By Anatoly Liberman
Probably no other ethnic group has been vilified with so much linguistic ingenuity as the Jews. For the moment I will leave out of account Kike and Smouch and say what little I can about Sheeny, a word first recorded in English in 1824 (so the OED). (An aside. There was a time when lexicographers did not dare to mention the F-word and the “low” names of the genitals and bodily functions, or some law prohibited them from doing so. The sexual revolution emancipated dictionary makers, and apart from public radio and public television, one can see and hear potty-mouthed commentators and hosts everywhere. The joy of it! But curiously, my prudish spellchecker suggests that Sheen(e)y and Smouch do not exist. Ethnic slurs have become more offensive than the rudest words in creation. Today’s dictionaries are more realistic and include everything, with warnings, to be sure.)
As a rule, ethnic slurs go back to some word or name in the language of the despised group (and throughout history every “alien” has been despised): compare Dago for Spaniards and Italians and Fritzes, used collectively about the Germans in wartime Russia. But some such words are tricky. The best example is perhaps French Boche “a German soldier,” coined during World War I. My database on Boche is large, but it contains no definitive answer, though the best French and German etymologists of that time (and later) dealt with the problem. It is irritating to observe how the slang that surfaced in the memory of the people still living, baffles seasoned investigators. Such episodes teach historical linguists, who try to reconstruct the forms and meanings of past epochs, great humility.
A few suggestions on the origin of Sheeny are, as usual, mere guesses. I am sorry to see a respectable dictionary taking Sheeny for a variant of the adjective sheeny “lustrous, shining.” Attempts to connect the two were abandoned long ago. Nor can Sheeny be an alteration of Zhid, a Russian-Polish offensive name for a Jew (I mentioned it in my recent post on squaw): their sounds are too dissimilar. It is true that Jew dog and other gentle phrases of the same type were used widely for centuries throughout Europe, but the derivation of Sheeny from French chien “dog” lacks foundation. Sheeny is not a French word and is not pronounced like chien. This etymology was debated in the once popular magazine The Open Court. A search for an appropriate etymon in the vocabulary of Hebrew and Yiddish holds out more promise, but here, too, lots of nonsense has been said on the subject. An old hypothesis (my reference goes back to 1889) traces Sheeny to the Hebrew curse misah (or mise) meshina “strange death.” Allegedly, gentiles, while persecuting and tormenting the Jews, heard this curse so many times that they abstracted the last two syllables of meshina and turned it into Sheeny. One needs a good deal of faith to accept such a derivation.
The meshina etymology, besides being quite incredible, has a drawback that deserves special mention. The first vowel of -shina is short, while Sheeny has always been pronounced with a long vowel. This discrepancy could have been ignored only if -shina were hurled at the offender with a Russian accent, for in Russian, stressed vowels increase their duration, and English-speakers do often hear ee where short Russian i is meant, but to the best of our knowledge, Sheeny did not pass through Russia en route to England. This is why I think Sheeny should not be traced to German shin, a cant word for “miser; base fellow; cheat” (an etymology proposed by a distinguished scholar).
For many years Gerald L. Cohen has been publishing a biweekly periodical Comments on Etymology. From time to time he reprints the most interesting contributions in collections titled Studies in Slang. One of his regular correspondents was Nathan Süsskind (an American, but he spelled his name with an umlaut). In 1985 he sent Cohen a series of letters on Sheeny that appeared in both Comments on Etymology and in Studies in Slang, Part II (1989). Neither the periodical nor the book series can be well known to the wide readership interested in word origins, so that below I will reproduce the relevant part of Süsskind’s summary.
“Sheeny, a jeering nickname for ‘Jew’ arose in 19th-century London. There a colony of so-called enlightened Jews from Germany, would-be ‘assimilationists’, felt embarrassed by later arriving Jews from the area of Frankfort who were still clinging to their traditions in piety, speech, dress, and trim: they wore long, untrimmed beards and earlocks, kaftans, and special hats; instead of High German they spoke a Jewish dialect (so-called Judeo-German—then considered broken German, today recognized as Western Yiddish)…. The assimilating Jews… turned the admiring appellation sheener Yeed or sheene Yeedo (ee as in English eel) into jeering and probably imitated mockingly the fondling of the beard by moving their palms over their shaved faces as if stroking their own beards. Gentile Jew baiters then picked up the emphatic sheene of sheene Yeedo without necessarily understanding it quite, but realizing that it wasn’t exactly complimentary.”
Admittedly, this is not the most convincing etymology one can wish for. In his letters, Süsskind said many interesting things about beards in Jewish life but presented no evidence that the mocking gesture had been common or that the assimilators had jeered their conservative brethren in the presence of non-Jews. Yet the idea that Sheeny has something to do with Yiddish sheen “beautiful” looks plausible. It also occurred to Ernest Weekley, who wrote in his dictionary: “From Yiddish pronunc[iation] of Ger[man] schön, beautiful, used in praising wares. (A guess.).” Weekley’s scenario does not inspire much confidence, but if Sheeny goes back to Yiddish sheen “schön” (which seems likely: a hateful, oddly dressed, and therefore ugly person was ironically called beautiful, with a most frequent word from his language being chosen for the occasion to increase the fun), the slur originated in the mouths of the detractors (a regular case), rather than the Jews; -y would then be a diminutive suffix. Perhaps this is a venue to pursue in the open court of execrable etymologies.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”