CHMO.

I just read an illuminating post by Sergei Zhuk, Soviet Baby Boomers – Closed Cities, CHMO and Soviet Regionalism, which anyone interested in the phenomenon of closed cities should read—I knew of their existence, but had no idea how they actually functioned in Soviet society and what the consequences were when the country collapsed. (This is one of a series of blog posts at Russian History Blog in response to Raleigh’s Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation, which I mentioned here.) He discusses phenomena like “envy of Moscow” and the “Dnipropetrovsk Mafia” (from which, by 1996, 80% of the major political leaders of Ukraine came!); what makes it LH material, however, is the following passage:

This envy of Moscow produced a new anti-Moscow folklore that initially began among military personnel of the military garrisons in the secret closed cities, and later on spread all over the Soviet Union. As early as the 1950s, provincials began calling Muscovites chmo (acronym from combination of the Russian words chelovek Moskvy i Moskovskoi oblasti – a resident of Moscow and Moscow region). According to the retired Soviet military officers, in the 1950s a sudden influx of the physically weak and effeminate, but smart, young conscripts from Moscow region into the Soviet Army, patrolling the secret nuclear closed cities around Moscow, resulted in their senior officers complaints about unpreparedness of these young soldiers from Moscow for the requirements of military service. Eventually, Soviet military officers from the garrisons in the closed cities used acronym chmo in their documents to mark the names of the conscripts from Moscow and Moscow region. In the 1960s and the 70s this acronym left the closed society of military garrisons from the secret cities, penetrated first the “wide Soviet army circles,” then reached the Soviet civilian population, and became a popular word used to characterize any weak and effeminate male character. As a result, people forgot about the origin of this term, which was directly related to the military personnel of the Soviet closed society.

It’s referenced to “Interview with Ivan Mikhailovich K., a retired colonel of the Soviet Army, June 3, 1990, Kyiv, and interview with Valentin V. Piskarev, a retired colonel of the Soviet Army, March 12, 1991, Moscow. These officers explained the origin of the word chmo.” Now, on the face of it this would appear to be just another acronymic folk etymology on the order of “port outward, starboard home” or “for unlawful carnal knowledge”; this feeling is strengthened by the fact that there is a word chmok, defined identically to chmo in my Dictionary of Russian Slang as “worthless or unpleasant person,” and these look suspiciously similar to the American slang words shmo and shmuck, which are unquestionably derived from Yiddish. On the other hand, modern Russian does make use of an amazing variety of acronymic words, so I’m not rejecting that explanation out of hand. Does anybody have any verifiable information that would shed light on this?
Also, when he talks about “Soviet labor camps scientific facilities, known as ‘shabashki,’” doesn’t he mean “sharashki”?

Comments

  1. Happy New Year, Hat.
    I know nothing about Russian or Russia, but I’ll check the comments thread in twenty comments time to see what topics it is then covering. Wallabies and seals, for all I know.

  2. Sidebar.
    It’s not clear to me that shmo is actually Yiddish: as a bowdlerization of shmuck it may have been born directly in English. Yiddish being what it is, of course it would easily have been borrowed back, so the distinction may not be susceptible of proof any more.
    Rosten makes a principled distinction between Yinglish, or the vocabulary of Yiddish words in the English language, and Ameridish, or Yiddish vocabulary terms born in the United States. His various lexicons mostly describe Yinglish not Yiddish, but he occasionally throws in a word of Yiddish and especially Ameridish when he thinks it would be cool for it to become a Yinglish word, or just wants to tell a joke using it. To be sure, he sometimes loses track of his distinction, as when he defines opsterzike(r) ‘upstairs neighbor’ and donsterzike(r) ‘downstairs neighbor’ as Yinglish and Ameridish respectively — or is it the other way about? I forget.
    So I’m suggesting that shmo is Yinglish rather than Ameridish or some other kind of Yiddish.

  3. This article on чмо seems promising:
    http://www.philology.ru/linguistics2/dyachok-07a.htm
    It presents the Yiddish connection as the probably source, although, weirdly, it also tries to unify чмо with rare Slavic чмарь in a complete paradigm towards the end – that table doesn’t look convincing at all.

  4. I forgot to add that the acronymic folk etymology seems as dubious as they all do; among other things, “человек Москвы и московской области” is not idiomatic Soviet, it’d have to be “житель Москвы”.

  5. It’s not clear to me that shmo is actually Yiddish
    Ah, but I didn’t say it was—I said it was “derived from Yiddish,” which covers all manner of things, including Yinglish.
    I forgot to add that the acronymic folk etymology seems as dubious as they all do
    Thanks, that’s what I figured but it’s good to hear it from you.

  6. I realized after writing the whole thing that you hadn’t said it was, but I couldn’t bear to expunge the GAS, so I clicked “Post”.

  7. All I know is that shmo & shmuck were common among Jewish kids I knew in the mid sixties in London. Their parents were from the east end of London and from other parts of Europe.

  8. Happy New Year!
    Also, when he talks about “Soviet labor camps scientific facilities, known as ‘shabashki,’” doesn’t he mean “sharashki”?
    He probably does: the word шабашка did exist in Soviet Russian (along with the verb шабашить, etc.) but had a meaning of un- or semi-official work, usually in construction business, taken as an additional income source.
    Nothing to add on the question of чмо (I second Anatoly’s view) except another, and equally improbable, acronymic folk etymology I happened to come across in Soviet Army in late 1980s: человек, мешающий обществу = a person harmful to society. Actually, I don’t think I know of any real Soviet/Russian official term or acronym using the word человек – except in the field of human rights (права человека).

  9. шабашка – “working on the Sabbath”?
    I’m conjecturing based on a line in Письмо в редакцию (possibly my favorite Vysotsky song) (lyrics): “как ведьмак на шабаше” (шабаш being indicated in the Wiki entry as coming from “Hexensabbath” for some reason, although it probably has an older, native origin).

  10. (Interestingly, he leaves out the verse on crushing America and Israel in the version he sings in that YouTube video.)

  11. шабашка – “working on the Sabbath”?
    Etymologically, yes; шабаш and its derivatives are (via Polish) from Yiddish.

  12. + 1 to Dmitry on the subject of shabashka – it does mean unofficial part-time work, especially in building/constructing/repairs, and it does derive from Sabbath, in a sense of work being done on holidays and days off.
    Sarashka is a semi-prison, labour camp with lightly better living conditions for the scientists, particularly nuclear physicists and engineers.
    Dmitry is also right about chelovek (human being) – it is decidedly an un-Soviet word.
    He is also right on

  13. (sorry for the unedited previous one – my Internet here is rather shaky)
    + 1 to Dmitry on the subject of shabashka – it does mean unofficial part-time work, particularly in building/constructing/repairs, and it does derive from Sabbath, in a sense of work being done on holidays and days off.
    Sarashka is a semi-prison, labour camp with slightly better living conditions for the scientists, particularly nuclear physicists and engineers.
    Dmitry is also right about chelovek (human being) – it is decidedly an un-Soviet word.

  14. “…and these look suspiciously similar to the American slang words shmo and shmuck, which are unquestionably derived from Yiddish. On the other hand, modern Russian does make use of an amazing variety of acronymic words, so I’m not rejecting that explanation out of hand. Does anybody have any verifiable information that would shed light on this?”
    Could it be both and? General question – is there some technical term when a lexeme arises out of a blend of elements in a language, one giving a boost to the other so that it makes it into the lexicon? I know about telescoped words like “smg’ and such, but that’s not exactly what’s aahppening here. But it’s the semantic equivalent.

  15. As a matter of fact, Sabbath’s adventures in Russian language would make for a nice little story of their own. In present-day Russian, the word has several derivatives, all related to but none exactly preserving the original meaning of a sacred day of rest, as follows:
    шабаш (stressed on the first syllable as often as not) is a witches’ Sabbath; this is the meaning in Vysotsky’s song quoted by Marc;
    шабаш! (always stressed on the second syllable) means “that’s it,” “that’s done,” “that’s enough,” “stop it,” esp. “stop working”… A verse from another piece by Vysotsky comes to mind: “Будет свадьба, говорит, // Свадьба и шабаш!” There is even a (not very frequently used, I believe) verb пошабашить – to stop working;
    шабашка as discussed above, along with its action (шабашить) and its actors (шабашники);
    – and, last but not least, суббота, which is just plain Saturday: here, I think, the link to the Hebrew origins is better pronounced and acknowledged.

  16. It’s interesting that Old Russian, like the other Slavic languages, had only one б in суб(б)ота.

  17. It’s interesting that Old Russian, like the other Slavic languages, had only one б in суб(б)ота.
    As does шабаш.

  18. Indeed, other than in borrowings, what are double letters doing in Russian at all, since it has no gemination?

  19. A student in my university group, fresh from the army, explained ‘chmo’ to me as derisive for a sloppy soldier, in particular for one a/ whose boots don’t fit and putties are not wrapped properly and b/ whose belt is not tight enough. Both of which produces a чмокающий (squelching or plopping) sound (variant: чпок – chpok). So I have always thought of it as onomatopoeic rather than acronymic.
    I had a quick look just now. There appears to be a different, more plausible military acronym for chmo (ЧМО) – части материального обеспечения, literally ‘units of material supply/support’, i.e. logistics corps. Assuming that physically lower grade soldiers were assigned to ЧМО, it’s easy to see how soldiers in fighting units could have adopted the acronym as a derisive slang name.
    Another interesting folk etymology is that the acronym ЧМО (Черноморский морской объект) was used long ago to mark drying timber to be used in ship-building for the Russian Black Sea fleet in the war against Turkey. The mark meant ‘Government property’. Marked timber was more difficult to steal, which caused irritation among the free-wheeling people of Odessa, the city with a big Jewish population, so they started using the the acronym to mean something useless. I am not sure how far back shmoo or shmuck goes in Yiddish but there is a phonetic similarity.
    I second Anatoly on человек. It’s definitely not from military (or Soviet) administrative lingo. In the Army, the word for ‘men’ would be личный состав (lichny sostav, personal composition), and individual soldiers would be referred to as боец/бойцы (fighters.)

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    According to wikipedia, it is debated whether Yiddish “schmuck” comes from ordinary German “Schmuck” (= jewelry; it was pretty hilarious to go to West Germany as a US teenager and see that word in high-class store windows – a sexual slang meaning could plausibly have arisen by loose parallel to the sexual-slang sense of “family jewels” in some varieties of English) or from some wholly unrelated source.

  21. According to wikipedia, it is debated whether Yiddish “schmuck” comes from ordinary German “Schmuck”
    The Forward’s Philologos recently wrote an article on the subject (with free bonus video clip!).

  22. Trond Engen says:

    There’s Norwegian smokk, ON smokkr. The semantic path is interesting. The main current meaning is “(baby) pacifier; rubber teat on baby bottle”. Dictionaries of the modern language also list a meaning “finger holster”. The ON word meant “breastcloth” (or “chest-”?), but it’s derived from smýga/smjúga “sneak, creep” (sméag of Sméagol fame, I imagine), which seems to fit better with “holster”. Anyway, there are endless ways for this material to develop sexual connotations in slang.

  23. There’s Norwegian smokk, ON smokkr … The ON word meant “breastcloth” (or “chest-”?)
    Per AHD, cf English ‘smock’: smock (smŏk)
    n. A loose coatlike outer garment, often worn to protect the clothes while working…
    [Middle English, woman's undergarment, from Old English smoc.]

  24. It seems that the Yiddish “shmok” has nothing to do with the German “Schmuck”. “shmok”would be based on the word “shtok” (see the English “stick”). A clear sexual meaning + the depreciative and humoristic “shm-” and you have “shmok”.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    Indeed, other than in borrowings, what are double letters doing in Russian at all, since it has no gemination?

    It has borrowed long consonants along with those words. And so has Polish.
    (…Well, in Polish, inne “others” is native as far as I know, and often has a very long /nː/, but the rest of the time it breaks, giving [ˈinənɛ] with three syllables of equal length. ~:-| )

    shmoo

    With oo? In that case it might come from somewhere else entirely. I once read about German words that came from Romani via the outlaws’ language Rotwelsch, and one of them was said to be schmu, which I’ve never encountered elsewhere; no idea what it means. Rotwelsch also contained plenty of Yiddish/Hebrew and… everything else.

    smýga/smjúga “sneak, creep”

    Oh! German schmiegen… a verb with meanings along the lines of “snug(gle)”.

  26. Directly from Old Norse, the dragon’s name (or rather alias) Smaug is the preterite of smjúga: ‘he crept’ (into a hole or crack). We have Tolkien’s direct evidence for this. The dwarves are also known by aliases: like Jews, they have true names in their own language, Khuzdul, but unlike Jews nowadays they keep these names secret: “not even on their tombstones do they inscribe them”.
    OT: Here’s my silly but informed speculation that up to three of Bilbo’s dwarves are in fact dwarf-women. “Textev” is list slang for “textual evidence”, in case that is not apparent to this learnèd audience.

  27. So the doubled letters in Russian are pronounced geminated, as in Bulgarian? My understanding was that they were not.

  28. Radan Rusanov says:

    Bulgarian lacks geminated consonants in the vast majority of cases – Кирил (Cyril) vs Russian. Кирилл, etc. They don’t appear from etymology or borrowing but rather where suffixes begin with the same letter the word ends with.
    For example,
    радост (happiness) + та (definite marker) = радостта
    To me at least it seems Russian is overfond of entirely gratitous doubling of consonants in the Germanic style (Миллер, Мюллер).
    Hope this helps!
    Radan Rusanov

  29. So the doubled letters in Russian are pronounced geminated
    Not usually, no. (Or such is my understanding; I speak, as always, under correction.)

  30. @David Marjanović
    I know Schmu as a colloquial German term meaning “murky business, trick” and “rubbish, nonsense”.

  31. Ian Press says:

    Geminated consonants in Russian (as distinct from ‘double consonants’, which some see as just any two consonants together). If what are written as geminated consonants come immediately after the stress, they are pronounced ‘double (or ‘long’)’; geminated consonants in other positions are not pronounced ‘double’ (though they might be, say affectively). And the sound represented by the letter ‘щ’ (and ‘сч’, ‘зч’, which are normally pronounced the same as ‘щ’) will be pronounced ‘double’ or ‘long’ in whatever position it finds itself. Of course, pronunciation changes and is subject to all manner of variation.

  32. smýga/smjúga “sneak, creep”
    Smyga is the same in Norwegian. “Smygard” is the Norwegian translation’s name for Slytherin house in Harry Potter.

  33. And et smug is an alley. Coincidence? Ask Trond. En mygg is a midge or mosquito.

  34. I finally got my copy of Forward in snail mail and went straight back to this thread … only to discover that Paul already posted a link to their page, complete with a video, and readers’ comments!
    Schwantze is mentioned there a couple time too.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    The reason why Russian has long consonants and, say, BCSM does not may be the fact that Russian has prepositions and verb prefixes that consist of nothing but a consonant, leading to phenomena as к Кате [ˈkːäˑtʲɛ] “to Katya” and введение [vʲːɪˈdʲeˑnʲ(i)jɛ] “introduction”*; from there, long consonants may have been generalized to other random collisions (such as русский, in other Slavic languages simply руски/ruski) and then to loans.
    * Yes, those are word-initial long consonants, something extremely rare outside Switzerland.

    If what are written as geminated consonants come immediately after the stress, they are pronounced ‘double (or ‘long’)’; geminated consonants in other positions are not pronounced ‘double’

    Makes sense.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    русский
    From русь-ский.

  37. But the -сс- is not, of course, pronounced double.

  38. Southern Italy is big on geminated initial consonants, brought on by raddoppiamento sintattico plus aphesis.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    In Swiss German, initial long consonants are fairly common, because where Standard Average European has a voice distinction in plosives, Swiss German has a length distinction.

    But the -сс- is not, of course, pronounced double.

    Bad example, true; the consonant cluster probably destroys the distinction.

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