Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Shmon: Eight and Body Search

An old acquaintance, Daniel Razumov, sent me an interesting Russian word with an unexpected story. Here is the story he tells:

“I have very nice example of Russian word “shmon” (шмон)  ‘body search’ which is very similar to the Hebrew word “shmone” ( שמונה )  ‘eight’.  My friends and I thought the similarity odd but coincidental.”

“Then we discovered that in the Soviet GuLags there was a body search at eight ‘clock each morning, and since many Jewish people were serving time in those prisons due to their ‘wrong’ political perspective in those days, the Hebrew word ‘eight’ was transferred from Yiddish or Hebrew to Russian slang as a body search.”

The semantic drift of words can be absolutely fascinating but also tell us so much about our history, where we are coming from and where we are going.

One Response to “Shmon: Eight and Body Search”

  1. Leszek Says:

    The text above seems to require some small but quite important corrections.

    That is true, that the word “shmon” (шмон), meaning a kind of very brutal and humiliating shakedown, connected with penetration of intimate parts of body, has Hebrew and/or Yiddish origins (“shmone” = eight, from 8 a.m., typical commencing time of those shakedowns).
    However, such shakedowns were called “shmon” already in the 19th century, i.e. in the tsar-Russia, a number of generations before creation of the Gulag.
    It means, the word came into being among simple thefts and other criminals of various nationalities incl. Jews, without any causal connection with the later political terror of Stalin against them or any other nationality. (look

    The word only survived the bolsheviks’ revolution and was in usage also in Gulag-times. It is known also to contemporary Russians.

    Besides, it was only one of a lot of Yiddish and Hebrew words which were then sinking to the criminals’ and prisoners’ slangs, of the whole whole empire, i.e. not only into the Russian, but the Polish and Ukrainian as well.

    Regards, Leszek

Leave a Reply