Nice word falls on hard times Can we talk? 'Schmooze' had such respectable credentials, but then people started using it in unkind ways.

January 10, 1996|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Schmoozer? Did someone call him schmoozer? A younger Gerard E. Evans wasn't certain what the guy meant, being somewhat new to Annapolis and unacquainted with the lingo. Sure enough, he says some politico looked at him and used the word, and that moment 10 years ago was the first time he'd heard it.

"I took it as a term of kind of endearment," says Mr. Evans, 40, a gregarious man who today ranks as Maryland's highest-paid lobbyist.

Schmoozer, a noun; one who schmoozes, a verb. This is a good thing, right? Perhaps.

The legislative session is here, and so it begins. The marble corridors of the State House and the bar at Fran O'Brien's and the snug booths in the Little Campus lounge will resound again with the talk of lobbyists, legislators, staff members and policy specialists. Some of this jabber will qualify as "schmoozing," which, as it has come to be understood in American speech, may or may not be a wholesome activity. Alas, an otherwise nice word has stumbled into the political and corporate worlds and turned rather sleazy.

"I think it would mean someone who would chit-chat with you, or kibitz," says Mr. Evans. "That's the extent of my Irish-Catholic understanding of schmooze."

Which is fine, as far as the original meaning goes.

The Yiddish word "shmues" means a conversation, derived from the Hebrew "shmuos," for rumors, or "things heard." In "The Joys of Yiddish," Leo Rosten defines schmooze as "a friendly, gossipy, prolonged, heart-to-heart talk."

Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter, a professor of Yiddish at Columbia University, says "It's not a brief, two-sentence conversation but a relaxed, half-hour or hour conversation."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word appeared in the New York Times Magazine as early as 1897.

Articles in the journal American Speech, the New Yorker and Life magazines from the 1920s, '30s and '40s, respectively, use the term in its more innocent meaning of socializing or gossiping. The Life article of November 1948, profiling a trio of brothers who produced low-budget movies, comes closest to the more unsavory sense of the term in its description of kid brother Hymie King: "A friend describes him as 'the schmoozer, the contact guy. You walk into their office and in four minutes Hymie's got his arm around your shoulder and he's giving you a good tip in the seventh at Hollywood Park.' "

Still, pretty warm and fuzzy compared with much current usage, especially in political reporting, in which "schmooze" often is transformed into a transitive verb bordering on "con," "bamboozle," "dupe."

In its original meaning, says Dr. Schaechter, schmooze had "no negative connotation."

Something happened. Somewhere between the Old World and the New, "shmues" -- rhyming usually with Lewis or loose -- became "schmooze," rhyming with ooze and suggesting grease applied to the gears of politics, show business, corporate advancement. The conversation is still friendly, but conducted as a means to an end, not a pleasure in itself, and hardly "heart-to-heart."

The Sun's Washington columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover ditched the notion of conversation for the connotation of verbal slickness when they told us two years ago that President Clinton, on behalf of his then-extant health care plan, "apparently intends to schmooze the electorate into submission."

In an article published early in the 1994 Maryland gubernatorial campaign, columnist Frank A. DeFilippo told how candidate Parris Glendening "schmoozes his way around the state promising millions in pixie dust at every stop."

It's not a pretty picture. Dr. Schaechter says the closest linguistic root to this nasty sense of schmooze would be "aynshmuesen," which means to talk someone into something.

That's how veteran Annapolis lawyer/lobbyist George Manis understands the term schmooze.

"It seems to connote that what I'm doing is trying to influence you in an improper way," says Mr. Manis, one of several lobbyists who's represented a casino company in advocating legalized casinos. "I think it maybe connotes someone that's slick," he says.

Most lobbyists asked to offer their definitions, especially those who grew up hearing the word at home, reject any negative connotations of schmooze.

Former Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg, who returns to Annapolis this season as a lobbyist for Crown Central Petroleum Corp., among others, says schmooze "means the same thing in political vernacular as it does in Yiddish vernacular just hanging around, talking, developing personal relationships."

Alan M. Rifkin, one of the state's top lobbyists, says "there's a substantial degree of collegiality to the process" of lawmaking, and schmooze conveys that part of it. But only that part.

"The press has taken it to be shorthand for the insider's political process," says Mr. Rifkin. "It tends to suggest that the complex

process of making laws is the by-product of the collegiality alone."

That collegiality, or at least the way it is expressed, will likely be hampered this legislative season by new laws that sharply restrict how much a lobbyist may spend on a lawmaker's bar or restaurant tab without reporting it to the state. Thus the law attempts to draw the line between a schmooze and a shmeer.

Lobbying reform has already caused cancellation of at least one annual schmoozefest: lawyer/lobbyist James J. Doyle's Christmas party. Mr. Doyle says he didn't want to bother calculating what party expenses he was required to report for the several lawmakers who would attend.

L "It gets to the point it's not worth fooling with," he says.

But fear not, says Mr. Steinberg. There are still the receptions held by this or that association, the breakfast meetings. So many hallways, so many bar booths and tastefully furnished State House offices. Lobby reform notwithstanding, says Mr. Steinberg, "schmoozing is in."

Good of him to supply a nice note for the ending. What a schmoozer.

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