In a long campaign that’s far from over, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comment in Grand Rapids, Mich., that Hillary Clinton — former first lady, former U.S. senator, former secretary of state, woman — “got schlonged” in her 2008 primary run might be considered just another insult. Trump, after all, has been down in the dirt slinging mud before, calling Rosie O’Donnell a “fat pig” and a “slob” and making comments that certainly seemed critical of Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle.
But there was something different about “schlonged.” Sure, it was sexist — especially given Trump’s general disapproval of Clinton’s bathroom use during the recent Democratic presidential debate.
“Republican frontrunner Donald Trump used a campaign stop in Michigan on Monday to make astonishingly sexist attacks against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton,” the left-leaning ThinkProgress wrote. “. . . ‘Schlong’ is a well-known reference to a man’s genitals. There are no alternative definitions for the word, according to Merriam-Webster.”
Sexism for Trump, however, is nothing new. In an email to The Washington Post, Harvard University’s Steven Pinker, a noted researcher on language and cognition, pointed out that Trump, using a term that comes to English via Yiddish and Middle High German, may simply have been trying to say something else.
“Given Trump’s history of vulgarity and misogyny, it’s entirely possible that he had created a sexist term for ‘defeat’ (as far as I know there is no such slang verb in Yiddish),” Pinker wrote. “But given his history with sloppy language it’s also possible that it’s a malaprop.”
Trump’s problem? He’s a gentile who, linguistically, may have wandered too far from home.
“Many goyim are confused by the large number of Yiddish terms beginning with ‘schl’ or ‘schm’ (schlemiel, schlemazzle, schmeggegge, schlub, schlock, schlep, schmutz, schnook), and use them incorrectly or interchangeably,” he wrote. “And headline writers often ransack the language for onomatopoeic synonyms for ‘defeat’ such as drub, whomp, thump, wallop, whack, trounce, clobber, smash, trample, and Obama’s own favorite, shellac (which in fact sounds a bit like schlong). So an alternative explanation is that Trump reached for what he thought was a Yinglish word for ‘beat’ and inadvertently coined an obscene one.”
But Trump has used the word “schlonged” at least once before — in a 2011 discussion of a House seat Republicans lost.
“I watched a popular Republican woman [Jane Corwin] not only lose but get schlonged by a Democrat [Kathy Hochul] nobody ever heard of for the congressional seat, and that was because, simply, because of the Paul Ryan plan,” Trump said at the time. “That was an attack on Medicare. Now he’s trying to soften it, but whether you like it or not, that was an attack on Medicare.”
Still, maybe the power of “schlonged” was in its relative novelty. Trump could have used many other vulgar synonyms for “lost” — even the F-word, had he been so bold. Yet he casually chose an unusual formulation favored by frat boys and comedians working blue, not aspirants for the nation’s highest office.
Indeed, Nexis notes just seven uses of “schlonged.” Two were Trump’s recent jab at Clinton; one referenced a “long-schlonged” reality TV star; one appeared in an obituary for Philip Seymour Hoffman, noting the actor’s role as a “gauche gay boom operator with a crush on [a] long-schlonged superstar” in the film “Boogie Nights”; another appeared in an article about the HBO show “Hung”; and another in the transcript of an episode of Comedy Central’s long-canceled “The Man Show.”
Only one use of “schlonged” as a verb came from a respected political source. In 2011, NPR’s Neal Conan made this observation (to The Post’s Chris Cillizza) on the 1984 Walter Mondale/Geraldine Ferraro campaign: “That ticket went on to get schlonged at the polls.”
As Ben Jacobs of the Guardian noted: “Has any candidate for Borough President, let alone President of the United States ever used ‘schlonged’ in public before?” Or, as another Twitter user wrote: “Because the leader of the free world would definitely publicly use the word ‘schlonged.’ ” And another: ” ‘Schlonged.’ Verb, right?”
Perhaps the sting of “schlonged” is best explained by grammarians. As The Post’s Jenna Johnson noted, this is quite a memorable example of “turning a vulgar noun . . . into a verb” — something we all do when we use verbs like “trend” or “Google.”
“This conversion of nouns to verbs is known as ‘verbing’ and it has been around for as long as the English language itself,” Oxford University Press noted in 2013. “Ancient verbs such as rain and thunder and more recent conversions such as access, chair, debut, highlight and impact were all originally used only as nouns before they became verbs.”
Perhaps anticipating Trump’s use of “schlonged,” the Press also noted: “Verbing exists essentially to make what we say shorter and snappier. It can also give a more dynamic sense to ideas.”
One need not be a Trump detractor to condemn such usage. Benjamin Franklin, complaining about “awkward and abominable” nouns-as-verbs such as “notice,” “advocate” and “progress” in 1789, wrote a lexicographer: “If you should happen to be of my Opinion with respect to these Innovations you will use your Authority in reprobating them.”
Trump, as usual, was not inclined to look back with regret on “schlonged,” and marched onward.
“THANK YOU Grand Rapids, Michigan!” he tweeted. “Time to end political correctness & secure our homeland!”
Fred Barbash contributed to this report.