Word of the Day / Oom shmoom: Blithe dismissal, Yiddish-style
Want to disparage a certain august world body? All it takes are these two little words.
“Mrs. Siegel confided to her neighbor that her son was now seeing a psychoanalyst. ‘And the doctor says my Marvin is suffering from an Oedipus complex!’” writes Leo Rosten in his 1968 classic “The Joys of Yiddish.” “‘Oedipus-Shmoedipus,’ scoffed her neighbor, ‘so long as he loves his mother.’”
While poking fun at that staple of Jewish humor, the Jewish mother and her mama’s boy, this joke primarily illustrates the Yiddish linguistic device that is behind what Rosten calls “blithe dismissal via repetition.” For this to work right, the second time a word is used, it needs to be preceded by “sh-” or “shm-”: “prefatory sounds, of mockery or dismissal, that ‘pooh-pooh’ the word they prefix.”
Though Rosten’s focus was on the effect of Yiddish on the English language, the Yiddish spoken by many of the founders of the modern State of Israel also had an effect on Hebrew. This tactic of blithe dismissal by repetition was used most famously in Hebrew in a phrase that made its debut in 1955 but still comes up fairly often when a certain world body is mentioned – to wit, the United Nations, which is known in Israel by its Hebrew acronym oom and was succinctly shrugged off by David Ben-Gurion, and many an Israeli since, as oom shmoom.
The origins of the acronym itself are innocuous enough. The “oo” sound comes from the first letter of umot (oo-MOTE), which means “nations,” and the “m” comes from me’uhadot (meh-oo-kha-DOTE), which means “united.” The United Nations is officially known in Hebrew as Ha’umot Hame’uhadot (with ha meaning “the”), but much more commonly referred to as Ha’um (“the Oom”).
The jump from oom to oom shmoom was made by Ben-Gurion, as recorded in the diaries of Moshe Sharett, who became Israel’s first foreign minister in 1949, and briefly served as prime minister. The context was a March 29, 1955, cabinet meeting in the short-lived Sharett government about whether Israel should conquer the Gaza Strip, then controlled by Egypt, in response to cross-border fedayeen attacks (the cabinet ultimately voted against the move). A few days before the cabinet meeting, a group of fedayeen had opened fire on a wedding party at a Negev moshav, killing one woman.
“B.G.’s speech was intense and vigorous, full of anger at those who disagreed with him,” Sharett wrote in his diary, in a reference to Ben-Gurion, who was serving as defense minister at the time. “He wanted to get back at me for saying at the previous meeting that had it not been for the 1947 UN resolution [calling for the partition of Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state], the state would not have been created in 1948. ‘No, no,’ he cried. ‘It was only the daring of the Jews that established the state, and not any oom-shmoom resolution.’”
There is a theory that Ben-Gurion actually uttered the phrase in a private conversation with Sharett and not in the cabinet meeting itself. But that detail may not be so crucial to the story, writes historian Neil Caplan, in a paper presented at the University of Toronto’s 2010 Association for Israel Studies conference.
“Whether this phrase was actually uttered inside or outside the Cabinet room is less important than the fact that the contemptuous and dismissive oom-shmoom phrase has become a permanent element in Israeli political folklore, a catchphrase used to designate a variety of negative attitudes to the UN as a world body,” writes Caplan. “Its popularity at any given moment serves as a barometer reflecting fluctuations in the negative experiences that Israelis have with the world body.”
Decades after the phrase entered the Israeli political lexicon, the secretary-general of the United Nations issued a rhyming counter-catchphrase. Speaking in Jerusalem in 1998, at a luncheon hosted by the speaker of the Knesset at the time, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed to the Israeli public “to look anew at the United Nations.”
“I would hope that Israelis could instead make room for ‘oom,’ that they could open their minds to the prospect of a new era in relations between Israel and the United Nations,” said Annan. Using the Hebrew word for “nothing,” he added: “In the end, I think you will agree that in today's interdependent world, without ‘oom,’ we shall have ‘kloom.'
You can side with Ben-Gurion on this one or with Sharett and Annan, as long as you keep in mind the real lesson here: If you want it to stand the test of time, do try to make it rhyme.