On the Fasola discussions list (a list for discussions about the history and practice of shape note singing), I wrote the following paragraph about a crooked ‘singing master’ (that is, a 18th or 19th century singing school teacher):
On the other hand, I did recently read (in the Historic Missouri Newspaper Project online archives) a warning advertisement for one singing master who was a shyster and who absconded with funds collected for the school and for printing flyers, etc.
I was surprised to get the following email soon after it was posted, from someone I had hoped to collaborate:
… who was a shyster…
Forget it Will. I’ll keep my materials.
I will not be associated with this type of language.
I had no idea what was meant, so I wrote:
Could you help me understand what you object to? Is there some clarification I need to make?
I try to be careful in my language, and would really like to understand your objections.
And the person replied:
I do not, will not and will (sic) not be associated with anyone or anything
using racially pejorative words.
Yikes! This person was clearly upset, and apparently, I’d violated one of my important values. I don’t want to be associated with people who use racially pejorative words. I looked up “shyster” in the online dictionary that comes with the Mac (The Oxford American):
shyster: a person, esp. a lawyer, who uses unscrupulous, fraudulent, or deceptive methods in business. ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: origin uncertain; perhaps related to German Scheisser “worthless person.”
No mention of race there. On to the search engines, then; eventually to: search “shyster Jewish lawyer”
Debbie Schlussel Executive Director Dawud Walid sent out an e-mail calling me a “Shyster”—which is to “Jewish Lawyer” what “Nappy-headed Ho’” is to “Black Woman”
UrbanDictionary.com A shyster is someone, usually a Jew, who acts in a disreputable, unethical or unscrupulous way, especially in the practice of law and politics, or a con artist.
London court documentThe term “shyster lawyer” when used in connection with a Jewish lawyer is designed to provoke anti-semitic feeling.
Etc. Yikes, again. I checked via IM with a friend I trust:
me: so, quick PC language question: is ‘shyster’ racially loaded?
me: I had no idea until today …
So I wrote a note of apology to my correspondent, and the following to the Fasola group:
When I wrote this, had no idea that ‘shyster’ is a racially/religiously loaded term (an epithet for a Jewish lawyer). I appreciate having this pointed out to me. For those who found this offensive, I apologize and ask your forgiveness. I won’t be using it anymore.
For those who didn’t, I recommend that you learn from my ignorance. There are plenty of words around to describe crooks and thieves without bringing race or religion into it — to say nothing of occupation.
By this time, I was fairly aware that the Oxford American’s etymology is the generally accepted best guess. Gerald L. Cohen wrote two books about its etymology, and came up with the Scheisser etymology, which is not a Yiddishism, although it must be somehow related to the Yiddish alte kocker. And that the etymological derivation is not an eponym from Scheuster, an unscrupulous Jewish lawyer in 19th century New York (as Webster’s New Collegiate dictionary of 1976 has it, apparently).
And then the emails started to come in, and posts to the discussion group.
Almost all of them took the following direction: They wrote to describe the true etymology of “shyster,” and urged me not to give in to “political correctness.” Some of the explanations were wrong, but most of them circled near the real etymology and away from the false Scheuster etymology. Usually this would following with an encouragement not to give in to the thought police or to being politically correct. It was clear that there is some real hurt people have felt over past ‘PC’ incidents. Sacred Harp singers come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, from be-draped pagans to hard-line atheists, to Primitive Baptists, Jews (usually fairly secular ones, since we sing so much about Jesus), Hindus, to the occasional ex-non-church-goer, ex-Baptist, ex-Reformed, ex-commualist, practicing Mennonite. ‘PC’ language has been one of the rare places where singers have allowed themselves to express disagreement with the ‘left wing’ of the fold. So they (some with memories of past discussions on their minds) urged me to not give in.
Some people got a real kick out of some the etymological explorations; calling someone a scheisser seems much naughtier than shyster. They were especially pleased when I told them to look up pumpernickel.
I am a linguist by training, and so I don’t believe that etymology defines the meaning of a word. It can inform it, obviously, especially if the etymology (or false etymology) is well known. I can’t call my wife a ‘hussy’ just because it’s etymologically derived from an early form of ‘housewife.’ Words get their meanings from their use, so I’m afraid I can’t use the etymological argument about shyster.
So, although it’s based on a false etymology, enough people use the shyster==shylock==crooked Jewish lawyer meaning that I won’t use it any more. As I said, there are lots of other expressions to use; and if we run out of English words, we can use Yiddish: nudnik, shlemazl, schmuck, fonfer, gonif, …
I wish my motives were pure. I admit I got a little thrill calling a singing master who has been dead for over a hundred years a bad name. Doesn’t it seem unfair that he wasn’t able to defend himself? I sing enough about death; I should have more respect for the dead. Walter Trobisch once said something like an personal insult is whispered directly into the devil’s ear, and I nearly believe. it.
Teach us, O Lord, how frail is man;
And kindly lengthen out our span;
Till a wise care of piety
Fit us to die, and dwell with thee. (Isaac Watts)