Antisemitic insults: a lexicon – Jonothon Green – Engage Journal Issue 5 – September 2007

Read history and you will understand that the Jews of yesterday are the evil fathers of the Jews of today, who are evil offspring, infidels, distorters of [others’] words, calf-worshippers, prophet-murderers, prophecy-deniers… the scum of the human race ‘whom Allah cursed and turned into apes and pigs…’ These are the Jews, an ongoing continuum of deceit, obstinacy, licentiousness, evil, and corruption…
Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sudayyis, imam and preacher at the Al-Haraam mosque, Mecca 19 April 2002

The desire of race or faith or nation A to excoriate race or faith or nation B is hardwired within us. The desire for positive ‘us’, whether based in geography or belief, to find a negative ‘them’ is inescapable. From a lexicographer’s point of view such mutual vilifications represent a fruitful mini-lexicon all on their own. Whether the loathing is based on the grounds of geography, the nation to which belongs and more important, those nations that are categorised as ‘alien’, or of belief, the multiplicity of mutually hostile superstitions that, gilded for mass consumption are repackaged as ‘the great religions’, or on the grimly wide-ranging and usually spurious stereotypes that follow hard on the creation of the negative ‘other’, it all contributes to an extensive language of abuse. But, and can one be surprised, this is not an equal-opportunity system. Some we hate more than others. Some offer up a greater proportion of the vocabulary of disdain. Two groups stand out: blacks and Jews. In sheer numbers, such old enemies as the Spanish, Dutch and French still provide a large vocabulary, but such terms have long since lost their sting. Nor is the anti-semitism that informs the lexicon that follows limited to the UK, but the space for writing here is.

Just Jew-ish

Perhaps the simplest way to coin an insult is to do no more than deprive a noun of its article – ‘a’ or ‘the’. Somehow this linguistic foreshortening renders an otherwise respectable word vulnerable. A Jew, the Jew, both terms may well be used in some negative way, but stripping off the article and talking of Jew this, and Jew that confer an extra sneer, especially when the combination stresses some accepted stereotype: Jew banker, Jew pedla and the like. Thus to reduce Jewish to Jew has the same unpleasant effect. As the polymathic Jonathan Miller noted, as part of 1961’s satirical revue Beyond the Fringe, ‘I’m not a Jew, just Jew-ish’, although that makes no-one immune.

While jewy is an obvious pejorative, often applied to matters of taste, and America’s 19th-century jew-bastard requires no translation, jew-boy, now an undeniable negative, was not always so. The term emerged in the late 18th century, when it meant what it said: a boy who was a Jew. The mood shifted as the 19th century passed and by the 1920s, when D.H. Lawrence proclaimed his hatred for the ‘moral Jew-boys’, there was no doubt about the negative image of the term. Another term, one of the oddest, is Jews’ letters (or Jerusalem letters) which refers to tattoos. Given the prohibition on tattooing (‘You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves…’ Leviticus 19:28) such a term seems utterly anomalous. Various theories have been put forward: that the symbols were Hebrew, that they were inscribed in memory of pious trips to Jerusalem, but the most likely surely draws on the use of the word jew in nautical slang, where it means a ship’s tailor (irrespective of religion). The link between tattooed sailors, their tailor and his needles cannot be too distant. Slang gives a small subset of terms, all based on rhymes with ‘Jew’ or ‘Yid’. They include buckle my shoe, box of glue, fifteen-two, five to two, four by two, half past two, kangaroo, pot of glue, quarter to two, Sarah Soo, four-wheel skid and front-wheel skid.

Like nigger, Jew has been adopted for a variety of terms, often dealing with natural products, flowers, minerals and the like. The practice appears most common in English-speaking countries and in Germany and a sample, far from exhaustive, is included here. English, whether American or English, has jewbush: a tropical American shrub possessing emetic qualities, Jews’ frankincense: storax, a resin derived from trees of the genus styrax; Jew’s fish (the halibut, a Jewish favourite), Jews’ lime: asphalt (sometimes, deliberately elided as Jew slime) Jew’s mallow: a potherb, Jews’ myrtle: the ‘butcher’s-broom’ or common myrtle, Jews’ stone: a hard rock that is related to certain basalts and limestones and is used for road-mending, a jew: a black field beetle in Cornish dialect (it exudes a pink liquid and children, seeing this, would chant ‘Jew, Jew, spit blood’) and jawing: the wattles at the base of the beak of some pigeons (the reference is to the hooked ‘Jewish’ nose). A Jew’s thorn (or Christ’s thorn), is the Paliurus Spinacristi, from which Christ’s crown of the thorns was allegedly constructed. Among the most interesting is Jews’ tin, the tin found in old smelting houses in Devon and Cornwall, known as Jew’s houses because once, around the late 11th century, the Jews mined for tin in those counties. (The black beetle reference above presumably refers to some ancient memory of these black-garbed exotics.) Meanwhile goose means a Jew. Whether, as H.L. Mencken suggests in 1936, this is a reference to goose: a tailor’s smoothing iron and as such the basic tool of many immigrant Jews, or whether it is no more than a deliberately coarsened mispronunciation of Jews, i.e. Joose, cannot be ascertained

Given Names

Like the French, who are traditionally enjoined to add a saint’s name to those given to every child, Jewish names, or at least traditional Jewish names are a rollcall of theological figures, in this case from the Old Testament. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca…they and others have all been used as synonyms for Jew for many years.

Abraham, to start with the first of the patriarchs, gives Abe or Abie, both of which play the predictable role, with an additional use by African Americans in which abie means a tailor (a use that reflects the Royal Navy’s use of jew to mean the ship’s tailor). Less well-known these days is Abie Kabibble, a name that is based on the American Yiddish ish kabibble: who cares, don’t worry, and which in turn comes most probably from the synonymous German Yiddish nish gefidlt. Adopted as a catch-phrase by the vaudeville superstar Fanny Brice, the term was picked up by America’s ‘dean of cartoonists’ Harry Hershfield who in 1917 launched a character called Abie the Agent, based on one ‘Abie Kabibble’. Highly successful, and pro-semitic insofar as it took any stance, the strip lasted until 1932. The term was further popularized by a swing trumpeter who adopted the name ‘Ish Kabibble’, and started performing as a comic.

After Abraham, Isaac gives Ikey . Which as well as Jew can also mean pawnbroker and as an adjective, wide-awake or smart (1900). Ikey-mo, adding Moses to Isaac, just means a Jew. Jake, from Jacob, Isaac’s son, is a third synonym. Similar names include Max, a common Jewish given name, Sol (from the wise King Solomon), and Sammy (from Samuel, although the Dictionary of American Slang suggests that the name comes from the acronymSigma Alpha Mu, a Jewish college fraternity, whose members are called ‘sammys’), and the women Rachel (Jacob’s wife) and Rebecca (or the Hebrew Ryfka, Abraham’s wife).

Several other names have been used as part of the abusive lexicon. Initially neutral, descriptive terms, they work almost as euphemisms, as if the simple word ‘Jew’ is too much for a fastidious person to utter. Royal decrees, pontificating on the status of the Jews during the Middle Ages used the Latin term Secta nefaria: the nefarious sect. Israelite, like Hebrew is another word that began as a simple description, but gradually, as anti-semitism gathered strength, came to be an implicit term of criticism. Levi refers literally to a descendant of the tribe of Levi, the third son of the patriarch Jacob; like the Cohens, the Levites are hereditary priests, in their case responsible for such temple rituals as animal sacrifice. In the 18th century the levi was briefly a fashion accessory: a form of dress popular among women but described by Horace Walpole as ‘a man’s nightgown bound round with a belt’, an haute couture version of Levitical garb. Late 19th-century Britain read the Daily Levy or the Daily Telegraph, named for its former owner, Joseph Moses Levy while the navy’s HMS Leviathan was known by nautical wits as the Levy Nathan. Moses, another Biblical figure has also been a source of abuse. Moses simply means Jew but in 1785 Francis Grose notes the term stand Moses, used of a man who ‘has another man’s bastard child fathered upon him, and he is obliged by the parish to maintain it’. As defined in New York police chief George Washington Matsell’s Vocabulum (1859, America’s first homegrown slang dictionary) Moses is ‘a man that fathers another man’s child for a consideration’. The phrase appeared, according to Randal Cotgrave’s Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), because traditional images of Moses show him ‘hauing [sic] on either side of the head an eminence, or luster arising somewhat in the forme of a horne’, an image reminiscent of the cuckold’s horns, and as such causing ‘a prophane Author to stile Cuckolds, Parents de Moyse’. From there Moses himself became the cuckold.

Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar, means literally ‘God will hear’ and has been used to mean both a Jew and an outcast, thus the celebrated first line of Melville’s Moby Dick (‘Call me Ishmael’) and Ishmael’s description in Genesis xvi. 12 as ‘one whose hand is against every man, and every man’s hand against him’. His outcast role links to another staple figure of Judaeo-Christian mythology: what France calls le juif errant and the Germans term ewiger Jude, the eternal Jew or the wandering Jew. The legend of the wandering Jew, who supposedly insulted Christ as he toiled up the via Dolorosa towards Calvary and was thus condemned to wander the earth eternally, appears during the 13th century. According to Roger of Wendover’s Flores Historiarum (c.1235) an Armenian archbishop, visiting England, claimed that in 1228 he had entertained at his own table a Jew named Cartaphilus, once Pontius Pilate’s porter, who had foolishly uttered the insult, asking ‘Go faster, Jesus, why dost thou linger?’ Christ’s response, ‘I indeed am going, but thou shalt tarry till I come’, set Cartaphilus, off on his travels, never to cease until the Day of Judgement. The story took on its modern form in 1602 when a pamphlet claimed that in 1542 Paulus von Eizen, bishop of Schleswig, had met a man, this time calling himself Ahasuerus, who claimed to be the wanderer. Combining both Moses and Ahasuerus is moisher: to wander around, used in Derek Raymond’s seminal novel of upper class low-lifes, The Crust On Its Uppers (1962).

Another Jew, even more vilified in the Christian pantheon, is Judas Iscariot (literally ish-qriyoth: ‘man of Kerioth’), the betrayer of Christ. Thus Judas itself means an informer, the Judas kiss is a kiss of betrayal and in oprison, theJudas-hole, is a spyhole in a cell door. The Judas-colour, used of the hair or beard, is red (from the medieval belief that Judas had red hair and a red beard); it is a myth that has been sustained for centuries, typically in Dickens’ allotting the evil Fagin with matted red locks.


It might be suggested that if one segregates a given individual, cuts him off from all forms of employment bar one, and ensures that the one he is allowed to undertake is despised by the rest of the community, then it is to add gross insult to equally gross injury then to attack and pillory that individual for performing the task in question. Thus the role of the Jew: forced by Christian piety to take on the role of money-lender, he is then cursed by the pious for performing the very task with which he has been saddled.

To stray briefly from English, the range of sayings that harp on the topic is international. They can be German: a real Jew never sits down to eat until he has been able to cheat (the Serbs and Rumanians both run variations on this),the Jews use double chalk in writing; they can be Russian: The Jew will cheat himself, when the idea strikes him, Jews do not learn cheating; they are born with it; or Polish: the Jew is a cheat to begin with and only the devil can cheat a Jew; or Moroccan: when a Jew smiles at a Moslem, it is a sign that he is preparing to cheat him. They can express superlatives of cunning: he can cheat a Jew, or jokily suggest the near-impossible: a Saxon cheated a Jew, the German equivalent of a man biting a dog. They are part of the strange calculus of national abuses: One Jew is equal in cheating to two Greeks, and one Greek to two Armenians, or a Russian can be cheated only by a Gypsy, a Gypsy by a Jew, a Jew by a Greek, and a Greek by the devil (both Russian).

And it is all very respectable. One need only browse the citations offered by the OED, which only in its Supplement of 1976 and subsequent Second Edition agreed to add to its entry on the noun Jew ‘As a name of opprobrium: spec. applied to a grasping or extortionate person (whether Jewish or not) who drives hard bargains’ the note ‘offensive’. The verb to Jew: to cheat or overreach, in the way attributed to Jewish traders or usurers. Also, to drive a hard bargain,…to haggle. Phr. to jew down, to beat down in price’ has been treated similarly: its entry now adds that ‘These uses are now considered to be offensive.’ Nonetheless the uses are there, a positive roll-call of literary stars: Washington Irving, Henry Mayhew, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, J.M. Synge, T.S. Eliot, Anthony Powell (albeit in the mouth of a fictional character). If the luminaries find no problems with the concept, hallowed by centuries of Christian doctrine, why should the lumpen? And of course they do not.
In the same idiom are the nouns Jewish lightning: deliberate arson in order to gain the insurance on an otherwise unprofitable business; a Jewish waltz: the process of deal-making and haggling; a Jew trick: an advantage taken that is not strictly dishonest, although supposedly out of keeping with a notional business or professional code; or the verb to jew out of: to use petty, quasi-criminal means to ‘do someone out of’ something. The use of the bald ‘Jew’, rather than the notionally softer ‘Jewish’ merely underlines the aggression in such terms.


‘Let the goyim sink their teeth into whatever lowly creature crawls and grunts across the face of the dirty earth, we will not contaminate our humanity thus… a diet of abominable creatures well befits a breed of mankind so hopelessly shallow and empty-headed as to drink, to divorce and to fight with their fists… Thus saith the kosher laws, and whom am I to argue that they’re wrong.’ Thus also saith the fictional Alexander Portnoy (Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969), and along with circumcision and a big nose, nothing defines the Jew like his abstention from pork. It has also engendered a number of put-downs. Like the ‘jokes’ that term Blacks ‘snowballs’, the charm is apparently in the opposition. The pig is the Hebrew’s enemy and pork and its other by-products Jew food, while the Jew himself is a porker, porky or pork-chopper. In the language of America’s short-order cooks, a sheeny’s funeral is roast pork. A bagel or bagel-bender is a Jew, as is a motza, the unleavened Passover biscuits, which can also mean money. Lox, or smoked salmon, the ‘automatic’ accompaniment to bagels (and cream cheese) gives lox jock, another synonym for Jew. Bagel has another meaning in South Africa where it denotes a spoilt, wealthy, upper-class young man; his female equivalent is a kugel, the Yiddish for cake.


On a physical level, only circumcision – generally invisible – is an equally infallible guide to the semite in our midst as is the shape of their nose. Hook, hooknose, banana-nose and eagle-beak (not, of course, to be confused in any way with the proud aquilinity of the Roman nose) and schnozzole or schnozzola, best known for its application to the comedian Jimmy ‘Schnozzle’ Durante, (1893-1980), whose Italian surname, if nothing else, proves that physiognomy and ethnicity are not always so easily linked. Schnozzle comes from the Yiddish shnoitsl and, in turn, from German Schnauze, both meaning snout. The big nose imagery extends into nature, where Australia’s Jew lizardhas an especially prominent snout, while in America the jewbird is a nickname for the ani, a type of cuckoo, with an arched and laterally compressed bill, and the jewcrow is the chough, another bird with a big bill. A Jew wattle is a coloured skin projection on the carrier pigeon’s bill and a Jew monkey is a type of macaque, sporting an outsize nose.

Cut-Cocks and Clip-Dicks

And then, circumcision itself. Thus, starting with the Latin curtius Judaeus: ‘the curtailed Jew’, such terms include clip(ped)-dick, snipcock (beloved of Private Eye), cut-cock and skinless. The US gay lexicon offers a Jewish compliment, a Jew’s lance, Jewish corned beef and Jewish National, which last refers to America’s Hebrew National brand of kosher salami. One who is circumcized but not Jewish is Jewish by hospitalization. A Jewish nightcap is the missing foreskin. Finally there is Abraham. Abraham’s bosom, however, refers not to the penis but to the female genitals, and refers to the New rather than the Old Testament, specifically Luke xvi. 22, where the phrase is used to describe ‘the abode of the blessed dead’. As far as the Jewish woman is concerned her image underpins the way in which stereotyping demands (and creates) extremes, even contradictory ones. She can be a wanton slut (America’s kosher cutie), from whose lascivious eyes no simple goy is safe, and almost simultaneously a frigid, sexless, castrating kvetch or ‘nag’. The popular joke defines Jewish foreplay as ‘the man pleads for sex, his partner refuses all physical contact’. And if the most alluring of all Balzac’s courtesans is the Jewish Esther (errant, beautiful, ultimately tragic daughter of the miser Gobseck), the JAP, or Jewish American Princess (all shopping, no fucking), is the fount of myriad jokes. ‘What does a JAP do with her arsehole? Send him off to work every morning’. ‘Why does the JAP like sex doggy-style? She hates to see anyone else having a good time.’

‘My Jewish Gaberdine’

Mocking the Jewish propensity to set themselves up as experts in whatever occupation they pursued, the Yiddish proverb notes that ‘When the Jew buys a gaberdine, he becomes an expert on cloth’. What is interesting is not the self-deprecation, but the term gaberdine. First encountered, in a racial context, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (1596), when Shylock accuses his enemies ‘You…spit upon my Jewish gaberdine’, the word seems very far from the homely gaberdine which, well known to generations of English schoolchildren, is usually called a macintosh. However the religious link is far more valid than the modern one. The term appears to come from the Old Frenchgauvardine, galvardine or gallevardine, perhaps a derivative of Middle High German wallevart: a pilgrimage (in the same way France’s pelerin: a pilgrim, gives pelerine, a long narrow cape or tippet, with ends coming down to a point in front, usually of lace or silk). Other Romance languages then picked it up, giving the Italian gavardina and Spanish gabardina, probably the immediate root of the English word. As used in English gaberdine has meant a form of loose smock, the garment worn traditionally by almsmen or beggars, a child’s loose frock or pinafore, a type of twill-woven cloth, usually of fine worsted, as well as the ‘Jewish’ reference. One last term, a coat-and-suiter(with its cognates suit-and-cloaker and ready-to-wear-set) refers generally to the Jews, traditionally prominent in the clothing trade.

‘The Rats are underneath the Piles’

The use of rats as visual shorthand for the Jew in a number of German Nazi propaganda films, where they pour from sewers before meeting their well-deserved fate at implacable Aryan hands, and as ‘cartoon’-fodder in such hate-filled journals as Der Stürmer, is well-known. The Nazis were hardly the initiators of such imagery. Rats and Jews had been a convenient linkage for the Middle Ages. But even in the 20th century there were those who pre-empted Nazi efforts, among the most celebrated being the Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot, a devoted High Anglican, whose deliberate juxtaposition of the two kinds of ‘vermin’ in Gerontion (1920: ‘The rats are underneath the piles / The jew is underneath the lot. Money in furs’) leave one in no doubt as to his position.


Mockie, a slur nickname for a young Jew, may come from the proper name Moses or it may, especially in its alternative form mouchy relate to the smous or smouse, a German Jew and thus a Jewish pedlar. However a third etymology is also feasible: the Yiddish word makeh: meaning sore, pest or plague. The American term Jerusalem parrot, meaning a flea, with its implication of the ‘dirty Jew’, may well be linked to the earlier parchaty ¯zhyd: a Polish phrase meaning mangy or scurvy Jew. However, as one commentator remarked, with regard to the Jews, ‘after a sprinkling of baptismal water, the Jew ceases to stink’. Yiddish cologne, on the other hand, would not help: in American slang it means gasoline. The foetor judaicus: the Jewish stench, a medico-theological term coined in the Middle Ages, could still be found in supposedly authoritative, if undisguisedly anti-semitic, tomes of the 20th century. One last link between Jews and illness is less unpleasant. Jewish penicillin, a joking description of chicken soup, that staple of the Jewish kitchen, and prescribed by Jewish mothers for a wide range of illnesses, really does seem to work. At least as far as colds and ‘flu are concerned. The hot soup encourages the flow of mucus through the nose, which is of proven benefit to such diseases.

Of all the stereotypes the Jews qualify for two above all: the murder of the Christian messiah and an obsessive involvement in commerce and its product money. Religious prejudice underpinned anti-semitism from day one, so let us look at the first.

‘One Who Killed Our Lord’

‘Now a Jew, in the dictionary, is “one who is descended from the ancient tribes of Judea…”, but you and I know what a Jew is: One Who Killed Our Lord […] a lot of people say to me ‘Why did you kill Christ?’ ‘I dunno, it was one of those parties, got out of hand, you know’. We killed him because he didn’t want to become a doctor, that’s why we killed him.’ Thus the position of the Jewish-American satirist Lenny Bruce, but the black humour masks centuries of grim propaganda. As far as the Jews are concerned, the main product of nearly two millennia of Christian theology found its logical conclusion in the ovens of Auschwitz, Treblinka and the rest.

The term Christ-killer is absent from the OED, a tribute perhaps to Sir James Murray’s admirable liberalism but not to his usually all-encompassing lexicography. The term is used by one of Henry Mayhew’s interviewees in his 1857 study London Labour and the London Poor, and the concept, even then, was moving towards two millennia of use. Its first dictionary citation is in Ware’s Passing English of the Victorian Era (1909). He notes that it is ‘passing away – chiefly used by old army men’ and indeed it does seem shortly after the Mayhew citation to have taken up a more prominent residence in America, its use fuelled, no doubt, by the predominantly Catholic Irish, Polish and other Central European immigrants who continued to flood the country. It lives on. One can find citations as recently as the late 1980s, and these are not historical references.

‘How odd / Of God / To choose / The Jews’: thus the clichéd jingle, but odd or not, the idea of the Jews as being chosen for a special role in the divine scheme can be found throughout the Bible. Exodus xix has God promising the Israelites a role as ‘my treasured possession among all the peoples’ and Deuteronomy x claims that ‘He chose you…from among all peoples’. If, even to believers, these are not ‘God’s words’ but a rationalization by the Jews of their apparently unique role in the world, then so be it. The image of a chosen people, a term that starts appearing in English in the mid-16th century, has persisted, as much mocked as celebrated. Chosen Pipples, delivered with a cod ‘European’ accent, tends to the former category. A similar play on immigrant pronunciation, joosh-pipples, i.e. Jewish people, mocks the ‘Mittel-European’ accent of America’s newly arrived Jews.) Another collective term isghetto-folk, a much newer phrase, but one which stems from the placing of Jews in carefully segregated areas of towns and cities, sometimes surrounded by an actual wall. The first ghetto appeared in Venice in 1516 and possibly took its name from the site of its foundation, a disused foundry or, in Italian, getto. The extension of ghetto into its modern use, an urban area (often one of its poorest) in which a given minority group is concentrated, emerges in the late 19th-century, and was initially used to describe the East End of London – then the home of England’s Jews.

Like chosen people, the Hebrews, and thus the modern abbreviations hebe, heeb, heebie and occasionally heebess, start life in the Bible. The word began life in the Aramaic hebrai (and Hebrew hibri) which literally meant ‘one from the other side of the river’. Thus Abraham ha-hibri, in Hebrew, meaning literally ‘Abraham the passer over’ or ‘immigrant’ (to Palestine), becomes ‘Abraham the Hebrew’. The word lost its ‘h’ in Middle English, and became ebreubut regained it by the 14th century.

Other ‘Biblical’ references include America’s house-of-David boy, which refers to the second King of Israel, David, whose story is found in the book of Samuel (although in no ancient non-Biblical work whatsoever). It was King David to whom God promised that his kingdom would endure for ever and it is thus that the New Testament sees Christ as one of his lineal descendants. The ‘House of David’, nonetheless, is seen as a Jewish phenomenon, and it is that image that is mocked in the phrase. Dave, by itself, has also been used to mean a Jew. Another phrase, the stiff-necked people, quotes Moses’ outburst when his patience with his flock, forever backsliding to set up Golden Calfs and the like, became over-stretched.

One of the most interesting, coined c.1820, and until the last World War most common of anti-Jewish terms has been sheeny, and it has been one of the most elusive to pin down. A variety of etymologies have been proposed: the American lexicographers Wentworth and Flexner suggest, the German word shin, a petty thief, cheat or a miser. Leo Rosten, the great popularizer of Yiddish, prefers the German-Jewish pronunciation of the German schön, beautiful, fine, nice, and a word Jewish peddlers supposedly used to describe the merchandise they offered. More complex is that proposed by Nathan Süsskind in 1989. His etymology is based on the Yiddish phrase a shayner Yid: a pious (literally ‘beautiful-faced’) Jew and thus an old-fashioned and traditional Jew and one who, according to the Talmud sports the religiously proper full beard. The term was then taken up, mockingly, by assimilated German Jews who had immigrated to England, as meaning ‘an old-fashioned Jew’, i.e. in habits, clothing and religion. These ‘modern’ Jews mocked their less sophisticated successors, who followed them from Germany and clung on (at least initially) to their old-fashioned ways. The first half of the phrase, which the ‘uncultured’ Jews pronounced sheena rather than the more Germanic schön was taken up by gentile Jew-baiters to create sheeny. Sheeny itself gives the late-19th- century snide and shine (or S and S), East London Gentiles’ slang meaning a Jew, especially an East Londoner. The term seems to pun on ‘rise and shine’, mixing sheeny with the older slang term snide: meaning, fake, counterfeit and generally dubious – a reference no doubt to the supposedly poor quality of the goods they hymned as schoen.

A small group of religiously inclined place-names complete this section. In 1930s England the Holy Land was any predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, speficially Goldberg’s Green and Abrahampstead; the Holy of Holies was the Grand Hotel at Brighton, which around 1890 became a favourite with Jewish customers, while Brighton itself was known facetiously as Jerusalem the Golden.


And finally money. The stereotype. Setting aside usury, which is considered below, the world of money and of commerce provides a vast arena for those who wish to typify the Jews as money-orientated. They are not alone in being allotted the role, but they are undeniably foremost.

Less popular today, but always available, America’s kike appears to spring from commercial roots. Although its etymology remains something of a mystery, and there is a reasonable case for suggesting that it comes from the Yiddish kikel: a circle, the mark used by some illiterate Jewish immigrants – rather than a cross – when signing papers at Ellis Island, New York (the immigrants’ ‘gateway to America’), others refer to the common ‘Jewish’ suffix -kior -ski. The most likely origin may be that suggested by the etrymologist Peter Tamony. He opts for the German kieken: to peep and links it to Jewish American clothes manufacturers who ‘peeped’ at smarter European fashions and produced mass-market knockoffs, popular among their poorer customers.

America also offers allrightnik, a Yiddish term that describes one who has succeeded, one who has raised himself from immigrant poverty to material success; especially used of New York Jews, it gives Allrightnik’s Row: Riverside Drive, once home to many successful Jews. Similarly Washington Heights, New York City was the Jewish Alps. The obvious etymology is all-right, as in the phrase do all right for oneself, but in fact the term comes from the Yiddish olraytnik: an upstart, a parvenu. Such ‘new money’ does not, of course, pass unnoticed. Jewish or Yiddish Renaissance refers to any over-elaborate furniture in doubtful taste as does the upper-class English Jewy Louis, with its emphasis on fake and flashy Louis XV or XVI furniture.

But if Jews see their material success in a reasonably, albeit ironically positive light, few others share their optimism. The Afro-American term slick-’em-plenty refers to the unscrupulous trader, using his patter to gull the credulous. Late-19th-century London sneered at the Judaic superbacy: ‘a Jew in all the glory of his best clothes’ (Ware); Jews after all were more usually found in the context of rags, thus the term Abraham: the lowest level of clothes shop, usually selling second-hand goods. Cognate terms are Jew joint and Abraham store. In law an Abraham suit is a bogus or illegitimate lawsuit, brought simply for the purpose of extortion. The Jewish or Yiddisher piano and Jewish typewriter are both a cash register or till, while the Jewish or Jew flag is a dollar bill. In US college slang a course in Jewish engineering is one in business administration and, in a similar construction, the British Army’s Jewish cavalry is the quartermaster corps, whose duties feature not gallant charges but mundane, if vital supplies. A Jew sheet is an account, often imaginary, of money lent to friends, and London’s Cockneys use as thick as two Jews on a payday as a synonym for intimacy.

Yet paradoxically, in that way that lays at the alien’s door every extreme of conduct, the Jews, with all their smartness, their money-grabbing and their avarice are simultaneously mean, cheap and impoverished. The taxation of Jews gives Jew’s eye, as in ‘worth a Jew’s eye’: something valuable or desirable. The phrase refers to the medieval practice of extorting money from the Jewish community on pain of the threatened torture of its leaders; such torture may or may not have involved blinding. Another version suggests that every organ carried a price, and that the ultimate was the eye, which would be gouged out were a wealthy Jew not to disgorge his fortune. However a further etymology, the French joaille: a jewel, cannot be discounted. In a wider sphere one finds such terms as Jewish airlines: walking on foot; Jew-bail: insufficient bail (or a promise of bail, which is not paid when the criminal absconds); Abraham’s or Jewish sidewalls: White rubber sidewalls glued on blackwall tyres to make a cut-rate imitation of the real (and once fashionable) thing. Still in an automobile world, Jewish overdrive is freewheeling down hills to save petrol, and a Jew(ish) Packard, a relatively expensive car, is a cheap Ford while the assonant Jew Canoe refers in America to a Cadillac and in the UK to a Jaguar (commonly stigmatized as a nouveau riche, and de factoJewish mode of transport).

‘No Christian is an Vsurer’

Writing in 1551, the scholar and politician Thomas Wilson (1525-81), stated (in The Rule of Reason), ‘No Christian is an vsurer’. Given the expanding economy of Tudor England, his remark was hardly accurate, but as a figurative statement it served perfectly to sum up the position of the men who lend money and take interest for their pains. But if the usurer was not a Christian, then who was he? The answer, as any of Wilson’s readers would have known instinctively, was a Jew. Based in the Latin usus: use, and thus to ‘use’ money (to make a profit), usury had always been reckoned amongst the greatest sins by Christian theologians. Its practice became grounds for excommunication and the Jews, who were in any case forbidden to involve themselves in any of the more mainstream trades, were conveniently positioned to be given this theologically burdensome but economically vital employment. Usury, and the usurer, basically defined as the lender of money at interest, have unsurprisingly garnered a poor image. ‘To whom that vsery ys lefe,’ declares a writer in 1303, ‘Gostely [ghostly, i.e. in his spirit, in his soul] he ys a thefe [thief].’ Nearly five centuries on, nothing had changed. Jeremy Bentham, defining the practice in 1787, stated ‘I know of but two definitions that can possibly be given of usury: one is, the taking of a greater interest than the law allows… The other is the taking of a greater interest than it is usual for men to give and take.’ And if the fictional Jew has two predominant images, then while one is Charles Dickens’ Fagin, a repository of centuries of grim stereotyping (for whose creation Dickens would never really make amends), then the other is Shylock, created by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice c.1598.

The rights and wrongs of Shakespeare’s portrait, let alone the background against which Shakespeare wrote, are too complex for inclusion here. It is interesting however that for all the anti-semitic mythology that runs with usury, the use of Shylock as a synonym for usury is a late-19th-century construct. Thus established it moved into the 20th century, and Peter and Iona Opie reported in 1959, in their collection of schoolyard wit and wisdom, that among the names schoolchildren used for Jews were ‘Yid, Shylock, or Hooknose’. Meanwhile the term had crossed the Atlantic, to be used by such slang-wise writers as Damon Runyon. A shylock or shy became the accepted term for a money-lender. His ethnicity was irrelevant. The American cant term shyster, a disreputable lawyer, may have links to shylock, but may equally well come from shicer, itself based on the German scheiss: shit. A twist on the usual meaning came in the 1920s when, with a (subconscious) nudge at the old stereotypes, America was known in Britain as Uncle Shylock (a play too on Uncle Sam) thanks to her insistence on repayment of the debts incurred by Europe during World War I.

Jonathon Green is the UK’s leading lexicographer of slang and lectures regularly on the subject. A revised edition of his Cassell Dictionary of Slang appeared in 2005. This article is adapted from Words Apart: the Language of Prejudice (1996.) His current work, a multi-volume dictionary of anglophone slang ‘on historical principles’ is due for publication in 2009.

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