Saturday, April 30, 2011

Chopped Liver

A listener called in last Tuesday, but didn’t want to go on air with his question. It was about the origin of the phrase (usually uttered in frustration), “What am I, chopped liver?” This is the equivalent of “Why are you ignoring me or my opinion or contribution?” Used in a more positive sense, as a sign of approbation or admiration, it may be expressed as, “That ain’t chopped liver.”

Chopped liver as a side dish became popular in America at the beginning of the 20th century, especially in the Jewish community in New York City. It doesn’t seem to have taken on negative undertones until mid-twentieth century. One of the earliest instances that I can find in print (Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang) appears in 1954 on The Jimmy Durante Show, aired on CBS television: “Now that ain't chopped liver.” In fact, it seems to have become a cliché, an easy laugh, among Jewish comedians. It became a staple in the Borscht Belt.

Unlike some other show-biz phrases (“break a leg”), it doesn’t seem to have come from Yiddish. Here’s what I found in the column Ask the Rabbi on the web site Ohr Somayach, an outreach organization aimed at university-aged young men with little or no background in Judaic studies: “As far as I know, the origins of the phrase are not Yiddish; I believe the phrase was originally coined in America. Being that chopped liver was always considered a side dish and not a main course, the phrase is used to express hurt and amazement when a person feels he has been overlooked and treated just like a ‘side dish.’"

SIDEBAR: Chopped Liver Recipe by Ina Garten

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