Prentiss Riddle: Language

aprendiz de todo, maestro de nada

Prentiss Riddle

home art austin books
causes chuckles garden
kids language movies
music time toys travel
Search this site

Archive by date
Archive by title

Putz vs. putz

I know roughly what a "putz" is in English but I had to look it up to find out that its origin is virtually identical to the better-known "schmuck", i.e., Yiddish for something pretty > the male anatomical ornament > an epithet. Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Putz: "obnoxious man, fool," 1964, from Yiddish, from Ger. putz, lit. "finery, adornment," obviously used here in an ironic sense. Earlier in slang sense of "penis" (1934, in "Tropic of Cancer"); a non-ironic sense is in putz "Nativity display around a Christmas tree" (1902), from Pennsylvania Dutch.

Or rather it's close to what I thought was the origin of "schmuck". The same source says that the family-jewels connection is a folk etymology!

Schmuck: "contemptible person," 1892, from E.Yiddish shmok, lit. "penis," from Old Pol. smok "grass snake, dragon." Not the same word as Ger. schmuck "jewelry, adornments," which is related to Low Ger. smuck "supple, tidy, trim, elegant," and related to O.N. smjuga "slip, step through" (see smock). In Jewish homes, the word was "regarded as so vulgar as to be taboo" [Leo Rosten, "The Joys of Yiddish," 1968] and Lenny Bruce wrote that saying it on stage got him arrested on the West Coast "by a Yiddish undercover agent who had been placed in the club several nights running to determine if my use of Yiddish terms was a cover for profanity." Euphemized as schmoe, which was the source of Al Capp's cartoon strip creature the schmoo.

putz graffiti

The real mystery, however, is why putz and a variant putz grila are ubiquitous slang in Brazilian Portuguese. They're not in my Larousse but here's one definition:

Putz grila: gíria. Interjeição que exprime espanto, surpresa, impaciéncia, desapontamento, zanga, etc.; puxa vida; poxa(�).

(Putz grila: slang. Interjection which expresses fright, surprise, impatience, dissapointment, anger, etc.; gosh, jeez.)

Is there any connection between the North and South American uses of putz? Could its use in Brazil be of Yiddish origin? I know there's a significant Jewish population in Brazil; did they influence Brazilian (or perhaps Carioca) Portuguese much? Or is putz grila a common term in Portugal as well?

(I suspect there are just two readers of this blog who could hazard a guess; Neuza and Colin, are you there?)

language 2006.07.14 link


Actually, it's "grilo," which does not agree in gender with "putz" ... My theory is that it's "putas" comically deformed by an Italian accent to take the obscenity out, technically, like "goddamn" and "goldarn" or "jesus h. christ on a crutch" and "jiminey cricket."

"Grilo" is also used in "bicho grilo," slang for "hippy." Isn't that the word for "cricket"?

Antonio Houaiss the great Libano-Tupi philologist -- translator of Finnegan's Wake into Portuguese -- would know, but the CD version I bought at the Conjunto Nacional has proceeded to lock me out of my own disc with its freaking DRM ...


See also William Gass's essay, "On Being Blue" on the semantics and pragmatics of such phrases as "go fuck a duck."

There ARE a lot of orthodox Jews with living Yiddish in Brazil, by the way. Great writer on the Jewish experience: Moacyr Scliar. We went and saw the ruins of the first synagogue in North America in Recife when we were there. Interesting Recife-New Amerstdam-Porto Alegre historical trajectory there.

Hey, I was just blogging about you just now.


Gringao [cbrayton cxe gmail punkto com] • 2006.07.20
Oi Colin, obrigado!

However, what I most often heard was "putz grila". Google reports both, with grila beating grilo by almost 5 to 1. And if it were short for "putas", wouldn't it be "putz grilas"?

I've always longed for a subscription to Maledicta. I often complain about lacking a good dictionary of bad words in the languages I study, but the fact is I don't have a good one for English, either.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2006.07.20
I was fired from AT&T for using the word "PUTZ" in an automated work order system to discribe the work done by a fellow technician after spending 6 hours sorting through the not so great install that he had done. So I am looking for a good attorney if anyone knows of any.

Ben [bbaar cxe hotmail punkto com] • 2006.07.21
really interesting point.

just one thing, though: I think antonio houaiss tranlated ulysses into portuguese, not finnegan's wake. I am pretty sure finnegans wake was only translated a few years ago by donnaldo shuller.


norma • 2006.07.27
Just to split hairs here!

You say "I know roughly what a'putz' is in English".

Well, I've never heard the word spoken in England

Amanda Goode • 2006.07.30
Amanda, are you saying that American English isn't English? :-)

Seriously, you confirm something that I've always suspected, which is that the many words that Yiddish has contributed to American English haven't all made it into British English.

Although, come to think of it, I don't think I've ever heard anybody say "putz" in Texas, either -- it's a New Yorkism that I know mostly from movies.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2006.07.30
There is no connection between the North and South American uses of "putz".

It is all about taboo vocabulary. "Putz" was kind of a way of saying "puta" without being officialy obscene... Now it seems to be happening with other obscene words as well...

If you Google it, you can find "fodz", a variation of "foda", which literally means "the act of fucking" and is now used as an adjective to describe something which is too hard, or too bad. You can also find "merdz", a variant of "merda", which means "shit". I couldn't come up with more examples to Google right now...

About "putz grila", that's exactly the expression I have heard since my childhood (I'm brazilian o/). Recently, I have seen "putz grilo" written on the Internet, perhaps in an attempt to agree in gender with "putz", which does not make much sense to me, since "putz" is being used as an interjection and, as such, does not ask for agreement.

But the prescriptivist feeling to force the agreement may be an evidence that the link between "putz" and "puta" is not synchronically noticed by the speakers anymore. "Puta" is feminine. The masculine agreement shows that "putz" is being interpreted as masculine, because the feminine suffix -a is not there anymore.

Emanuel Quadros • 2006.08.05
I was recently looking on ebay for a vintage german sheep you would use around a nativity scene. the name Putz came up several times. If the word is meant as most of you say, why would it be associated with nativity sheep? Don't get it. Do you think it may be a type of German craft?

mags [az1940 cxe comcast punkto net] • 2006.09.01
that's why:

Emanuel Quadros [manuquadros cxe gmail punkto com] • 2006.09.11
I'm sorry guys, but "putz" doesn't have anything to do with "puta". In fact "putz" is just a short form to say "putz grila". And the meaning is that we have in the beginning (Putz grila: slang. Interjection which expresses fright, surprise, impatience, dissapointment, anger, etc.; gosh, jeez.). "Putz Grila" is an old brazilian portuguese expression that cames from the 60 decade, or before. Some people, today, use "putz" in meaning of "puta" but that's not right. About the gender, putz is an interjection. And I'm brazilian.

Ablask • 2006.10.11
And where did "putz grila" come from, Ablask, the brazilian?

"Putz", even as part of "putz grila" stems from "puta". I have pointed to the same thing happening with other taboo words, such as "merdz" and "fodz".
"Puta" as an intejection may have the same meaning of "putz grila" in certain contexts. It is just that saying "puta" aloud is utterly impolite, while saying "putz grila" is just old-fashioned nowadays. "Putz" is the intermediate form: neither impolite, nor old-fashioned.
Besides, saying that the "use of 'putz' in meaning of 'puta' [is] not right", as Ablask has just said, is what is not right. If people are using the word in this sense and if they do understand each other when doing so, how can you say that the use is not correct?

Emanuel Quadros [manuquadros cxe gmail punkto com] • 2006.10.12
Food for thought...
Yiddish is a language largely made up of Germanic grammar and vocabulary and mixed with Hebrew and Aramaic.(Brief description)

"putz" comes from the German "putzen" meaning in modern German "to clean" and in historical German to "dress up". "Putz" as a noun means "plaster".

The dress up ties in with the ornament losely. Schumck is the German word for jewelry or decoration.

The words do tie together. It is interesting how the action of cleaning or decorating became negative terms. We always would say "I was putzing around the house." meaning just sort of doing house stuff, nothing imporant....and that was No. California.

Anne • 2006.12.13
I recall our first trip to Germany, we walked down Kaiserstrasse in Frankfurt, and ever second shop seemed to carry a sign reading 'SCHMUCK'.
OK, said the wife, the place is full schmucks, but why do the have to advertise it?

Chris • 2007.02.25
No conclusion then? :(

Andrew • 2007.05.07
More language >