The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Schlock

Once upon a time, it seemed like everybody in Hollywood spoke Yiddish. In fact, if there was a story set in Hollywood, characters would speak Yiddish, just to let us know it was a Hollywood story. "Bubbeh!" an agent might say. "Come here and sit, I have such news! Let me tell you the whole megillah!"

That trend seems to have come and gone, and I don't know if it was every really true or if it was just a convention. I lived in Hollywood in the 90s and the only people I ever heard speak Yiddish were beggars in the Orthodox neighborhoods, who would approach me on Friday afternoons with hands outstretched and beg "Tzedakah fun Shabbos" -- "charity on the sabbath." These beggars didn't seem like they were Jewish, but I suppose that beggars, like stand up comedians, do better if they know their audience.

There was a Yiddish word I used to actually hear in Hollywood, and hear people in the entertainment industry say: Schlock. It means "cheap" or "trashy," and that's exactly how it was used. In fact, there was a 1973 movie by John Landis called "Schlock," which was created as a spoof of low-budget genre films, exactly the sort of movie that people dismissed as schlocky. Landis is Jewish, but there is still every reason to believe he expected his audience would know what the world meant.

You would think this usage would be pretty old, and maybe it was -- there were a lot of Jewish studio heads, and I can imagine them complaining about the quality of their films in Yiddish. But it didn't become a public affectation until surprisingly late -- as far as I can tell, "schlock" hit the mainstream in 1964, when Life Magazine defined the word in an article about electronics cheap stores in New York, calling them "schlock stores." The same year, Paul Krassner's "The Realist" published a piece about trash literature, and the author wrote "The movie magazines were, like all good schlock, basically dishonest."

I'm not sure why, but the word seems to have entered the zeitgeist then. Something was in the air in the 60s that would encourage swinging young folks to seize an antiquated Yiddish word as their own. According to San Francisco Magazine, low budget youth movies used to fly hippies in to provide background color, a practice they called "schlock parties." Steve McQueen complained to newspapers in 1967, saying that he hoped his film "Champion" would be "the kind of film the professionals won't laugh at, as they have at the schlock Hollywood cranks out and calls racing film."

"Schlock" just kept growing in popularity, and remains popular, with film critic Richard Roper authoring a book in 2005 called "Schlock Value: Hollywood At Its Worst" and the Alamo Drafthouse nowadays offering a film series called Temple of Schlock.

It's a word that seems permanently stuck to bad movies, but it doesn't need to be. Here are some other uses of the word. If you want to use it in the fashion of groovy 60s Hollywood, go ahead and do so, but remember anything junky can be schlock.

Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat's Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area, Phil Brown: "What waiters and busboys really feared the most was working in a schlock house. How can I describe a schlock house? In Yiddish, schlock means junk, but the colloquial usage refers to something of poor quality, especially if it has pretensions. In the Catskills, what many people termed a schlock house was a run-down hotel, which, if full, held maybe 75-100 guest. Above all, the schlock house was disorganized and crude. It had no real facilities beyond a pool, handball court (often with many cracks in the pavement), perhaps a decayed tennis court, and sometimes a hoop and backboard on crumbly pavement. Entertainment in some of the very small hotels might be quite circumscribed -- some didn't even have a band and hence couldn't present singers."

New York Times review of "Lady Boss" by Jackie Collins, 1990: "In the latest installment in her continuing saga of Lucky Santangelo, the mobster's daughter who starred in 'Lucky' and 'Chances,' Jackie Collins combines the usual schlock novel ingredients: a Hollywood setting; a rich, gorgeous heroine; a generous sprinkling of movie stars, studio bosses, tycoons, socialites, scheming relatives and hangers-on; and a sex scene (or two) per chapter."

How to Talk Jewish, Jackie Mason and Ira Berkow: "Any time you see something you consider cheap, you say 'Ech, schlock'. It's low-class."

Yiddish: A Nation of Words, Miriam Weinstein: "Although some chronicled life in the new state, Yiddish writers more typically took as their subject remembrance, an attempt to make sense of their Yiddish-speaking past. They turned out novels and memoirs of lives that had been lived in Yiddish, a body of work that spanned the spectrum of high art and low schlock."