Sashura sent me a link to this NYT obituary by Margalit Fox of Sol Steinmetz, “a lexicographer, author and tenured member of Olbom (n., abbrev., < On Language’s Board of Octogenarian Mentors)”; Ms. Fox lards the obit with as many word histories (“his surname is the Yiddish word for stonemason”) as she can, and I’m sure its subject would have loved it. An excerpt:

An ordained rabbi, Mr. Steinmetz was a particular authority on Yiddish, in all its kvetchy beauty. His books on the subject include “Yiddish and English: A Century of Yiddish in America” (University of Alabama, 1986) and “Meshuggenary: Celebrating the World of Yiddish” (Simon & Schuster, 2002; with Payson R. Stevens and Charles M. Levine).
Mr. Steinmetz was a keen etymologist. In interviews and his own writings, he expounded ardently on the pedigrees of words like “klutz” (from Middle High German klotz, “block, log,” via Yiddish) and “clone” (from the Greek klon, “twig”), which entered English as a noun in 1903.
He was also a master of the first citation, scouring centuries of literature and decades of the airwaves to determine precisely when a particular word or phrase made its debut. “Suit,” in the sense of a bureaucrat, for instance, he traced to the television show “Cagney and Lacey” in 1982.

Before he became a lexicographer in the late 1950s, he worked as a cantor (he “had a fine tenor voice”) and as a rabbi (in Media, Pa.); the obit ends with this wonderful passage: “‘He never had a bad word to say about anyone,’ said Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary and a former protégé. ‘And he knew a lot of bad words.'” Alevasholem.
Addendum. Z. D. Smith has sent me a link to this Log post announcing the death of the linguist and Yiddishist Ellen F. Prince; he left the first comment on that post, talking about her “combination of erudition and communicative humanity on nearly every topic.”


  1. ‘ In interviews and his own writings, he expounded ardently on the pedigrees of words like “klutz” (from Middle High German klotz, “block, log,” via Yiddish)”
    Thisd one may or not have come into Englsih via Yiddish; if the man says so, I’ll take his word for now, bless his memory. But it has to be quite a tangle deciding, given the scope and complexity of German immigration to America, which of a welter of Rheinlader dialects, along with Bavarian and Swiss, and Yiddish for that matter, contributed this or that etymon.

  2. I find myself unable to resist noting that ‘alevasholem’ is a slightly non-standard rendering.

  3. Yes, I know, but I got it from Leo Rosten, and I can’t bring myself to change.

  4. Crikey. Here’s a word for you: lehavdil—as in, Steinmetz, olev-hasholem, ran rings around Rosten, lehavdil!

  5. michael farris says

    ““klutz” (from Middle High German klotz, “block, log,””
    One of the many reasons I’ll never be a historical linguist: I never in a million years would have recognized the relationship between Polish ‘klocek’ (block, brick, turd) and English ‘klutz’ even I ever thought about it and recognized klocek as a probable borrowing from German/Yiddish….

  6. Z.D.: Granted, Rosten could never have written Meshuggenary, though he could have made use of it if he hadn’t been dead for five years already. But then again, Steinmetz could never have written TJoY/HfY/TJoY or H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, much less Captain Newman, M.D..

  7. I only learned about him from the obituary, but had an instant feeling of strange affinity. Apparently he was bitten by that wonderful bug that makes scholars and poets go to extremes to find the [right] word.

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