Of Schlongs and Schmucks

December 22, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Cultural appropriation was in the news this week.  Students at a couple of universities had complained that their school, in a highhanded Eurocentric fashion,  had stolen and debased something – yoga classes, cafeteria food – from another culture. The news reports framed this mostly as yet another example of wrongheaded campus political correctness, something that sensible people regard amusement or alarm or both. In this view, the students and their ideas are silly but also pose a grave danger to freedom of speech if not universities and education as we know them. A good representative of this view is“The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in a recent Atlantic (here), which notes the rise of terms like “microaggession” and “trigger warning” and a few instances of students protesting the invitations extended to certain speakers.

Cultural appropriation is different. With microaggressions and trigger warnings and other controversial issues, the goals of the politically correct align with widely held values – respect and equality for the vulnerable. It’s good to be against racism, sexism, cultural insensitivity, etc. Those are bad things. But cultural appropriation is a good thing. New sources and ideas, variations and combinations, keep the culture from becoming repetitive and stagnant. They make it vibrant and dynamic.

The trouble is that the appropriators, at least at the beginning, get it wrong.

“It was ridiculous,” student Diep Nguyen told The Oberlin Review (the “it,” in question was a banh mi sandwich with the wrong bun). “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?” (Daily Beast)

It’s hard to be accepting of cultural variants, especially if you’re the one whose culture is being debased. And speaking of cultural debasement, here is Donald Trump misappropriating a Yiddish word.        


It’s a clear case of cultural appropriation, offensive and incorrect both politically and linguistically. Schlong is a noun, not a verb. It means penis. It does not mean to defeat badly, to rout, drub, shellac, trounce.  At least not yet. But in time, if enough people culturally appropriate it and use it to mean those things, then English will become richer by one additional meaning of one word, while the Yiddish purists out in the hall mutter and rend their garments. For the moment however, the consensus is that Trump misused the word.

Also that he’s a schmuck.

Personal note: The use of schlong that I best recall is in this scene from “Last Tango in Paris.”

Here’s the transcript.

 What's this for?    
 That's your happiness and
my... my ha-penis
 Schlong. Wienerwurst. Cazzo.
Bite. Prick! Joint!

I saw “Last Tango in Paris” in Paris – subtitles, no dubbing (v.o. comme on dit) – in a theater on the Champs-Élysées. When Brando says “schlong,” I laughed and was suddenly aware that nobody else in the theater had made a sound. The translation appeared on screen a split second later. General laughter. But for that moment, I felt a bit awkward in my solitary and unappropriated cultural knowledge.

UPDATE, Dec. 23:  Schlong in the cinema, one more time. Charlie Pierce reminds me that “My Favorite Year” has a great line built around this word. In fact, I blogged it two years ago in a post with the title “My Favorite Line” (here).

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