By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009

Rabbi Julian Sinclairs weekly dip into the dictionary

Shmatter is one of those useful Yiddish words with a skein of interconnected meanings. Its primary sense means rag, as in Dont just stand there like a shlemiel; take a shmatte and wipe it up. From here it comes to mean torn, messy or inferior clothing, as in, He goes around in shmattes just to upset his mother.

Most of us had forebears in the shmatte business at one time or another. Strictly speaking, this was the trade of those who collected the unused rags from clothes factories, sorted them and sold them back to the companies. (Kirk Douglass autobiography was called The Rag Mans Son.) However, it came to include the whole garment industry. My grandfather tailored mens suits and that was part of the shmatte business too.

Metaphorically, it comes to mean someone of low confidence or self-esteem, eg After being yelled at like that I just feel like a shmatte. Shmattered out means chronically low in self-esteem. To treat someone like a shmatte is to behave towards them with deep disrespect.

Shmattes have long since made way for detergent-filled wipes, and the ragmens grandchildren have become novelists, rabbis and film stars, but the word shmatte remains a living link with the world of our ancestors.

Last updated: 12:31pm, March 6 2009