Every word that we speak carries its own history. A tale of travel, a silly story or heavy hatred in its every syllable. Ethnophaulisms, or ethnic slurs, have their own etymology, which is important to understand to see why these words should not continue in modern vocabulary. The JT collected this short, incomplete list of words used against Jewish people to explore where they came from.
Abbie, Abe, Abram: This fairly young term, from the 1950s, is quite straightforward. It is a derogative of “Abraham.”
Heeb: This slang word is short for Hebrew, according to the Jewish English lexicon. “Initially this was a derogatory term but it is now used by some Jews as a prideful term to identify themselves with their community,” it notes.
Hymie: When eyeshadow that stretches to your forehead and afros were rocking a decade, this new slur was born. Oxford via Lexicon explains this term originated in the 1980s as a colloquial abbreviation of the Jewish name Hyman.
Jidan: Hatred can be found in any language. This term from Romania is a corruption of the regional Slavic term for Jew; jid. We see later that it contributes to the creation of the slur Zid.
K*ke: This unfortunately well-known slur has myriad hypothesized origins. There is a theory by Philip Cowen, editor of “The American Hebrew,” that it comes from the Yiddish word kikel, or, circle. He suggests that Jewish immigrants, not knowing the Latin alphabet, signed their entry forms with a circle rather than the customary X, which signified Christianity. On this theory, Ellis Island immigration inspectors began calling such people kikels, and the term shortened as time passed.
But according to Anatoly Liberman, author of “Word Origins And How We Know Them,” a more likely theory goes that it may come from 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,” which was simplified to Kike.
Smouch: According to Worldwide Words, when tea first arrived in Britain from China in the 1660s, it was extremely expensive and smuggling it became common. Its high price also inspired counterfeits, which were sold to dealers under the slang name of smouch. The practice became so commonplace that one estimate rounds 3 million pounds of smouch being made a year. How the sound/actual work came about is unknown, though we do know the term was also used to mean a kiss in the same time period. Somewhat later it became an offensive slang for a Jewish person, perhaps because of harmful stereotypes around conmen. The word later transformed into a verb in the U.S. which meant “to acquire dishonestly; to pilfer,” such as how it’s used in Huckleberry Finn.
Sheeny: This outdated slur has another highly debated etymology, going back to a discussion in the 1800s magazine “The Open Court.” Perhaps the oldest theory, from 1889, traced the word to the Hebrew curse misah meshina. Supposedly, some persecutors heard this curse so many times that they shortened it to the last two syllables.
Today, a more commonly agreed upon theory states the word comes from the Yiddish word for beautiful; sheyn. Liberman wrote that assimilated Jews in Germany teased newer immigrant Jews — who dawned more traditional clothes, long beards and cultured speech — by calling them sheyn. Perhaps, Gentile Jew baiters then picked up the insult.
Shyster: Readers, please be warned and take care that this one is particularly offensive. This word was defined as “unscrupulous lawyer” in 1843’s U.S. slang according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, probably altered from German Scheisser “incompetent worthless person,” from Scheisse “shit” from Old High German skizzan “to defecate.”
Shylock: From the antagonistic character of Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice.
Yid: This derogatory term for a Jew originated in 1874 Britain, from Yiddish use where it was complimentary.
Zhyd: Though originally neutral, hatred turned this Russian word for Jew into a slur during the 1800s. Its use was banned by the Soviet authorities in the 1930s.