From the April 18th Economist, in the article “Putin’s targeted strike: The meaning of Russia’s weapons sale to Iran”:

In July 2013 Russia remained silent when an Israeli air strike destroyed anti-ship cruise missiles that it had recently supplied to Syria and were on their way to Hizbullah. And Israel kept shtum last October when Syrian rebels released footage of the involvement of Russian intelligence officers at a Syrian military listening post on the Golan Heights that had been overrun.

Israel kept shtum. With the adjective shtum ‘silent, mute’ — an item that, apparently, few Americans know, unless they have some experience of British English. (The Economist is a British publication.) On the British side, the item is ordinary slang, commonly used in the collocation keep shtum (and in some other contexts). It seems to be derived from Yiddish, though I believe that very few British speakers appreciate that; for them, it’s just slang. So there’s something of a puzzle as to how it became naturalized in BrE but not AmE.

Solving that puzzle would require an extensive knowledge of the relevant texts and their cultural contexts, over time, something I unfortunately don’t have. But it’s a nice project for someone who’s better at such research than I am.

Ok, so far, keep shtum. Then here’s shtum on its own, in a Monty Python routine, “The Piranha Brothers, Part 2”:

In this, we have a pimp answering the phone (and trying to conceal what’s going on from a reporter interviewing him about the Piranhas:

“Oh no, not now…shtum, shtum…right. Yes, we’ll have the ‘watch’ ready for you at midnight. The watch. The Chinese watch.

The lexicographers. From NOAD2 on shtum (also schtum), marked as informal (but not British):

adjective   silent; non-communicative: he kept shtum about the fact that he was sent down for fraud. [note BrE sent down]

verb [no obj.]   be or become quiet and non-communicative: you start to say something and then just when it’s getting interesting you shtum up.

ORIGIN 1950s: Yiddish, from German stumm [‘silent, mute’].

OED2 is not as current as NOAD2, but it has some additional information. First, more attested alternative spellings, beyond shtum and schtumshtoom, schtoom, shtumm, stumm. Then, more citations. In summary:

A. adj. Silent, speechless, dumb. Esp. in phr. to keep (or stay) shtoom . Occas. also as n. [first cite 1968]

B. v. intr. To be quiet, to shut up. Also trans.: cf. shut it [first cite 1958]

(It has the Yiddish etymology and marks the entry as slang, but (again) not as British.)

5 Responses to “shtum”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    I never heard of “shtum” before – but I have had little exposure to British English. A very interesting thing about it is that it contains an initial consonant cluster that hasn’t really existed in English before.

    I think the clusters shp sht shm shn shl are all loans from Yiddish – the first one I can remember (I was 9 years old) is Al Capp’s shmoo in 1948. I think this is firmly established in US English – I can’t think of any minimal pairs, but some close ones would be shpiel/speed, shtum (or shtup)/stump, shmooze/smooth. Shnorrer/snorer would be an exact minimal pair, but I don’t think the Yiddish word for a beggar is established in English.

    sr is a curious anomaly, since this cluster is exceedingly rare in English, and Shrek/shred is not a new contrast. The only sr in English is some rather rare family names – Sronce in the Southeast, though I’ve never heard it pronounced. Some day I hope to meet the urological pathologist John R. Srigley and ask him.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      shp sht shm shn shl initials: most from Yiddish, some (like schnapps) straight from German. By now it wouldn’t be accurate to say these clusters are rare. Some examples have been nativized to the extent that they no longer strike speakers as “foreign”: shmoo, I think, and of course shtum.

  2. mikepope Says:

    It’s also a term that would be known to folks who have exposure to German, of course. Normally, assuming that Americans know a foreign language is a dicey proposition, haha, but a lot of Americans do come from communities were German still has resonance, so …

    This is perhaps not a question for you, but is there some sort of convention about when we spell such borrowings with sh- versus sch- ?

  3. Alon Lischinsky Says:

    Some evidence for the greater usage of shtum/schtum in British English here.

    I wonder what that peak in the early 80s was about.

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