A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

The Shyster Saga

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?
friend: Yah
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)


6 responses to “The Shyster Saga

  1. Mark Fitzgerald May 2, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    I THINK THIS IS HILARIOUS!!! The person who outwardly scoweled at you using the term obviously is ignorant to the fact that perhaps you aren’t around enough racism to fully understand the terms associated with minorities. YOU HAVE A GAY SON…if they didn’t know that, then they’re ignorant in assuming you would use a derogatory term. I HAVE NO RESPECT FOR THIS PERSON. What a waste of angst, over a miniscule mishap. It’s not worth blogging about. I would’ve laughed it off and said forget it, you’re not worth my time if you think I’m racially motivated in my comments. I hope the person who wrote you that understands the ignorance in assuming it was a racial epithet. I pride our family on its diversity and the acceptance I and so many have found refuge in. How dare someone assume something to blatantly innaccurate!

  2. Will May 2, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    Perhaps it was a ‘waste of angst’ (a nice expression), but I’m sorry to lose this person’s friendship and collaboration. I (and a few other people) learned a few things along the way.

  3. Natalia May 6, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    I’m with you, Will. Waving around one’s minority cred doesn’t and shouldn’t give anyone a pass when it comes to the use of historically derogatory terms. Only from a place of privilege can such usage be construed as a matter of intent (it’s about me me me and what I I I intended) rather than as a matter of effect (I offended someone who is not me but whose views are still important). I respect you for doing the research and acknowledging the problem.

    I too had a wtf moment with “shyster”; I wasn’t aware of its history, but that ignorance is a result of my privilege (I’m not Jewish; I’ve never had to deal personally with anti-Semitism). The fact that I, a non-Jew, had never heard of it does not mean that the people who have are making stuff up or being willfully oversensitive.

  4. James A. Shapiro May 25, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    As president of the Decalogue Society of Lawyer, America’s oldest Jewish bar association, I recently had to confront a complaint of anti-Semitism based on a non-Jewish prosecutor calling a Jewish criminal defense lawyer a “shyster.” The defense lawyer wanted the Decalogue to take some kind of action against the prosecutor. Some Decalogue members apparently thought it was anti-Semitic and others, including me, not. So I too researched it online and came to the conclusion that while “shyster” may have had some kind of anti-Semitic origin, its use today does not refer exclusively to crooked Jews, as opposed to crooks in general. Accordingly, we took no action in response to the lawyer’s complaint.

    James A. Shapiro
    Decalogue Society of Lawyers
    Chicago, Illinois

  5. Anna February 26, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    I had no idea that the word “shyster” was an anti-semitic term! I used it today when speaking with my mother about someone who had ripped me off. He screwed me over in a business deal- and did so intentionally. In short, he conned me- so i called him a ‘shyster.’ When y mom rather hesitantly pointed out that that might be an anti-semitic term, I was shocked!

    I looked it up online and found nothing racial in the definition… but I did notice it had a german origin. So… I could see it being used, perhaps during WWII as an insult against Jewish lawyers or businessmen. This blog entry was the first evidence I found that this might be true.

    In short… I plan not to use the word again. Thanks very much for publishing this! It’s not common knowledge- but its something I’m grateful to finally be aware of.

  6. Mali April 23, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Thanks so much for this conversation. Growing up Irish Catholic, I had close Jewish friends and always thought it was a derogatory term… but how the hell do I really know? So I mentioned it to a friend the other day who used it casually (that is could be taken the wrong way) and she was surprised and maybe a little embarrassed, not knowing the history of it. I’ll share this site with her. Language changes culture as culture changes language but I don’t think we have come far enough to use, reclaim or reintroduce a possible derogatory word. Some things are best left unsaid.

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