Thursday, March 2, 2017

Is the Term "Shyster" Anti-Semitic? A Footnote to Yesterday's Posting

I'm grateful to Cleveland Girl for a comment yesterday when I used the term "shyster" in a posting. She tells me that the term has anti-Semitic overtones. 

As I told her in response, I certainly would not ever want to use a term that has anti-Semitic overtones, and was entirely unaware that this word has such overtones for some people. The only way I ever heard the term "shyster" used as I was growing up was to refer to lawyers, my father included. He became incensed on one occasion when a family member used it jokingly to refer to him — a memory that has stuck in my mind, as disputes between familiar adults frequently do in the case of children.

So I had thought of this term as one applying to lawyers. I also had the impression it is a term used to refer to people with authoritarian tendencies who are duping others, and so before using it yesterday, I did, in fact, do some desultory research to see whether I was right about that usage and to inquire into the etymology of the word.

The several sources I consulted all said the etymology of this word seems murky, but their best guess is that it derives from German slang, Scheisser. All said it historically has referred primarily to lawyers, but is often used to refer to duplicitous, empty authoritarian figures.

None spoke of any anti-Semitic overtones. 

After Cleveland Girl left her helpful comment here yesterday, I did a bit more digging. I find an excellent article by Daniel J. Kornstein in New York Law Journal entitled "Is 'Shyster' Anti-Semitic?" Kornstein notes that words connote different things to different people, and that, when the National Review had recently used the term "shyster," the New York Observer responded by claiming that the word is derogatory and has anti-Semitic overtones. Because its first syllable is the same as the first syllable of Shakespeare's Shylock . . . . 

Kornstein responds:

The [New York Observer] editorial confused and surprised me. Of course, I had heard the word shyster before, many times, but never put an anti-Semitic cast on it. Naif that I am, I just thought it meant a crooked lawyer. Indeed, I had heard many Jewish lawyers use the word. Now I had to find out the truth. 
I looked up shyster in the best reference work I could find. I turned to A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage published in 1995 by leading legal wordsmith Bryan Garner. I was not disappointed. There, on page 806, Garner defines shyster as "a rascally" lawyer; one that is "shrewdly dishonest," "an unscrupulous lawyer." So far, no prejudice, except the welcome and healthy prejudice against crookedness. 
As Garner points out, however, the word shyster "has long been an enigma to English-language etymologists." But the enigma was "conclusively" solved in 1982 when one Gerald Cohen wrote Origin of the Term "Shyster." Shyster, it turns out, was born, of all places, here in New York City. Perhaps that should come as no surprise given the number of lawyers in this town. 
Cohen found no anti-Semitism in the derivation of shyster. It was coined by a Manhattan newspaper editor in 1843-1844. Cohen described how the newspaper was on a crusade against legal and political corruption then in the city. During this crusade, the editor formed the word "shyster" from the vulgar German word Scheisse (= excrement), hence "scheisser" became "shyster." This, says respected lexicologist Garner, is the correct etymology of shyster. 
The linking of shyster to Shakespeare's Shylock is, reports Garner, only one of several mistaken hypotheses. Other erroneous theories are that the word comes from the proper name Scheuster, supposedly the name of a corrupt practitioner; from the Gaelic siostair (= barrator); and variously from words in Yiddish, Dutch and Anglo-Saxon.

And those observations encapsulate very neatly my own history with this word: just as Daniel Kornstein is confused and surprised to find that anyone would associate this term with anti-Semitic prejudice, I'm equally confused and surprised to hear about that association, as well — just as I've been confused and surprised to discover that some people think the term "niggardly" derives from racist roots and is a slur against African Americans (Kornstein brings up that association as he points out how the ear can hear in a word what is not even there, turning "shyster" into something about "Shylock"). Like Daniel Kornstein, I have never heard anyone use the term "shyster" in my own cultural setting as an anti-Semitic term — rather, as a term of abuse of shady lawyers.

Growing up, I probably heard this term most frequently (and fell in love with it) because it was a favorite word of one of my parents' friends, a colleague of my father's who happened to be a Jewish lawyer in the same town in which my father practiced law. He was a man of high moral principles and large charity, who was exceptionally kind to my mother when my father died leaving her a young widow. He could not abide fellow lawyers who were shysters, shady dealers, and he made a point of saying this often.

My apologies if anyone thought I was either deliberately or inadvertently using the word "shyster" yesterday to slur Jewish people. It would be very strange for me to do anything of that sort deliberately after having shared, in posting on posting, my revulsion at the attacks on Jewish cemeteries since Mr. Trump was elected, and the threatening calls to Jewish community centers.

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