The Etymology of the Schmooze

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Commentator Diana Boxer says the Jack Abramoff scandal has damaged more than the reputation of lobbyists. She says the term "schmooze" has been irreversibly harmed. Schmoozing used to mean something positive — a nice chat. Now, it has a negative connotation. Diana Boxer is linguistics professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Lobbying reform has moved up the Congressional agenda thanks in no small part to the Jack Abramoff scandal. Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion charges, which he did while exploiting his position as an influential lobbyist. For a long time, lobbying in Washington has had a bad reputation and the scandal has made that reputation even worse. And according to commentator and linguist Deana Boxer is has also damaged the perception of another long standing practice in the Capital.

DEANA BOXER reporting:

Casino Jack Abramoff is sullying the good schmooze. Nobody denies that schmoozing is at the heart of lobbying. But the term has acquired a bad rap and this latest ethics debacle is a nail in the coffin for what used to mean something positive. The word Schmooze derives from the Yiddish shomuesn, which in turn derives from Hebrew shmue, meaning rumor. Its earliest written reference in English dates to 1897. When the term was borrowed it originally meant to have a warm conversation, to shoot the breeze, to pass the time chatting.

Sure it's always been just a short step from schmoozing to flattery. It used to be when people schmoozed they felt good about just chatting. They came away from the experience having opened or strengthened the relationship. It wasn't about networking or gaining favor. Good schmoozers in the original sense of the term may get what they want or need. But the benefits are indirect. They come from the warm feelings of just interacting.

Unfortunately, the meaning of schmoozing has come to serve the twin masters of what linguists call interaction and transaction. Mostly unfortunately, transaction. Today schmoozing means chatting with benefits. We could view the sleazing of schmoozing as evolution. Linguists no longer insist that we uphold the traditional meanings of words. Instead we view language evolution as a natural process. We neither judge the changes nor mourn them.

But when language change reflects degradation in cultural values, the issue at heart is something much more serious. Schmoozing becomes an activity that serves only the purpose of the highest bidder. For lobbyist like Abramoff, don't schmooze, you lose becomes the motto. We should mourn the passing of a good schmooze not because of language change. There is no holding language back in a dynamic society. No, we should mourn the schmooze because it no longer serves the good of the community. The schmooze on Capital Hill has made friends with the bribe and that's a sad place to be.

NORRIS: Diana Boxer is a professor of linguistics at the University of Florida in Gainesville. She is working on a book titled THE LOST OF THE GOOD SCHMOOZE.

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