey-ite mother?), but recently I’ve seen, in bagel shops, tubs of “schmear”. I kind of assumed it was the cream cheese equivalent of “pasteurized processed cheese food”…schmear doesn’t have (I don’t think) a legal meaning, so it can be used as a label for anything. But maybe it’s just whipped cream cheese (frequently with flavors).

  23. It’s really only “sp” and “st” that get the “sh” sound. And, as Kilby notes, there are dialects that pronounce them like English (the range from northwestern German dialects to Dutch to English is a fairly smooth spectrum).

    @Kilby: I just can’t watch American series (especially sitcoms) any more. I spend too much time trying to deduce what the original words were.
    That’s what Netflix, Amazon Prime and DVDs are for.

  24. Not to go off on a tangent, but I’d like to address the dog eye chart. Just want you to know that in Welsh, Corgi means “Underfoot.” I base this translation on personal experience. And three Corgis means “Flat on your face.”

  25. Two lessons I’ve learned:
    1) Don’t step OVER your Airedale when she’s lying down; she WILL choose that moment to stand up, making you land on your knees (which will bother you years later in your old age); and
    2) Whilst preparing for a hurricane, NEVER lose focus on where your small dogs are, or you will invariably trip over one of them, making you land on your knees (which will make your knees even MORE painful a year later).

  26. “McDonnell is not very consistent about how and where he inserts the “H” into Mooch’s dialog”

    Listen, that dog speaks uncommonly well for a dog. Most of them can’t speak English at all, and the ones who do often are very difficult to follow in a crisis (Astro Jetson, Scooby Doo.) Yes, Dogbert speaks extremely well, but HE’S a fictional character.

  27. I have certainly heard the phrase, but I if anyone had asked me to specify what “schmear” was, I’d have been hard pressed to answer correctly (though I knew it wasn’t butter). I do have a Jewish friend (from Jersey) who I roomed with in college, but she never called cream cheese “schmear” around us. I guess eventually I put the fact that she always put cream cheese on bagels together with the phrase and figured that’s what it meant. Mostly, I’ve only heard it on TV anyway, so it didn’t matter that I didn’t know.

    Love your translation terrencefeenstra. As Andrea pointed out, many small/medium sized dogs are hazardous.

  28. CIDU Bill,I asked a friend from the Midwest, to whom New York is terra incognita, and she knew it meant “with a smear of cream cheese.”

  29. My understanding is that the preferred romanizations of Yiddish render this sound as ‘sh,’ not the German ‘sch.’ So I’d write it as “shmear.”

  30. When you order with a “shmear”, are you just doing it to impress the guy behind the counter, like when you order in French at a French restaurant?

  31. I did that, too – hit the wall and got a concussion. For burglars, I think they’d just bark a lot – from under the bed. I’ve always thought to ask someone the dogs don’t know to come into the house while we’re not home, just to see what would happen, but I had second thoughts about that.

  32. I’ve seen a few TV news segments where they test that sort of thing. Have a professional with protective equipment enter the house. The response is often not what the owners predicted. A fairly common one is to sort of mill around the new person to see what’s going on. Sometimes run and hide. Sometimes bark. Rarely attack.

  33. “The dog does speak well, but his name is Earl. Mooch is the cat.”

    Even more impressive then. Most CARTOON cats can’t even speak English, much less the furry kind.

  34. @Andréa, Years ago I read a short story about two thieves who wanted to rob a tiny town. #1 says to #2, they don’t even lock their doors! Every house has a dog, who barks all day and all night. The thing is, the dogs are scared of everything and they bark so much that no one pays attention to the barking. Well, #2 agrees it sounds easy,, so one night they go to the town. Well, the dogs didn’t bark because they were afraid, so the whole town woke up and caught the burglars. They’d grown so accustomed to the noise, the *absence* of barking triggered action.

    Okay, not much to do with this thread, but your comment made me remember it.

  35. One thing I love about this group is that people understand things such as schmear. I am on several groups – most of them either related to needlework or organizing/cleaning (I have an odd gene for the first and as for the second, my mother, an Unger, called me Oscar Madison) and they are (excuse me those of you who are as you are not like this) middle American protestants with no understanding of words such as schelp or schmear. And sometimes there really is no substitute word available in my “Yiddisha cup” for what I want to say, and I end up having to explain what I am saying as I write it.

    Oh, and a bagel with butter (sliced across in the normal way) is a childhood favorite of mine. The relatively newer bagel places introduced us to the sandwich with meat on a bagel. Growing up bagels were sold in appetizing stores – which were dairy in the world of kosher eating – no meat, hence the popularity of cream cheese on a bagel – sometimes offered (at different prices of course) for a schmear or a sandwich.

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