The Nik of Time.

Just found this in the NYRB letters column (September 26, 2019 issue):

To the Editors:

James Gleick writes, in “Moon Fever” [NYR, August 15], “If it wasn’t for Sputnik, we wouldn’t have had ‘beatniks,’ ‘peaceniks,’ or ‘no-goodniks.’” He is mistaken. The OED shows that S.J. Perelman used “nogoodnick” in The New Yorker in 1936: “A parasite, a leech, a bloodsucker—altogether a five-star nogoodnick!” H.L. Mencken’s American Language (1919) has an entry for the general suffix “-nick”: “The suffix –nick, signifying agency, is…freely applied. Allrightnick means an upstart, an offensive boaster…consumptionick means a victim of tuberculosis.”

Ernest Davis
New York City

Now, that’s the kind of correction I like to see. (I find it hard to believe, however, that anyone but Mencken ever used “consumptionick.”)


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Google books does not seem to have any real evidence of “consumptionick” other than Mencken and people quoting Mencken or probably paraphrasing him. That said, it strikes me that once upon a time when TB was still a widespread thing there must have been slang words (including vaguely jocular or derogatory ones) for those afflicted with it, but I don’t know what they were. One of my great-grandfathers suffered with it for decades, getting intermittently better and worse and creating various disruptions in my grandfather’s childhood during the spells when it was so bad he couldn’t earn money from his usual career because he was up at the sanitorium in the Adirondacks. But I have no idea what people called him behind his back! (During those Adirondacks interludes he fell into the circle of the notorious Melvil Dewey of Dewey Decimal System fame, but that’s another story.)

  2. That said, it strikes me that once upon a time when TB was still a widespread thing there must have been slang words (including vaguely jocular or derogatory ones) for those afflicted with it

    I agree, but “consumptionick” sounds to me absurdly improbable as a spontaneous creation of vox pop rather than an invention of a somewhat ponderous writer. It smells of the lamp.

  3. Huh. I always thought it was a Yiddish thing like Refusenik or nudnik.

  4. David L. Gold says

    The truth lies somewhere in the middle:

    1. It is true that before the first Sputnik was launched, on 4 January 1958, English had a few nouns ending in -nik, such as allrightnik, nogoodnik, and nudnik, but all of them were used either exclusively or largely in Eastern Ashkenazic English.

    2. The launching of the first Sputnik led Herb Caen to coin beatnik, which he first used in print on 2 April 1958 (in his column in San Francisco Chronicle). His remarks on beatniks in that column were much quoted in other periodicals, as a result of which his coinage became widely known, as a result of which the suffix became productive in general English, leading to such coinages as foodnik, neatnik, peacenik, and wordnik.

  5. It’s a very productive suffix in both Polish and Yiddish, so most likely it didn’t get into American English at least until the 1890s, when urban immigration accelerated? And generally, it seems that Yiddish was more productive than Polish in affecting the US usage (not sure why), so my first guess, from Yiddish?

    (but posting seems to have problems, so by the time I succeed in making a comment, it looks like the Yiddish link is already explored)

  6. David L. Gold says

    Refusenik was modeled on Russian отказник (otkaznik), the stem of which is отказ- (< Russian отказ 'refusal').

    The history of English -nik therefore consists of at least four strands:

    1. The oldest one = the words first used in Ashkenazic English and largely if not fully confined to that ethnolect.

    2. Sputnik, refusenik, and maybe others = modeled on Russian.

    3. Beatnik = prompted by English Sputnik.

    4. foodnik, neatnik, peacenik, wordnik, and many others modeled modeled directly or indirectly on beatnik.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Mencken’s discussion, FWIW, is actually not even of “Ashkenazic English” but of how Yiddish as spoken in America had come to differ lexically from Old Country Yiddish by adding English-origin loanwords and also (as with “consumptionick” if Mencken and/or his fluent-in-Yiddish informant wasn’t pulling our leg) creating new words by applying a productive-in-Yiddish suffix to such loanwords. When the next generation switched from speaking English-influenced Yiddish to instead speaking Yiddish-influenced English, some of those coinages may have come along, but others may have been lost.

  8. Dmitry Pruss says

    There is definitely a “stream 1a”, Israeli words such as kibbutznik which appear in Google books as early as 1946, and, according to Ngram, maybe even earlier

    A similar kolkhoznik made into the books too, not just as a farmer but also as a name of cotton varietal.

  9. David L. Gold says

    Ernest Davis writes: H.L. Mencken’s American Language (1919) has an entry for the general suffix “-nick”: “The suffix –nick, signifying agency, is…freely applied. Allrightnick means an upstart, an offensive boaster…consumptionick means a victim of tuberculosis.

    I was surprized to read that in 1919 Mencken considered -nik ~ -nick to be a general suffix because in that year it should have still been in its first stage, that is, confined largely or exclusively to Eastern Ashkenazic English (cf. my earlier post).

    Mencken’s full remarks are “The suffix -nick, signifying agency, is also freely applied. Allrightnick means an upstart, an offensive boaster, one of whom his fellows would say “He is all right” with a sneer. Similarly, consumptionick means a victim of tuberculosis” (The American Language, 1919, p. 157, in the discussion of “Yiddish inflections”). As an English suffix, it was indeed still ethnolectal.

  10. What’s the evidence that Caen based “beatnik” on “Sputnik”, other than that one followed the other by six months?

  11. Richard Hershberger says

    A quick dive into turns up “beatnik” in the Troy (NY) Record of July 11, 1956. The context is clear that this is the familiar sense. It is a TV review, praising a show as having “a beatnik dialogue that’s not overdone.”

  12. David L. Gold says

    @Y. “What’s the evidence that Caen based “beatnik” on “Sputnik”, other than that one followed the other by six months?”

    You are right to ask. The claim that Caen based “beatnik” on “Sputnik” may be an instance of the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

    Since he was born to a Jewish father, he could have come to know the suffix -nik from Jewish circles. Or, possibly, those circles and “Sputnik” could have influenced him.

    @J. W. Brewer. You are right. Mencken’s discussion on that page is of Yidish, not English.
    He was not likely to make up words and Yidish has nouns in -nik that have more syllables and phonemes than consumptionist has, such as אפּכא-מסתּבראניק (ipkhe-mistabrenik) ‘contrarian’, which is even longer in its feminine plural form, אפּכא-מסתּבראניצעס (ipkhe-mistabrenitses). .

    Still, that first group of Eastern Ashkenazic words exists. Nudnik (qua English) goes back at least to 1916.

    @Dmitry Pruss. You are right. Israeli Hebrew is another source of English -nik. Moshavnik is another word belonging to that category.

  13. David L. Gold says

    @ Richard Hershberger. That’s a good find. Now that we know that Caen did not coin the word, the question of what motivated him is moot, but his column did popularize the word and thereby possibly also stimulated the coinage of more English words so ending.

  14. It could be an independent invention. I daresay Troy was less known than SF as a beatnik mecca, and that Caen’s columns were more influential than those of the Troy Record’s TV reviewer. Or, the word had been circulating everywhere under the surface for a while.

  15. It’s a great find; I’ve amended the Wikipedia article accordingly.

  16. Jon Weinberg says

    If nogoodnik wasn’t already widespread by 1950, it got a boost from Frank Loesser in Guys and Dolls, who has Nathan Detroit sing, “Alright, already, I’m just a nogoodnik / alright, already, it’s true, so nu?” Loesser, who was Jewish, wrote the role for Sam Levene, who was Jewish. He doesn’t seem to have had any fear, though, that a mass audience wouldn’t understand the word

  17. Richard Hershberger: You should let the OED know; their earliest cite is from 1958.

  18. David L. Gold says

    @ Y. Your reasoning (“It could be an independent invention,” etc.) is spot on. Here is a similar case:

    English sociology is said to be a calque of French sociologie, which is said to have been coined by Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and first used by him in print in 1839.

    However, some years ago, a manuscript written during the 1780s by Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (1748-1836) was found and there the word appears.

    Since Comte could not possibly have known of the manuscript because it was not uncovered until well after his death, the word was coined twice, and the second coinage was the influential one.

    Leo Pap wrote on the possibility of multiple causation (Pap, Leo. 1992. “On the etymology of Portuguese SAUDADE: an instance of multiple causation?.” WORD. Vol. 43. No. 1. Pp. 97-102) and so too did Roger W. Wescott (Pap gives the full bibliographical reference).

    Pap’s article is here:

  19. Your reasoning (“It could be an independent invention,” etc.) is spot on.

    But in the 1956 case it’s clearly not a one-off coinage; it’s used as an established vocabulary item. This means that whether or not Caen thought he was coining it is irrelevant. I could think I was coining, say, “shithole” today, but that wouldn’t affect the word’s history.

  20. Russian is an Indo-European language like English, so what is the exact English cognate for suffix ‘-nik’?

    First of all, “n” in “nik” is the same as English “-en” which is used to form past participle (like “paven”, “taken”, “forgiven”).

    And “-ik” corresponds to old English (and German) “-ig” which in modern English transformed into “-y, -ey, -ie”.

    Sputnik is formed from put’ (path) by adding suffixes and prefixes:
    put’ (path)
    put+n (has a path)
    s+put+n (shares a path)
    s+put+n+ik (someone who shares your path)

    We can’t make an exact English cognate to ‘sputnik’.

    The closest we can get to anything resembling real English is “co-pathed” and then imagine that we somehow could add “ie” or “y” ending to denote a person who is “co-pathed”.

  21. Owlmirror says

    @Richard Hershberger:

    I apologize for being overly-skeptical, but did you actually see the image of the word “beatnik”, and the image of the date “1956”, in the scan of the pages of the newspaper? I have learned to not trust OCR or metadata unless I can actually see such things in the page scans themselves. Too many errors have been accepted in various archive sites and systems.

    I was wondering what TV show might have been under discussion. The WikiP article has an “in media” section, and I didn’t see any television show in 1956 mentioned.

    I just did a Google site search: [ "beatnik dialogue" ], and while the paper from Troy, NY is the third hit, there are a few more with what is obviously the same text, suggesting a syndicated column (or plagiarism?). The last hit demonstrates that there’s definitely a glitch in the date somewhere:

    The Troy Record from Troy, New York on July 11, 1956 · Page …
    … Better than average entry, with a script that avoids some of the private eye cliches, manages a nice switch ending, and” beatnik dialogue that’s not overdone.

    Battle Creek Enquirer from Battle Creek, Michigan on July 11 …
    … Better than average entry, with a script that avoids some of the private eye cliches, manages a nice switch ending, and beatnik dialogue that’s not overdone.

    The Decatur Daily Review from Decatur, Illinois on July 11 …
    … Better than average entry, with a script that avoids some of the private eye cliches, manages a nice switch ending, and beatnik dialogue that’s not overdone.

    The News from Paterson, New Jersey on July 11, 1959 · 12
    Better than average entry, with a script thst svolds some of the private eye cliches, man. ages a nice switch ending, snd beatnik dialogue that’s not overdone.

    (Some of the repeated Google cruft removed, all OCR errors [sic], bolding mine)

    Maybe the 1959 date is the wrong one, but I would not trust the 1956 date without directly checking it on the page image.

  22. Owlmirror says

    Given the negative descriptions and gratuitous sneers that Caen put in his 1958 paragraph, it would not surprise me if he had been thinking “Beat nudniks” (or “nogoodniks”), and decided to collapse that down.

    Herb Caen:

    Look magazine, preparing a picture spread on S.F.’s Beat Generation (oh, no, not AGAIN!), hosted a party in a No. Beach house for 50 Beatniks, and by the time word got around the sour grapevine, over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand, slopping up Mike Cowles’ free booze. They’re only Beat, y’know, when it comes to work . . .

    While “nogoodnick” appears in the OP as being recorded as early as 1936, I was curious enough to Google a bit.

    Google Books has the March 31, 1952 copy of “Life” with an essay by Al Capp on L’il Abner, with King Nogoodnik appearing in the text. The WikiP article for “L’il Abner” also has “nogoodniks” that were also some sort of bad “shmoos” that appeared in the strip. I am confident that L’il Abner’s popularity helped spread “nogoodnik” and other Yiddish imports by Capp far and wide in American English.

    (I remember shmoos, but not nogoodniks, from reading some sort of collection of L’il Abner)

    Wikt claims that “nogoodnik” comes from the Russian: “негодник (negodnik, “worthless person, reprobate, ne’er-do-well”))”, FWIW.

    I see that WikiP has a whole pageful of -nik words. Some are familiar to me, some are not.

  23. Caen himself much later claimed that he invented beatnik based on Sputnik, but I don’t believe him, although as I said in a comment on Language Log ten years ago,
    Sputnik might have given him a push.

  24. @David L. Gold

    4. foodnik, neatnik, peacenik, wordnik, and many others modeled modeled directly or indirectly on beatnik.

    None of which have survived into the 21st century as anything other than 1960s sounding archaisms. 1-3 on the other hand have survived. In other words, “-nik” seems no longer productive except where it is meant to have a Slavic or Jewish reference.

  25. I don’t think the beats themselves were pleased with the beatniks, either. There were stores popping up which specialized in selling bohemian clothes and accoutrements for the wannabes, and it drove the artists who started it all away from North Beach. That’s my recollection from once hearing ruth weiss speak (she’s the one who came up with reading poetry over jazz, which would become such a cliché.)

  26. Owlmirror says

    I found a paper on “-nik” ( Kabakchi, V. V., and Charles Clay Doyle. “Of Sputniks, Beatniks, and Nogoodniks.” American Speech, vol. 65, no. 3, 1990, pp. 275–278. JSTOR, ), which has a lot of different examples; too many to cite right now, and links to another relevant paper:

    Rex, Richard. “The Origin of Beatnik.” American Speech, vol. 50, no. 3/4, 1975, pp. 329–331. JSTOR,

    It looks like it was Richard Rex who thought that it was Beat+Sputnik. Since Caen was still alive at the time, he even wrote and asked him:

    It seemed perfectly obvious at the time, with the publicity surrounding the launching of several sputniks, that Caen had coined beatnik from beat and sputnik. Just to clarify the matter, however, I asked him for his recollection of how the word came to mind, and received the following reply, dated 12 February 1975:

    Dear Mr. Rex:
        “Beatnik” slipped out of my typewriter one day when I was writing about one or another of the types–Kerouac, Ginsberg et al–who flourished here at the time.

    Don’t remember the exact date nor do I have a copy of that column nor yet a clerk to track it down. It was earlyish in 1958 and, correct, shortly after Sputnik arose. Word association, and I never did understand how “Beatnik” caught on. The suffix “nik” is, I believe, Yiddish, no?
                Happy noodnik,

    Rex shows that the coinage by Caen was well known in the SF area, and the cites the words, already posted above, and adds:

    This first use of beatnik shows that beat, at least by 1958, meant ‘lazy’ or ‘listless.’ The Chronicle used it consistently in this sense–never to connote enthusiasm for jazz.

    But it seems to me that Caen’s reply does not really nail down the “Sputnik” connection. He does not remember the actual context for his first use of the term, and his reference to Sputnik seems to be more agreeing that there was a temporal correlation rather than an entirely certain causal chain.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Speaking of errors in metadata, I just spent several days correcting and commenting the errors the copyediting process introduced into the references list of page proofs of mine. Apparently a random selection of the citations was replaced with entries from an automatically generated database.

  28. Richard Hershberger says

    @Owlmirror: Yes, I had confirmed the date: not my first rodeo. I culled several false positives with incorrect dates, but this one is real. As for the multiple papers, it would be unsurprising if a column of television reviews was syndicated, especially in smaller market papers.

  29. The 1956 date is not reliable. It appears to be (check for yourself) 1959.
    Because July 11 was a Saturday in 1959 but not 1956.
    Because the new TV show “Killer Instinct” (same page) with Rory Calhoun aired 13 July .

  30. Oops.

  31. David L. Gold says

    A likelier explanation of why several newspapers published the same text is that they subscribed to the press releases of United Press International or the Associated Press, which in turn had gotten a release from a producer. If so, the word should be antedatable to at least a few days before — if the producer’s release can be found.

  32. I keep wondering whether words like Croatian “pjesnik” (poet) might have influenced/strengthened “peacenik”.

  33. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, what’s up with the transition from -nick to -nik? Was the -nick simply a clueless outsider approach imposed by e.g. Perelman’s goyische copy editors at the New Yorker, or was this part of a larger transition in how Yiddish and/or Yiddishisms were typically romanized? I note FWIW that there was recently a Netflix series titled, but that was a bit of word play because the title character is known as “Nick” and is up to no good.

  34. David L. Gold says

    @ Richard Hershberger,

    You are right to be wary in regard to dates and dating.

    A few years ago, while looking at newspapers in the California Digital Newspaper Collection, I came across several discrepancies (a newspaper misnamed; and a report of an event that occurred during World War I in a newspaper that CDNC dated 1911).

    This is the gist of the email I sent to CDNC, which acknowledged the mistakes:

    1. On the screen on which you show The Coronado Strand of 20 June 1914 your title is Coronado Eagle and Journal, Number 5, 20 June 1914 Issue PDF (12.19 MB)

    The Coronado Strand was the “official paper” (see the front page) of the city of Coronado whereas the Eagle and Journal was a privately held newspaper.

    2. Likewise here:
    The Coronado Strand.Coronado, California. 20 June 1915. Vol. 8. No. 1 (= the newspaper shown)

    However, your title is Coronado Eagle and Journal, Number 5, 20 June 1914 Issue PDF (12.19 MB)

    3. The issue of Morning Press that you date 17 December 1911 is actually that of 17 December 1914..

  35. When I wrote “Because the new TV show “Killer Instinct” (same page) with Rory Calhoun aired 13 July,” I meant to explicitly add 1959, though that was implied.

    There are some 1958 published uses of spellings beatnick or beatnicks. (And might could be earlier in that, not-in-OED, spelling?) OED and M-W have 1958 for beatnik.

  36. Friday June 20 1958. Slight (maybe–double check) antedating of OED beatnik.
    Madera Daily News-Tribune 2
    [….] hangouts on upper Grant Ave [S.F.], where the bearded beatnicks and their girlfriends congregate.——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-beatnicks——-1

  37. cuchuflete says

    @David L. Gold,

    Thank you so much for this:

    “Pap’s article is here:

    Pap is both rigorous and humble, clearly noting that some of his conclusions, while logical, do not constitute verifiable proof.

    Saudade, aside from the many shifts in both spelling and meaning, is fascinating and devilishly difficult to translate, even into such a closely related language as Spanish. Further, the meaning seems even darker in Iberian Portuguese Fado lyrics than in modern Brazilian PT lyrics. And of course the pronunciation of the final “de” is completely different. Just listen to recordings by Amália Rodrigues and Maria Bethânia.

  38. David L. Gold says

    @J.W. Brewer. “Separately, what’s up with the transition fro….”

    An internally consistent secondary romanization for Yidish and for English words of Yidish origin was elaborated in the early 1940s by the Yidisher Vishnshaftlekher Institut (Institute for Yidish Research), now called the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in English, but since no guidance on how to use it was published until 1985 one had to study romanized texts and deduce the rules for oneself. It recommends -nik, not -nick.

    Gold, David L. 1985. “A Guide to the Standardized Yiddish Romanization.” Jewish Language Review. Vol. 5. Pp. 96-103.

    More generally on the subject:

    Gold, David L. 1977. “Successes and Failures in the Standardization and Implementation of Yiddish Spelling and Romanization.” In Fishman 1977:307-369.

    Fishman, Joshua A., ed. 1977. Advances in the Creation and Revision of Writing Systems. The Hague. Mouton.

  39. Richard Hershberger says

    1956 or 1959: This is a new one to me. The date at the top of the page was blurred, so I checked adjacent pages. which confirmed 1956. But upon closer examination, the file somehow intermingled issues from three years apart. I have never seen that. So I, sadder but wiser, withdraw the 1956 date.

  40. Rats! I’ll fix the Wikipedia article.

  41. From Fred Shapiro (editor, Yale Book of Quotations):
    “Beatnik” was coined by Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle, Apr. 2, 1958. I sent this antedating to the OED many years ago, but they still have not added it.

  42. @Richard Hershberger:

    I have a faint memory, from many years ago, of seeing an actual paper edition of some major newspaper (and I don’t remember if it was The New York Times, or some other paper) that had the incorrect date at the top of a few of the pages (certainly not all of them)(and I don’t remember now if it was the year, month, day, or whatever that was wrong). So I am wondering, does the content of the pages labeled “1956” seem correct for that year? Or does the content match events of 1959?

    Anyway, date typos happen.

  43. Richard Hershberger says

    @Owlmirror: The date at the top of the page includes the day of the week: Wednesday, July 11, 1956 or, on the page with “beatnik,” Saturday, July 11, 195[illegible]. Through the magic of, the years 1956 and 1959 are confirmed. Also, the page numbers are out of order. This was a screwup at the scanning or, more likely, microfilming stage.

    I too have seen actual newspapers with the dates wrong. Fitzgerald’s City Item (Philadelphia) did this during the Civil War years, with the previous issue’s date left over from the previous issue. I assume copy editors were at a premium during the war.

  44. @J.W. Brewer: Leo Rosten (initially) distinguished American Yiddish from “Yinglish,” the Yiddish-influenced English spoken by American Jews.

  45. John Cowan says

    And opposed to Ameridish, Yiddish words used only in the U.S. Sometimes these overlapped, of course, and he managed to call donstairsiker Yinglish and upstairsiker Ameridish (or vice versa).

  46. @JWB, @DLG:
    i don’t think YIVO has anything to do with the shift from -nick to -nik.

    first of all, if any english-language editors have ever paid attention to YIVO as an authority on yiddish transliteration, it’s the best-kept secret in publishing. i’ll entertain it as a plausible explanation the first time i see “shmuk”, “shmues” or “shpil” outside of a yiddishist context (or if i ever see literally anything but “sch” for ש – “sh”, “sz”, “š”, whatever, i’m not particular).

    second, sputnik is right there as a widely-seen model for the spelling at the right time. i don’t buy it as a source for the use of the suffix, but it’s hard to imagine it didn’t shape the spelling.


    harkavy’s yiddish/english dictionary has סוכאָטניק [sukhotnik] “consumptive man”, but no listing on the english side for a person with the disease.

    became productive in general English

    i simply don’t think this is true. all the examples of “-nik” in english i’ve ever seen – including all the ones adduced here – have been specifically from a yiddish-inflected english. that includes the english spoken by a lot of non-yiddish-jewish and non-jewish new yorkers, to be sure, but that doesn’t make it any less specific.

    the notion that -nik exists in english outside of a yiddish context is just an artifact of new york city as a cultural center. it’s not that (f’r’instance) loesser “doesn’t seem to have had any fear, though, that a mass audience wouldn’t understand the word”, it’s that he – like every other broadway lyricist* – only cared about the audience that would walk through a theater door near times square (which in those days was as predominantly new yorkers as it is today predominantly tourists). and to the extent that he thought about them, loesser knew damn well that what he was selling theater fans in des moines was precisely that they wouldn’t at first understand what nathan detroit** was talking about in his impeccable yinglish – and that they would then get to feel like insiders after they figured it out. the same dynamic applies to all the -nik words (and other yidishistik) on the pages of Mad, which probably did more to spread the suffix than anything else.

    this use of yiddish as a signifier for cutting-edge cultural insiderness (a marker of a form of being “wise”, in goffman’s terms) is interestingly parallel to the use of yiddish in non-jewish slang in european languages (dutch comes to mind). the channels are different (criminal rather than bohemian argot), but the patterns rhyme.

    * at least up to the comparatively recent days of heavily market-tested scripts aimed entirely at tourists (/cough cough/ Come From Away /cough/).

    ** oddly, no one seems to ever comment on the oddness of Guys & Dolls marrying off sky masterson, an ostentatiously secular jew, and sarah brown, a protestant missionary from an notably anti-jewish arm of the church militant. it’s odd!*** now i’ve commented on it and no one else needs to.

    *** i have to mention, though, that the core problem with the romance plot isn’t the fact that neither of them would be willing to marry the other. it’s the rape.

  47. January First-of-May says

    or if i ever see literally anything but “sch” for ש

    I think I’ve seen “shmuck” a few times, but as far as I can tell it was usually less of a deliberate choice and more of a simplification by people who weren’t sure how to spell it (and/or hadn’t seen it spelled out before). Definitely never “shmuk”.

    A similar kolkhoznik made into the books too

    In this case, колхозник is the exact Russian word (still used, though mostly in historical contexts). I didn’t know it had been used in English, but this isn’t entirely surprising. (Especially so if it was indeed also the name of a plant variety.)

  48. PlasticPaddy says

    Re sh vs. sch in Yiddish borrowings in English I would suggest the following applies:

    1. For words of Hebrew origin or words with suffix -ish use sh–Shabbes/meshugge/Yiddish/kosher
    2. For words of Slavic origin, usually use sch–schav, borscht, but kasha; sometimes there are doublets
    3. For words of German origin, usually use sch: schmuck, schlep but shtetl; sometimes there are doublets.
    I feel that many of the ‘sh’ exceptions or doublets under 2-3 are because the word is felt to be intrusive and is treated more as a transliteration of a word in a foreign alphabet.

    There are also a lot of special cases, e.g.,
    schlemiel (arguably of Hebrew origin but “looks” Slavic or German and exists also in German, but so does meschugge, so who knows )
    spiel-borrowed from German, not Yiddish

  49. January First-of-May says

    spiel-borrowed from German, not Yiddish

    I wonder how a word for “game” ended up meaning “sales pitch”.

    In Russian the cognate is probably best known as the second part of эндшпиль (German Endspiel), referring to the final stage of a chess game; the standalone word шпиль “spire” is unrelated (German Spill – not actually related to English spire either, says Wiktionary).

  50. David Marjanović says

    “Play” as in “a theater play”.

  51. Owlmirror says

    I wondered about Al Capp’s use of Yiddish terms, and learned from his WikiP page that his name was originally Caplin, and his parents were Jews from Latvia. Hm!

    Of linguistic relevance, WikiP links to this interview with Capp on his characters in Li’l Abner:

    Conventional wisdom, bolstered by accounts from Capp his ownself, holds that the name Yokum is a combination of “yokel” and “hokum.” That would be Yokum, as in Abner Yokum and his rural Southern lineage.

    Such an explanation also might seem to demean the resourceful gumption that Li’l Abner Yokum and his family represent. Capp established a deeper meaning for the name during a series of visits around 1965-1970 with comics historian George E. Turner and Yrs. Trly. [Michael H. Price]

    “There are many real-life Yokums around the South,” explained Capp. “Some spell the name like Abner’s, with variations including Yoakam and Yokom, and so forth. It’s phonetic Hebrew – that’s what it is, all right – and that’s what I was getting at with the name Yokum, more so than any attempt to sound hickish. That was a fortunate coincidence, of course, that the name should pack a backwoods connotation.

    “But it’s a godly conceit, really, playing off a godly name – Joachim means “God’s determination,” something like that – that also happens to have a rustic ring to it,” Capp added. “When I came up with that ‘yokel-plus-hokum’ bit in some early interviews, I was steering clear of any such damned-fool intellectualism. It helps to keep things looking simple for the massed readership, when you’re trying to be subversive with a cartoon.”

    Since I was particularly curious about “nogoodnik”, I did a Proquest search. The text of the comic strips are OCRed along with the rest of the paper, although they are often garbled. The earliest appearance in Li’l Abner are the evil shmoos, called “Nogoodniks”, as already noted above, on June 05, 1949. ¹ However, Capp has his characters use the term as the standard pejorative at least once in January 1951 (“I say – don’t gung [sic] ² around with that nogoodnik, Glorious Glutz!!”), and possibly more times as well that the OCR did not pick up. And as already referenced above, there’s a King Nogoodnik of Lower Slobbovia, mentioned in the March 1952 issue of “Life” magazine.

    I also wondered about “noodnik”. This spelling variant of “nudnik” shows up in newspaper searches, mostly as hits from Li’l Abner. There’s a “Liddle Noodnik”, who first appears in the strip for November 26, 1946. ³ There’s also a McNoodnik in 1950, and a Kim Noodnik shows up more than once in 1956–there’s a plotline about Kim Noodnik visiting America. Really, there are a lot of hits, and the ones in 1956 would certainly have been in the right timeframe to have influenced Herb Caen in 1958, regardless of Sputnik.

    Al Capp’s Yiddish usages were notable enough to be written about at the time. A 1949 essay on the cultural changes of and by Jews in America (EMERGING CULTURE PATTERNS IN AMERICAN JEWISH LIFE. Duker, Abraham G. Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society; Sep 1, 1949; 39, ProQuest pg. 351) has an extremely extended footnote on pg 362:

    Distinctions should be drawn between Hebrew and Yiddish terms introduced into English and utilized only by Jews: grager (Purim noise-maker), nahit (chicken-peas), kittel (white robe) and other words or expressions of Jewish origin which have made their way into the general American vocabulary through the comic strip, radio or vaudeville. Thus Al Capp has introduced through his Li’l Abner comic strip the word “nogoodnik” (Sunday Mirror, New York, June 5, 1949 and following — possibly earlier). Capp also uses the very common prefix “shm-” as coined in the phrase “technicality-schmecnicality” (same strip, Daily Mirror, New York, June 14, 1949). […] The shmoe, a substitute with possible Freudian connotations belongs in the same category. Al Capp’s creation “The Shmoo” whose Yiddish origin is without doubt, has been republished in a book The Life and Times of the Shmoo (New York, 1948). Its character, “the Shmoo,” has become an American institution. The name of a horse in Lariar-Spranger’s comic strip Ben Friday is ‘Nellie Nudnick” (New York Herald Tribune, Dec. 1, 1949). These are mentioned in order to point to the comic strip as a source for the study of Yiddish loan words and expressions in English.


    1: On July 15 of that same year, a full-page ad for Macy’s was run with the line: “and furthermore, it’s a “nogoodnick”, gobbling up all the sweet, fat, juicy little prices that buyers think their wares are worth” — which seems like a clear reference to the evil-shmoo Nogoodniks that had appeared in Li’l Abner a month earlier, who were shown as cannabalistically devouring the sweet, fat, juicy ordinary shmoos. I mention this to underscore how popular the comic strip was.

    2: The character speaking describes himself as “the undiffitted Bull of the Balkans”, and it looks like he is intended to speak what looks like a Slavic-tinged accent.

    3: This same 1946 strip also has a map of Lower Slobbovia, which also includes a reference to King Nogoodnik in letters far too small and cluttered and crowded for the OCR to pick up. It may be that this is the only reference to King Nogoodnik that there is in the comic strip itself until the mid-1960s, when he actually appears in the comic as a character whose name can be picked up by OCR. I note, tangentially, that the first evil-shmoo Nogoodnik that shows up in 1949 was an escapee from the Lower Slobbovian zoo. Did Capp really intend for Slobbovia to have named a monster with the same name as the king? Well, based on what I’ve seen in perusing the comics, Capp was never bothered by inconsistencies in his work.

  52. Excellent research, thanks!

  53. I had no idea there were evil shmoos. I thought shmoos were pure goodness (in spirit and flavor).

  54. John Cowan says

    sky masterson, an ostentatiously secular jew

    Wawawhat? Sky Masterson’s given name is Obadiah (not Ovadya), he is from a small town in Colorado, and while his main source of reading matter is Gideon Bibles in hotel bedroom drawers, there is no evidence of his having any religion whatsoever until after his marriage, though he can quote from both the Old Testament and the New. He is certainly not Jewish; it is in fact dollars to lead-filled peanuts that he is a Scandihoovian of some sort. On stage and silver screen, Sky is played by Alfonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo, aka Robert Alda, father of Alan Alda, yet another coupla goyim. So I rule this theory out.

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    Greg Bear’s The Forge of God features very evil shmoos (a mild spoiler. Sorry. But the sequel is better, anyway.)

  56. David Eddyshaw says

    Sky Masterson … is certainly not Jewish

    Nathan Detroit, on the other hand:

    Levene lost the film role of Nathan Detroit to Frank Sinatra. “You can’t have a Jew playing a Jew, it wouldn’t work on screen”, producer Samuel Goldwyn argued, when explaining that he wanted Sinatra, rather than Levene, who had originated the role, even though Guys and Dolls film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz wanted Levene, the original Broadway star. Frank Loesser felt Sinatra played the part like a “dapper Italian swinger”. Mankiewicz said “if there could be one person in the world more miscast as Nathan Detroit than Frank Sinatra that would be Laurence Olivier and I am one of his greatest fans; the role had been written for Sam Levene who was divine in it”. Sinatra did his best to give Nathan Detroit a few stereotyped Jewish gestures and inflections, but Frank Loesser hated “how Sinatra turned the rumpled Nathan Detroit into a smoothie. Sam Levene’s husky untrained voice added to the song’s charm, not to mention its believability”. Frank Loesser died in 1969, still refusing to watch the film version released in 1955.

  57. Owlmirror says

    Of course, the best way to support “beatnik” having been coined from influence by “noodnik” or “nogoodnik” would be to find out whether Herb Caen himself ever used either of those latter terms, preferably prior to the Sputnik launch, but definitely before April 1958. However, I am out of luck, in that ProQuest does not have full text of the San Francisco Chronicle or the San Francisco Examiner (where Caen wrote between 1950-1958) from the relevant period — the SFC archive stops at 1922, long before Caen began writing in 1936, and the SFE archive starts at 1995.

    Still, I did try searching the SFChronicle website, and found “noodnik” in a context, which could, again, have been an influence on Caen — an obituary for one Vern Louden from October 1, 1998:

    During his stint at KROW, Mr. Louden teamed up with a man who was to become the most popular Bay Area radio personality of his time — Don Sherwood — doing an early morning radio show called “Nick and Noodnik.”

    The article states the Louden worked at various radio stations, including KROW, between 1943 and 1950. Searching on “Nick and Noodnik” in Google brings up only that same obituary, and a few hits on newspapers_com for SF-Bay Area papers with radio schedules. Since one of the papers is from 1951, that 1950 date might be off by a year.

    SFChronicle also has an article by Herb Caen where he calls himself “noodnik”, but that was written in 1996 in response to his Pulitzer Prize award; we already knew he knew the word in 1975.

    Hm, I just realized that no-one linked to the online reprint of the April 2, 1958 column where Caen first used “beatnik”, even though I quoted from it above, thus:

    As long as I’m posting more research results anyway, the earliest ProQuest result on “nogoodnik” is not from Li’l Abner, but from:

    Night clubs-vaudeville: Vaudeville Reviews – Strand, New York. Elliott Grennard.
    The Billboard (Archive: 1894-1960); Jan 2, 1943; 55, 1; pg. 74

    The second takes for a ride those who don’t even talk but get their points across with a whistle familiar to every corner cigar-store nogoodnik. And every nogoodnik in the house whistled his approval of the ditties.

  58. John Cowan says

    I’m also fond of allrightnik, which unlike nogoodnik is ironic; it means ‘parvenu, arriviste’.

  59. Owlmirror says

    Following up a bit — it looks like the San Francisco Chronicle does have an archive search. You have to subscribe to see the whole thing, but the hit shows up with enough surrounding context to get an idea, at least, of what was going on.


    The word “nogoodnik” has 20 hits, one on March 7, 1958, and all of the rest are from July 1958 onward.

    The word “nogoodniks” has 15 hits, all from 1959 onward.

    The word “nogoodnick” has 0 hits.
    The word “nogoodnicks” has 0 hits.

    The word “nudnick” has 9 hits, one on November 12, 1945, where it seems to have been the name of a horse in the race listings. The rest are all from 1960 onward.

    The word “nudnik” has 38 hits, two from 1879/1880 which look to be OCR errors of text that scanned very badly, and the rest from 1965 onward.

    The word “nudniks” has 17 hits, two from 1951 and 1952, the third from February 12, 1958, and all the rest from 1961 onward.

    The word “noodnik” has 15 hits, one on February 22, 1951, the rest from 1965 onwards. That one early hit is in reference to the “Nick and Noodnik” radio show

    The word “noodniks” has 6 hits, all from 1972 onward.

    The word “noodnicks” has 1 hit from 1961.

    The word “noodnick” has 60 hits. Almost all of the hits are for the “Nick and Noodnick” radio show at KROW (that is, with that “-nick” spelling), starting from February 1, 1952. There are 49 hits on that spelling, including on August 7, 1957. The earlier hits look to be like articles about the radio program; most of the later ones are ads for the show or listings for the show. After 1957, the later hits are from 1960-1988.

    (I note that the show appears a couple of times as “Nick ‘N Noodnick”, sometimes as “Nick & Noodnick”, mostly as “Nick and Noodnick”.)

    Given the above, it seems plausible that none of the hits were from articles written by Herb Caen (because he was at the Examiner, 1950-1958, going by WikiP), but assuming he read the SF Chronicle at all during his time at the SF Examiner, or listened to the radio in the morning, he was almost certainly familiar with “noodnick/noodnik”, at the very least. If Sputnik did influence his word choice, it might have been to write “Beatnik” rather than “Beatnick”.

    As an aside, I spotted at least two instances of writers referencing “phudnik/phudniks” — “nudniks with a Ph.D”. Everybody’s a comedian.

  60. Owlmirror says

    Wikt has a usage of “phudnik” from 2000, but ProQuest’s earliest example is in Ruth Gruber’s “Hebrew as She is Spoke”, from Commentary in 1950. It also mentions a “shudnik”, a ditherer (“Should I? Shouldn’t I?)

    But searching ProQuest for “noodnick” brings up an antedate that is “phoodnick”, from The Daily Worker from March 18, 1947.

  61. Great research, thanks!

  62. Robert Everett-Green says

    Small addition to this debate: Merriam-Webster traces nudnik as follows:

    Yiddish nudnik, from nudyen to bore, from Polish nudzić, from nuda boredom

    …and dates first usage as 1916, albeit without a supporting quotation.

  63. Owlmirror says

    The OED’s citation of nudnik for 1916 is :

    1916 S. Aleichem in Fort Wayne (Indiana) Gaz. 16 Jan. 41/3 He’s a great nudnik (bore), Zili the tailor.

    I found that Commentary has online pages of their archives going back to at least 1945, thus, here’s Gruber’s piece:

    I note that Leo Rosten published The Joys of Yiddish in 1968, so he might have gotten his classic formulation of shlemiel/shlimazel from her:

    Gruber, 1950:

    shlemiel (from the Yiddish): bull in a china shop.

    shlimazel (from the Yiddish): a poor fool who has only bad luck. The difference between a shlemiel and a shlimazel is that a shlemiel is the man who spills the hot soup on the shlimazel’s pants.

  64. J.W. Brewer says

    I am amused to note that the Oxford (!!!) Handbook of Country Music manages to mention the fictional Abner Yokum and the actually-existing Dwight Yoakam on the same page w/o noting that they have the same surname in different variant spellings. (It gives the “yokel + hokum” etymology for the first without noting its actual existence in the wild.)

  65. I have a soft spot for the “…as she is spoke” trope. It’s amazing how some of the slang expressions Gruber mentions have completely faded by the time I came around. I have heard some antiquated slang, but I never heard stadek (the reflexive of ‘to crack’) in the sense of ‘get cracking’. I’ve always known shvitser as ‘braggart’, in words or attitude, not exactly a big-mouth blowhard as she describes it.

  66. Owlmirror says

    I have a soft spot for the “…as she is spoke” trope.

    Almost 20 years later (1969), Commentary re-used Gruber’s exact title for another essay by a different author:

  67. Owlmirror says

    I wrote:

    Of course, the best way to support “beatnik” having been coined from influence by “noodnik” or “nogoodnik” would be to find out whether Herb Caen himself ever used either of those latter terms, preferably prior to the Sputnik launch, but definitely before April 1958.

    It turns out the website has a pretty good text search system, and it has an archive of The San Francisco Examiner for the appropriate period when Herb Caen was writing for them. The system keeps pushing you to pay to see the whole thing, but there are ways around that.

    I used a date range of 1950-1958. Searching for “noodnick” was hard, because the search is flooded by listings for the “Nick and Noodnick” radio show (many hundreds of hits!), already mentioned above. But searching on “nogoodnik” and “nogoodnick” found several fortuitous hits that were definitely written by Herb Caen before Sputnik launched. Note that Caen sometimes thought that there ought to be a hyphen between “no” and the rest of the word, and sometimes did not, and only once spelled it ending in “-nick” — it was usually “-nik”. So the one “-nick” spelling might have been a personal typo.

    The page images are blurry and low-res unless you subscribe, but the name “Herb Caen” can be seen in big letters at the top of the column in each case. Even better, there is a OCR of the text that they allow you to expand and read and copy and paste.


    The San Francisco Examiner, Sunday, November 11, 1951, p25:

    “C’mon, ol’ boy,” they said to the no-goodnik. “You don’t wanna stay here in this dreadful place. Leave us drive you home and you can sleep it off.”

    The San Francisco Examiner, Wednesday, December 17, 1952, p27:

    Norman Elkington of the Dist. Atty.’s office, Police Capt. Jim English and Homicide Inspector Frank Ahern drove to Sacramento late last Sat. night to pick up Joe Tenner, the notorious night-life character and Public No-Goodnik No. 1.

    The San Francisco Examiner, Sunday, February 21, 1954, p11:

    Jimmy Durante, who closes today at the Auto Show, should’ve been interested in last wk.’s headlines proclaiming the conviction of Joe Tenner, the tennerloin nogoodnik, on charges of peddling booze without a license.

    [In order to avoid overloading the link limit, for the rest of the hits I will post the bare URL using the <code> tag, which should prevent the URL from being changed to or interpreted as a link. ] The San Francisco Examiner, Friday, March 26, 1954, p23:

    The tight r of a retired Army officer (high-ranking) is about to slap a paternity suit on the no-goodnik who was named corespondent in a recent sizzling divorce case The San Francisco Examiner, Tuesday, January 18, 1955, p21:

    The reflector lights on Mt. Davidson’s big cross (which is now illuminated nightly) are being shot out by kids almost as fast as they can be replaced. Lay off, ya no-goodniks! The San Francisco Examiner, Thursday, February 3, 1955, p27:

    Memo to the no-goodnik who broke into the newsstand of Jimmy Wing, the crippled news vendor at Calif, and Kearny, and stole his kerosene lamp: I hope your fingers burn and blister, mister. The San Francisco Examiner, Wednesday, October 19, 1955, p31:

    The gals who used the undressing rooms at G’Gate Park’s tennis courts last Sunday found the place pretty drafty and then they found out why: some no-goodnick had drilled eight holes into the wall, at eye level. The San Francisco Examiner, Friday, December 30, 1955, p21:

    DR. MORTIMER J. ADLER, learned head of the Institute for Philosophical Research, gave a party at the Institute for his two teen-age sons and about 200 of their buddies and some no-goodniks among the guests walked off with two valuable old canes, several ornate bannister knobs and one (1) very old, very valuable, quite irreplaceable toilet chain. The San Francisco Examiner, Wednesday, August 15, 1956, p27:

    Topic A at Tahoe: the 18-yr-old nogoodnik son of a prominent Atherton couple who raced his speedboat ’round and ’round a smaller craft, trying to swamp it.


    It’s interesting that between 1951-1956, Herb Caen is in fact the only one to use the term “nogoodnik” in the SF Examiner. It’s clearly a word he knows and uses pejoratively to refer to various miscreants and ne’er-do-wells. Given that he seems to view them negatively, I feel much more confident that “Beatnik” could have been a portmanteau of Beat+nogoodnik.

    It’s possible that he knew and used “noodnick” as well, but parsing through those many hits is more effort than I feel like making just now.

    Incidentally, for the date range 1950-1957, there are 0 hits on “nudnik”, and 3 on “nudnick”. One of those 3 is about a woman band member referring to herself, and the other two are referencing a book published in November 1957 called “The Little Black Book: A Manual for Bachelors” (Doubleday, 160 pages, $2.75), by two authors calling themselves Cadwallader and Nudnick.

    There are 122 hits for “noodnik” in that range, I am pretty sure most of them references to “Nick and Noodnick” (I think they may have used “Noodnik” in 1951-1952 and only later changed to “Noodnick”?). I don’t think any of them are by Caen. Again, I’m too tired to delve too deeply.

    Oh, and I wondered a bit about “sour grapevine” in Caen’s April 1958 bit. The SF Examiner had two hits, one by Walter Winchell (referring to rumors of Frank Sinatra being suicidal), the other this:

    TAG LINE: Minnie Pearl “Gossip is stuff you hear via the sour grapevine.”

  68. Wow, that’s terrific stuff — thanks for doing all that work and sharing it!

  69. Owlmirror says

    In 1958, Herb Caen moved from the SF Examiner back to the SF Chronicle.

    Looking at the SF Chronicle archives on Newsbank (see above, May 5, 2021 at 2:35 am) is trickier than the site. I have not figured out how to easily view the page image, and there seems to be no accompanying OCR that I can see yet. Also, unlike, plurals are not automatically matched. The search construction [Beatnik OR Beatniks] works, though. It is possible to find the full sentence that a term appears in by searching for words seen near the word found, filtering for that one specific day. The search “frame” will shift over, revealing more of the text as a whole, and the full text can be slowly and arduously constructed. I mostly did not do that.

    I just wanted to note that once Caen hit on “Beatnik”, he did not just use it once. Searching [Beatnik OR Beatniks] in 1958-04, for example, finds 9 hits (and I am pretty sure they are all Herb Caen; his column has a signature style visually unlike the rest of the newspaper, with stars separating blocks of text, and long ellipses between news snippets within a block of text).

    Then the term began to be used by others: There are 10 hits in May, but only 5, I think, are by Caen; there are 4 others that are clearly by other reporters (and one where I don’t know what’s going on because the hit is not shown in the page image).

    There are 39 hits in June, only a couple appearing to be by Caen. It looks like the SF Chronicle decided to promote some special article(s) (in “This World” magazine — a section of the Sunday Chronicle) on “The Beat Generation”, using “Beatniks” as part of the advertising for the article(s), some of which advertising was on the front page, I think, above the logo for the paper

    There are 17 hits in July, 26 in August, 23 in September (I note a television listing for a show called “What’s Your Opinion?”, with the subtitle: “Is the Beatnik a Menace to Society?”), 19 in October, 16 in November, 14 in December. Caen is responsible for some of those usages, but most are by others.

    Note that the above is just for the SF Chronicle — searching in the SF Examiner in 1958, in the May/June/July timeframe also finds more and more hits as well.

    So it wasn’t just a case of a local columnist using a word once or twice, and then it mysteriously spreads. Rather, the local columnist kept using the word, other journalists at his paper and other journalists in the area started using the word, and the editors of the paper promoted an article using the word, and so on.


    I also just wanted to note that Caen used another -nik term before “Beatnik” (and then used it again in reference to Beatniks): rudenik

    San Francisco Chronicle February 25, 1958:

    What I think, seriously, is that the W. J. Reddy Co., Willig Freight Lines and the Able U-Drive should merge–thereby creating the Reddy, Willig & Able Transportation Co. That’s what I think and ooooo, what YOU’RE thinking! Rudenik.

    San Francisco Chronicle April 10, 1958:

    Actor Steve Cochran (with two 18-year-old chicks in tow) getting a typical rudenik heckling from the Beatniks in the Bagel Shop–but playing it cooler than they; didn’t bat an eyelash OR a Beatnik.

    It may be that Caen wasn’t the coiner of “rudenik”, but finding an antedate is another project. Neither the OED nor Green’s slang dictionary have the word. ProQuest found no hits before 1958 (except for an odd typo: Someone whose name is spelled “Budniak” everywhere else in the short article about him from 1909 mysteriously becomes “Rudenik” in the last sentence.).

  70. FWIW, Kerouac thought “beatnik” was modeled on Sputnik, maybe to associate them with commies.

  71. ktschwarz says

    From the reminiscences of Robert Burchfield, via Stan Carey’s post:

    In fact the word that did trouble Dr Onions shortly before he died was beatnik. ‘Where can it possibly have come from?’ he asked me several times in or round about 1965.

    (C.T. Onions died 8 January 1965.) Even then it couldn’t have been hard to find out, even from Oxford; maybe the 91-year-old Onions just thought it was a funny word.

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