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Sunday, September 16, 2007

On Language: William Safire

Frequency of use does not determine crossover from informal (or colloquial) to formal (or standard) usage. Jerk, in the sense of “boob,” has been ubiquitous since 1935, and dork (from dirk, “dagger,” with its penile connotation similar to schmuck) has been with us at least four decades, but they remain slang. Same with the jerky, dorky sense of a schlep, as in this use in a Boston Globe review of “Mere Anarchy,” a book of Woody Allen essays and stories: “His characters . . . are the usual mensches and schleps.”

Although mensch, from the German via Yiddish for “person of integrity and honor,” is classed as “colloquial” by the O.E.D., it has earned standard status in Merriam-Webster and Webster’s New World dictionaries. But it’s plain to see that the “dopey” sense of a schlep remains slang.

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