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  • Nancy Ruther, EdD

Field Schmield: Gazelle International’s Take on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

​​field schmield (phrase): an expression dismissing the notion that instructors must share a disciplinary field in order to teach collaboratively

Did you read this and chuckle to yourself? Then you’re most likely a speaker of “American English." Or maybe you know the linguistic rules of “schm-’ reduplication.” Or if you use phrases like “fancy shmancy” or “Joe schmo,” then you know what we’re getting at. No? Let us take a little journey through linguistic history and examine its origins and meanings. Maybe it will help our collaborating teachers and students have fun exploring these curious corners of English, too.

In our Gazelle International team meeting, we were discussing that your disciplinary expertise need not dictate who will be your ideal teaching partner in a CLICK project. “Field schmield,” we joked! As a marketing professor, you can find a great match with a computer science, engineering, or history teacher. But with three “American-English” speakers from different US regions and one Chinese speaker using English as a second language, it became clear that this colloquialism needed some unpacking. Not everyone at our meeting understood its meaning in this context much less knew of this “schm-” reduplication phenomenon.

This little prefix “schm-” got us thinking about the true breadth and variety that encompasses global Englishes. I use the plural here because it’s almost a misnomer to label it as a homogenous entity. Among linguists, a common metric for shared language is measured by “mutual intelligibility,” or the ability to generally understand an interlocutor. However, this is not always the case with various Englishes around the world. While “English” is often used as the default shared language in many virtual exchange settings, much meaning can get lost in translation, especially if folks assume they are speaking the same language. Yes, there is room for miscommunication. There is also plenty more room for growth toward shared understanding. Playful, unique linguistic creations like the ones that employ the “schm-” prefix remind us that navigating someone else’s linguistic and cultural norms is a complex and idiosyncratic business.

And it can also be fun! This meditation on language and culture was sparked by a humorous play on words. Because I’m training as a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Virginia, I could not resist digging deeper into this curious linguistic pattern that I had previously taken for granted. Why did the phrase “field schmield” feel like such a humorously fitting philosophy for CLICK. And how did this phrase sneak into our collective vocabularies in the first place?

Let’s start with a mini linguistics lesson. Morphology is the study of word formation. Prefixes are pieces of grammar that attach to the beginning of words to alter their meaning. Reduplication is the process of repeating a word or parts of a word for various effects, like emphasis. For a very fun deep dive into this formation, check out Chi Luu’s article, “The Nitty-Gritty on Reduplication: So Good, You Have to Say it Twice.” But the pattern here is no ordinary reduplication. It’s a very particular one that has specific semantic connotations involving a prefix to only the second repeated word. The formula can be summed up as: 1) select a word, 2) replicate the word, and 3) swap out the first sound in the replicated word with the “schm-” prefix. “Field” to start. “Field” again. Swap the first “Field” for “Schmield.” Easy!?!

So how did this turn of phrase make its way into our team’s respective vernaculars and why is its meaning so slippery and difficult to pin down? While this word play is now widespread throughout American dialects, Austrian literary critic Leo Spitzer observes this linguistic phenomenon among American Jewish communities in the early 1950s. He describes this pattern as a “jocular repetition” and notes its colloquial prevalence on the East Coast of the United States. Yet he also suggests an even deeper origin, brought to the US by Yiddish speakers who preserved the “schm-” prefixed word play even after migrating from Europe. In their aptly named article “Metalinguistic, Shmetalinguistic,” Andrew Nevins and Bert Vaux attempt to define the “schm-” prefix as well, explaining its varied semantic potential. In a survey they conducted on its meaning, respondents gave definitions that indicate its ability to both dismiss and reassure, noting its potential to downplay or bring levity to difficult situations with a dash of humor.

This little unassuming prefix contains both a capacious history of migration and adaptation as well as a range of flexible meaning that has made its way into the mainstream. And despite its playful nature, the varied utility and transnational history of the “schm-” prefix reminds us not only of the truly varied and complex nature of Englishes across the globe, but also of the ways in which language connects us to who we are and where we come from. Here at Gazelle International, we echo these sentiments and strive to help people CLICK across geographic, linguistic, and disciplinary boundaries with humor and a sense of wonder at the value of all of our languages.

14 September 2021

Grace East


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