Children love Shrek, the sweet green ogre and beloved cartoon character who starred, thanks to DreamWorks, in “his” first flick in 2001. What most don’t know—nor do their parents—is that the word shrek is Yiddish for terror or fear. Why would they? The word isn’t to be found in Leo Rosten’s 1971 classic, Joys of Yiddish, or any of its sequels and is rarely mentioned in other Yiddish-English compendiums. Still, it’s common Yiddish, entering the language from German. In Yiddish it is most frequently used as an adjective, shreklekh, as in shreklekh zach (a terrible thing) or shreklekh imgick (something horrible). Shrek foygl is a scarecrow.
The chasm between the word’s actual meaning and today’s charming ogre can be traced to a 1990 children’s book, titled Shrek! by William Steig. Steig, who died in 2003, had an unprecedented 73-year career as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, creating 120 covers and 1,600 cartoons, but he may best be remembered for his 28-page picture book about a scary monster who rescues and marries an ugly princess. The New York Jewish Museum named its 2007-2008 exhibit: “From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig.”
Born 1907 in New York, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Steig began his tenure at The New Yorker during the Depression. He turned to writing and drawing children’s books in 1967, producing 25, primarily featuring friendly anthropomorphic animals, including award-winning stories about a donkey, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and a mouse dentist, Doctor De Soto.
Shrek, his Yiddish-Jewish monster, is far from lovable. In fact, the original Shrek’s worst nightmare is of children hugging and kissing him. Some adults who bought the book after seeing the movie were horrified to discover, as one parent blogger put it, that the book is “gross” and not suitable for children. Steig’s Shrek! gets an exclamation mark after his name because he frightens even Thunder and Lightning.
Steig’s Shrek may not be lovable, but his name sounds light and humorous. Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts (where you can find an exhibit named “Hofenung un Shrek—Hope and Fear”), thinks that Steig deliberately made the word playful while giving his Shrek a Jewish quality as “the outsider that everyone fears.” The only thing that scares Shrek is a hall of mirrors where he is appalled to see hundreds of hideous creatures staring at him. Then he discovers, “They’re all me!” and he’s “full of rabid self-esteem, happier than ever to be exactly what he was.”
Steig ends his tale with the expected “And they lived happily ever after,” but doesn’t stop there: Shrek and his princess spend their lives together “scaring the socks off all who fell afoul of them.” “Like many great children’s authors,” says Lansky, “Steig wrote about facing fear and getting beyond it.”
DreamWorks’ Shrek shares the essential nature of Steig’s original. Both Shreks are content to differ from the norm. In the first Shrek movie, Princess Fiona asks Shrek, “What kind of knight are you?” Shrek replies, “One of a kind.” Both Shreks turn the fairy tale world upside down: Dragons are friendly, swamps are better than castles, and true heroes are not handsome and noble. Steig was in his nineties when he agreed to an animated version of his book. Although the producers did not accept the author’s suggestion to give the cartoon Shrek a Jewish mother who worried about him, Steig was delighted with the movie: According to The New York Jewish Museum curator, Claudia Nahson, Steig opined, “It’s vulgar. It’s disgusting—and I loved it.”
Thanks to Shrek, Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third, a Broadway play, DVDs (including Shrek the Halls with Shrek in a Santa Claus suit) and numerous commercial products, the word’s use and usage are expanding. The plump DreamWorks’ Shrek is a pitchman for candy, sugared cereals, sweetened drinks and other victuals, among them Kellogg’s Shrek Multigrain Cereal with Marshmallows, Keebler’s Shrek Mini-Vanilla Wafers and Campbells’ Shrek Green Chicken Soup and Worm Noodles. Ironically, he is also the spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ anti-obesity campaign.
Meanwhile, the Dreamworks-Steig amalgam has apparently generated a new verb, “shreked,” as in being shreked out because of too many Shrek toys, videos and games.
Steig used to ask his daughter Maggie what she would rather be, “a pinch of pus or a pile of puke? A scab or a wart?” Now children can play an online Shrek game, “Bug Splat,” where the goal is to smash bugs, but not the slugs that also scamper across the screen. You lose points for smashing slugs, because Shrek is saving them for dessert.