By WILLIAM SAFIRE
Published: October 5, 2003
In a recent issue of New York magazine, the media maven Michael Wolff, writing about the creative political fund-raising of Howard Dean, derided as ''populist fantasy'' the notion ''that the Internet is some great mall of ordinary, uninformed, and uninterested zhlubs who have just been more efficiently organized, and by the wonders of the medium, happily politicized.'' On the contrary, Wolff observed, people reached on the Internet were those ''whose very engagement (even overengagement) separates them most from ordinary zhlubby citizens.''
With soccer moms and angry white males fading into the mists with little old ladies in tennis shoes, political analysts evidently must now focus on the mysterious zhlub vote.
Contrary to white-bread belief, a zhlub is not a variant spelling of slob. (That word, which has risen from slang to ''informal'' in most dictionaries, means ''boor'' and more particularly ''a slovenly person.'' Slob is rooted, moistily, in the Scandinavian slabb, ''slime, mud,'' and was picked up by the Irish around 1861 to look askance at the untidy.)
What is a zhlub, and what quality is expressed in its adjectival form, zhlubby?
According to Sol Steinmetz, et al., in ''Meshugganery,'' an informal dictionary of Yiddishisms, the word is spelled schlub and means ''a crude individual lacking in social skills and blessed with insensitivity, clumsiness and no manners.'' A less pejorative sense is ''oaf, bumpkin.'' A third sense, similar to nebbish, less often used, is ''a person of no color'': the lexicographers refer to an ad placed in the personals by a schlub reading: ''Sweet Jewish guy, 40. No skeletons, no heavy baggage. No personality, either.'' In its form as a modifier, zhlubby is synonymous with the British naff, ''unfashionable, tasteless.''
The spelling presents this year's political analysts with a problem. Having bloomed in Poland as zlob -- that's a z with a dot over it, an l with a stick through it, an o with an accent slightly acute over it, finishing with a naked b -- the derogation is pronounced ''jzwoob,'' which does not come easily to reporters covering candidates on the stump. A significant pronunciation difference exists between the Germanic sch and the Polish z: one would never call Zsa-Zsa ''Sha-Sha.''
In the wonderfully inclusive fourth edition of the The American Heritage Dictionary -- 2,000 pages and 4,000 illustrations, with rich etymologies and a bargain at $60 -- the seeker after meaning can find insightful little essays about usage. Regarding the sch sound, it notes that some words are ''recognizably of foreign extraction because they begin with sound combinations (shl-, shm-, shn-) not found at the beginning of native English words. Schlock is such a word; it is descended from a Middle High German word for a hit or blow, and thus came to refer to damaged merchandise, and then to merchandise of poor quality. Other words beginning with this and similar sound combinations are Yiddish also: schlep, schlemiel, schmooze, schmuck and schnoz.'' [...]
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