Thursday, January 13, 2011


I don't attend many movies. Normally, I prefer to undergo root canal surgery, but today, Sunday afternoon, Dianne persuaded me to take her to the movie theater to see The King's Speech. I had no idea what it was about, but I thought it had something to do with Elvis. Well, I was wrong, and it turned out to be a learning experience.

The movie, which is up for the Academy Award is about England's King George VI and his relationship with his Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue. The movie is based on a book, written by Mark Logue, Lionel's grandson, called The King's Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy.

Although we share a common language (sort of), the English and the Americans (and Australians, for that matter) have profoundly different views of royalty, and in fact, most Americans don't know King George from King Kong. In America, titles like that must be earned, like "The King" (as in Elvis), or Queen Latifah, or the artist formerly known as Prince. In the U.K. they have a line of succession to the throne, and unless the guy in that line is a complete knucklehead, he has a chance to become king.

In the movie, which is generally historically accurate, George's older brother, Edward is first in line to become king when his domineering father, King George V passes on. From infancy, Edward has been trained and groomed to become the king. George, on the other hand, was totally unprepared for the job, and was often teased by his brother because of a speech stammer which made it difficult if not impossible for him to speak in public. At the 1925 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, for example, George was called upon to give the closing speech, which turned out to be a painful ordeal for both him and his listeners.

George had a difficult childhood. For one thing, he was born on December 14, 1895 which was the anniversary of the death of great-grandma Queen Victoria's beloved husband, Prince Albert. To mollify the Queen, they named him Albert Frederick Arthur George, and in fact called him "Bertie." (His formal name from birth was His Highness Prince Albert of York. His mother was Queen Mary, like the ship.) He was left-handed, but his nanny forced him to use his right hand. He was knock-kneed and, as a child, was forced to wear metal braces on his legs. If that wasn't enough, he also had chronic stomach problems.

He attended the Royal Naval College, Osborne, as a naval cadet where he graduated as the bottom man in his class. Nevertheless, he proceeded to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth and was commissioned as a midshipman in 1913. His fellow officers called him "Mr. Johnson." (The royals have a bunch of first names but no last name.) He saw action at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, but thereafter was assigned to desk duty in World War I because of an ulcer. After the War, he studied at Cambridge. In 1920, he was created Duke of York and began his royal duties. His speech impediment created problems for him, and most considered him extremely shy, especially compared with his gregarious older brother.

Shortly thereafter, he met Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who, although her father was the Earl of Strathmore, was considered a commoner. She was descended from Robert the Bruce of Scotland and also Henry VII, so she was still from the right side of the tracks. She turned down his marriage proposals twice because she wasn't sure she wanted to be in the royal family, but she finally accepted. She was a very understanding wife and was an immense help to George in dealing with his insecurities. (Incidentally, Elizabeth survived her husband George by 50 years, and died in 2002 at the age of 101, extremely popular and outspoken to the end. Their oldest daughter, also named Elizabeth has, of course, been the Queen since George's death in 1952.)

Back to our story, Elizabeth, on behalf of her husband George sought out the speech therapist Lionel Logue, introducing herself as "Mrs. Johnson." Logue's credentials were light, and his methods were unorthodox and controversial. His office was in a poor neighborhood, and he had no receptionist. Instead of addressing the Duke of York in a formal way, he insisted on calling him "Bertie," and Bertie had to call him "Lionel." He prescribed daily vocal exercises like tongue twisters, singing and even obscenities, to give the Duke confidence to relax when speaking. George had to recite stuff like "she sifted seven thick stalked thistles through a strong thick sieve."

In the movie, Logue was played by Geoffrey Rush who was nominated for an Academy Award. George was played by Colin Firth, also nominated for the Academy Award for best actor, and the glamorous Elizabeth by Helena Bonham Carter.

Upon the death of King George V in 1936, Edward became King Edward VIII. Although the King of England has no real power, he is an important symbol to the English people and must realize that he is constantly in the public eye and command respect.

Edward VIII had two major problems in that regard. First, his mistress, fiance--whatever--was an American lady named Wallis Warfield Simpson who was already married to someone else. She and Edward were in love, and she divorced her second husband--not good! The other problem, which was not as well known, Edward was an admirer of Nazi Germany, and Hitler in particular.

When Edward insisted on marrying the twice-divorced Mrs. Simpson, this was considered an embarrassment to the British people, and Prime Minister Baldwin and others prevailed upon him to step down from the throne after just a few months in office.

Note: When Edward VIII assumed the throne, Hitler was already threatening much of Europe and Winston Churchill, among others, was concerned that England might have to go to war again with Germany. In fact, as late as December, 1940, after the great Blitz and much of London destroyed, Edward gave a bizarre interview in which he said that it would be a tragic thing for the world if Hitler were overthrown. He felt that Hitler was the right and logical leader of the German people. Edward spent the war with his wife in the boring, sultry, relative safety of the Bahamas with frequent excursions to Palm Beach to mix with the jet-setters.

George, at least, was on the same page as the English people. Although his first name was Albert, he felt that would sound too German. He chose his fourth name, George to signify continuity. So he became George VI. During the 1940 German air raids, George VI and his Queen Elizabeth insisted on staying at Buckingham Palace with their kids to keep up the morale of the people. They kept a high profile and endured many of the same hardships as the common people which made them very popular.

The theme of the movie was that George was obligated to address the British people on the radio at his coronation in 1937, and he was terrified because of his stammering. Fortunately, television was not in wide use at that time, so nobody could see his coach or the teleprompter. With the constant coaching of Lionel Logue, George was able to make his way through that speech and many subsequent speeches, especially the important ones during World War II. While he probably wouldn't win many speech contests, with Logue constantly at his side, he did a credible job in keeping his audience. In one speech, he deliberately stumbled over the letter "W" in "weapons", and later asserted that if he didn't, the people wouldn't know it was he speaking.

The movie is a must see. As the president of the Lake County Toastmasters, an organization that promotes and encourages public speaking, I have a personal interest in the subject matter of the movie. I find the royals interesting, but I've always wondered whether the King and Queen wear their crowns when they go to the supermarket or the hardware store.



Last night the movie DID win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Colin Firth won the award for Best Actor.



Monday, January 3, 2011


One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight
Schlemiel, schlemazel, hasenfeffer incorporated
We're gonna do it!
Give us any chance, we'll take it
Give us any rule, we'll break it
We're gonna make our dreams come true....

And so goes the LaVerne and Shirley theme song, written by Norman Gimbel.

Many of you will recall the LaVerne and Shirley Show, a spinoff from Happy Days which documents the antics of Fonzie's friends, LaVerne DiFazio and Shirley Feeney who played roommates in Milwaukee. They may have been a lot of things, but they were certainly not Jewish.

The English language is so rich because, unlike French, it welcomes foreign words into the language. Many non-Jewish Americans find themselves using now English words borrowed from Yiddish and other languages without even realizing it. Certain thoughts can be better expressed with one well placed word to replace a whole explanation in English. This is how new words come into the language. Many Jewish entertainers and script writers over the past 100 years have sprinkled their acts with Yiddish words so that now such words have come into common use. They used their shtick (comic theme or gimmick) to bring those words into the English language and American culture.

The Yiddish language is quite similar to German. The words are usually pronounced similarly but spelled differently, perhaps because Yiddish was traditionally written using Hebrew characters. Also, keep in mind that the connotations of certain words are different in Yiddish than in English. For example, the word chutzpah in English means gall, audacity or nerve, but in a positive way to describe an aggressive or successful person. In Yiddish, however, the example given by popular writer Leo Rosten is that chutzpah describes a young man who kills his parents and asks for mercy because he is an orphan!

Yiddish works well for describing the inconveniences or disagreeable people you encounter in life. A schlemiel is a clumsy, inept person, a klutz. On the other hand, a schlimazel is a chronically unlucky person. He's probably a poor schnook also, a gullible person who is easily cheated or taken advantage of. For example, the schlemiel often spills his soup--in the schlimazel's lap. Maybe he's a schmo also, a stupid person.

Stay away from a schmuck, or a putz which are insulting terms describing a foolish person, or a jerk. Both words refer to the penis. In the movie, Grumpy Old Men, Walter Matthau frequently calls Jack Lemmon a putz. A friend you try to avoid is the schnorrer, or beggar, because he hits you up for money. But if he steals it, he''s also a gonif (thief or scoundrel), a word often used to describe politicians. These aforementioned words usually describe men, but we have colorful words to describe women also.

Many think of a yenta as a matchmaker like the character in Fiddler on the Roof. The real meaning of the word is a talkative women or a gossip who gets in other people's business. So in Fiddler, a schmaltzy (excessively sentimental) movie the Yenta character really was a yenta. If a woman is plump or voluptuous, like your bubbe (grandmother), she is zaftig. Men often lament that their wives and kids kvetch (complain) too much and they must be told to stop hakn a tchynik (breaking a china teapot) which also means nagging or bothering incessantly. The women counter that their men kibitz (offer unwanted advice) too much rather than schmooze (make small talk). In a poker game, a kibitzer is a spectator offering advice but won't put up his own money to play. This self described expert is sarcastically called a maven, which is best described as a know-it-all.

We all aspire to become a macher, a big shot or important person. Las Vegas became Las Vegas because of gonifs from Chicago or Cleveland who moved there and became machers. In Vegas, they no longer had to schmeer (bribe) the authorities because gambling was legal. Thus, a gangster could go straight, organize charities, and become a mensch, an honorable man who does the right thing.

Many immigrants of 100 years ago went into the rag trade, selling schmattas from pushcarts on the Lower East Side of New York or Chicago's Maxwell Street. A schmatta is a rag, but more in the sense of low quality clothing like the schlock that you would buy at a rummage sale--or from a street peddler. Hard goods might be tchotchkes (toys), which I'll get into later. In any event, schlock refers to any type of cheap or inferior merchandise, like souvenirs you'd buy at tourist traps. The more vulgar word for that would be dreck (crap or sh*t), as in "you want ten dollars for this dreck!" Then you have to schlep the stuff home. To schlep is to drag or haul a large or heavy object at great inconvenience, like in "why is this schmuck making us schlep these schmattas and heavy clothes to Florida?" He must be meshuga (crazy).

We often use Yiddishisms to express mild obscenities where the English word might be inappropriate. For example tuchis or tush is a person's buttocks or rear end where you don't say "ass" in polite company. The word shtup, which literally means to fill, push or poke can be used in the sense "you keep shtuping the grandkids with candy to keep them quiet." But the word can also mean "intercourse". So the traveling salesman gives his spiel (sales pitch intended to persuade). If he uses it on a blonde tchotchke for a quick shtup, he'll have tsuris (trouble) when his wife finds out. If the salesman is much older, he's an alte kaker (old fart) . But don't tell that to Hugh Hefner.

As we said earlier dreck is any kind of worthless material, but substitutes for "crap". The word bupkes literally means "animal droppings" but in English means "nothing". For example, " I've been working on the deal for months and received bupkes. Then they give the deal to a little pisher (greenhorn or young, inexperienced person). " The term pisher actually refers to the penis of a young boy. Don't get me started on the mohel who performs the bris (circumcision) of the young boy.

With the popularity of delicatessens, some of the foods we eat are Yiddish words. Kosher means conforming to Jewish dietary laws, but in English, it means "legitimate" or "appropriate". If you hear of a shady or suspicious scheme, it probably doesn't sound kosher. Most of us are familiar with foods like bagels, blintzes, lox (smoked salmon), latkes or kishke that you would nosh (snack) on.

Oy vey, an unexpected Yiddish word is glitch, a minor malfunction, as in a computer.

The bottom line here is that the English language borrows liberally from many languages but, as one can see, many of the most "colorful" words are those borrowed from Yiddish.