Last Words: “Schmuck?” - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Last Words: “Schmuck?”

Last Words: “Schmuck?”

Published August 4, 2016

Eli Petzold
Photos by
Alda Villijós

Piss-warm Gull was beginning to dull my taste buds and whet my tongue. I was at a house party, debating organized religion. Someone found it distasteful in all of its manifestations. I begged to differ. He seemed to think religion was faith. “That’s very Lutheran of you,” I said, “but I think it’s bigger, vaguer than that.” “Are you Catholic?” someone asked.

“Nei,” I switched to Icelandic. I’d returned to Iceland to study the language; why not flaunt my fancy lexicon? “Ég er gæðingur.” Everyone snickered. Someone changed the subject. What was so funny about Jews? I feared the worst.

Days later, the exchange had gone the way of all my tipsy debates with Hitchens and Dawkins acolytes; that is to say, I’d almost forgotten it. But this word “gæðingur” popped up in my head again—a weird word, an etymological anomaly. Most of the world’s languages derive their word for “Jew” from the Hebrew “y’hudi.” Sounds and spellings change as the word crossed languages, yet the Hebrew origin generally remains clear enough. But gæðingur? The fuck did all these consonants come from?

Trusting the Internet’s tendency to answer questions promptly, I searched the word in an online dictionary. “Gæðingur: a good riding horse.” As it turns out, you have to ask the right questions. The word for “Jew,” I subsequently discovered, was gyðingur, a compound formed from the word Guð (“God”) and -ingur, a suffix used to denote an inhabitant of a place or a follower of a tradition. Gyðingur, a person of God.

But nope. I am a gæðingur. A good riding horse, a stallion, a stud. Not a bad thing to be, of course, except that the double meaning isn’t there in Icelandic. It means “horse.” Yes, an exceptionally well-trained, well-groomed, and reliably rideable horse, but a horse nonetheless.

There are a few dozen Jews and 80,000 horses in Iceland. It took some time for us to settle our theological differences, but the studs agree that it’s bigger, vaguer than that. “Ultimately,” one of them told me, “It’s all about schmuck.” “Schmuck?” I asked. “I meant schmoozing.”

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