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Ethnic Slurs. Part III:
Another Derogatory Name for the Jew: Kike

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By Anatoly Liberman

Of all the ethnic slurs invented for a Jew, Kike is the best-known (a dubious distinction) and the most widely used. Dictionaries prefer to say that its origin is unknown, which is right but uninspiring. By contrast, the Internet and books on ethnic conflict and on American English offer such detailed summaries of opinions that I have little to add, except for outlining the nature of the problem. Some general ideas on the subject can also be found in my earlier post on Sheeny. (Dictionaries usually print such words with low-case letters, but I prefer to capitalize them. Though abhorrent to all decent people, they are, unfortunately, the names of nationalities and should be treated accordingly. That capitalizing ethnic names, the names of the days of the week/ the months of the year, and notional words in titles is silly is another matter, “not germane to the subject,” as a retired colleague of mine used to put it.)

In dealing with Kike, Sheeny, and so forth, the question arises whether the word came into being among the Jews (one group of the Jews may have tried to denigrate another group, as, presumably, happened in the history of Sheeny) or among their persecutors. Nothing is easier than to turn a perfectly innocent word into a slur. Names are perhaps the best candidates for this kind of transformation. Dago has become a mocking term for Italians, Spaniards, and the Portuguese (because so many of them were supposedly called Diego), while Abram (stress on the second syllable) is a great favorite of Russian anti-Semites, partly because it is a prototypical Jewish name and partly because it contains r, a trill the Jews often pronounce with a gh-like sound (“burr”). Hence the conjectures that Kike and Smouch are alterations of Ike “Isaac” and Moshe “Moses” respectively. However, the etymology of a low word, even of a low word inspired by low feelings, has to be investigated according to the same rules that hold for the rest of the vocabulary: one expects a plausible explanation of the sounds and reference to the milieu in which the word under discussion is believed to have emerged. Since no one has accounted for the phonetic change from Ike to Kike and from Moshe to Smouch; both guesses should be rejected without regret.

Another derivation traces Kike to the name Hayyim, transcribed in German as Chaim. Kaim “Jew” was recorded in mid-18th-century German cant. Then, we are told, “since Jewish speakers took -im of Kaim as a plural ending in Hebrew, they created a new singular *kai [an asterisk designates reconstructed, as opposed to attested, forms], which by reduplication gave the form ki-ki,” later simplified to Kike. It is hard to understand why Jewish speakers mistook the last syllable of the name they must have known for centuries for a plural ending. Would any English-speaker identify the final -s of Rose with a plural ending? And how did the reduplication arise? I don’t think this etymology is any better than the previous two.

Two main hypotheses on the origin of Kike are often mentioned. According to the first (its author is J.H.A. Lacher, 1926), the suffix -sky in the Jewish family names of emigrants from Poland and Russia became a linguistic marker of their poor manners (compare the adjective buttinsky, with its implied reference to the behavior of pertinacious Jews). Allegedly, the word arose among the Jews “of German origin, who soon insisted that the business ethics and the standard of living and culture of these Russians were far lower than theirs.” According to J.H.A. Lacher, the snobbish “brethren” of emigrants from the Slavic countries (most of whom ended up as traveling salesmen) called the newcomers kikis. Lacher gives no reference to his sources, except the following: “When I heard the term kikis for the first time at Winona, Minnesota, about forty years ago, it was a Jewish salesman of German descent who used it and explained it to me, but in the course of a few years it disappeared, kike being used instead.” We can assume that i in both syllables of kikis was long (as in the word sky, for instance). How did it develop from the short i/y of -sky? Also, s, the initial consonant of the suffix was supposedly left out and the remaining stub (-ky) reduplicated (again reduplicated!) and pronounced with a long vowel. Given such freedom of phonetic change, almost any combination of sounds can be shown to become any other. (Incidentally, in Minnesota the first vowel of Winona is short; stress falls on the second syllable, which is long.)

The second hypothesis turns round the Yiddish word for “circle” and has two variants. According to the main of them, on Ellis Island those immigrating Jews who knew neither English nor the Roman script were asked to put an X near their names, but looked upon it as a picture of the cross, a symbol of their former persecution, and instead put a circle. One of the variants of the Yiddish word for “circle” can be transcribed as kaykl, and this is said to be the etymon of Kike. Could the English speaking officials on Ellis Island isolate one Yiddish word in the speech of the Jewish people they dealt with, use it mockingly, and make it famous? I am afraid that we have here an example of the rich Ellis Island folklore that produced a Jew Shaun Ferguson and a Chinese man Sam Ting.

In an article by David L. Gold I read a slightly different version of the kaykl etymology, which he endorses, though cautiously. He quotes a letter to the editor of The American Israelite: “It seems probable that drummers [that is, traveling salesmen] called the Russian Jew, who unable to sign his name in English made his handmark in the form of the traditional Kykala [a diminutive form of Kaykl], a Kyke. The term undoubtedly originated as drummer slang.” We will dispense with the adverb undoubtedly, for in etymological research doubts are unavoidable, but accept the propositions that Kike, a disparaging term of Yiddish origin, was coined by the Jews and that its etymon must have contained a long vowel. The letter, dated July 23, 1914, was written relatively soon after the word Kike spread in American English. The OED could not find any mention of it prior to 1904. The tradition ascribing the coining of Kike to Jewish traveling salesmen (hucksters, hawkers, badgers) may be trustworthy. Compare the etymology of the English word slang (it can be found in an earlier post and in my dictionary); it also seems to have been coined by traveling salesmen.

However, the connection between Kike and Kaykl is hard to demonstrate and possible associations are many (couldn’t the reference be to the special routes of the Russian immigrants of Jewish descent or to their circle of support, the in group?). Although we cannot be certain of the word’s origin, we can perhaps account for its popularity. Palindromes (words that remain the same if pronounced backward) often have an expressive character: consider tit, tat, poop, peep, kick, sis, boob, and the rest. Kike is offensive because its very form demeans its target. Peter Tamony, a famous student of American slang, wrote an article on keeks, Kikes, and kooks. He had no linguistic background and sometimes allowed suspicious ideas to run away with him (does anyone still use run away in this sense?). His etymology of Kike hardly merits the briefest mention, but his intuition did not betray him. In a way, Kike indeed belongs with keek and kook. Too bad this linguistic perfection serves such an ugly cause.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly 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 blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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  2. Stephen Goranson

    March 1901 Book World 6.3. “The Empire of the Ghetto,” Adolpe Danziger, “copyright by the author 1900,” page 213:
    “What ‘uptown lady’ would tolerate an “East Side kike’?”

    Of uncertain relevance:
    June 1902 The Era 9.6. “Aaron Levi’s Repentance,” David Felsberg, page 670:
    “In the midst of the inarticulate roar, single voices were occasionally heard: ‘Shpunsh kike, shpunsh kike, ight cent a pount!’….Here was a young woman dexterously fishing for live carp in a huge tank; next to her stood a boy yelling ‘Shpunsh kike,’ and weighing a pound of that delicacy with fish scales and moisture clinging to it….”

    Jan. 1909 The American Magazine 67.3. “Groping Children,” James Oppenheim, page 298:
    “‘Why shouldn’t I be ashamed? look at them–kikes, Yiddish; hear their broken English; see how they live….’ ‘You!’ he added. ‘Now let me tell you something! They are Russian jews–true! But who are you?….You, too, are a Russian Jew…_polished up_!'”

  3. J P Maher

    KIKE
    Sponge cake, no thanks…

    Isaac/Itzhak: The English nickname is IKE. Gershon Legman said it’s from the taunt” Ikey, Kikey!”

    Nice to see “polished up”, that’s the orthographically correct equivalent of “phonetically” written All POSHED UP, whence POSH… Poshed digs > posh digs…>

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