The Etymology of Hate


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.

girl with dictionary
Image by Наталия Когут from Pixabay

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 word 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.

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  1. Very surprised that the “Jewish Times” would have an article on negative words describing jews. If someone does not like you, they don’t have to bring up your ethnicity. Words like jerk, a-hole, slimeball, crook, shithead, mutherF*****, are more appropriate. Those words can be used agains any ethnicity. And it is better to not bring in a person’s ethnicity when you do not like them or have a strong distate of them.

    Some of the negative words are referring to Jewish people, and some are refering to a particular type of people. Lawyers have always been hated, and the term “shyster” was against lawyers. But most lawyer are jews. Need to be smart to be a lawyer. But not all lawyers are Jew, just a large percentage are. So that word gets tagged as being anti semite, yet it is because lawyers are mostly Jews.

    Enough, I just was surprised that a Jewish publication would write about some topic like this.

    • Thank you to the Jewish Times for being a reliable source of information, since I am reading, ‘Good As Gold’, by Joseph Heller, and the main character, named Gold is insulted by his antisemitic potential father-in-law, Pugh Biddle Conover, and I wanted to determine the origin of the term Hymie and this article appears to be the only reliable answer and explanation. Siri wouldn’t respond to the question so it’s nice that there’s an honest answer here for ‘my kind’ of people!

  2. Is the term “Jewfro” considered a slur or insensitive? The term was used to the person who identified as Jewish and had curly hair by a non-Jewish person. I know the person who used it did not intend anything negative by it.

  3. Shyster has nothing to do with anti Semitism. Common misconception and confirmation bias looking for prejudice where none exists. It does have to do with the german word for shit, but otherwise, it doesn’t mean the shit you claim.

  4. Assimilated German Jews “teased” new immigrants by calling them a word in eastern European Yiddish? Very doubtful.

  5. “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”

    Under the smouch section, I think you meant to say, How the sound/actual ‘word’ not work.

  6. “shyster” applied to a Jew is antisemitic because of the “Jewish lawyer” stereotype, but its etymology is not related to Jews and when used to derogatorily describe lawyers in general it has no antisemitic connotation.

    • You are correct, as explained at

      “Considering the Shyster
      Many people have come to believe that shyster is anti-Semitic, but the origins of the word are linked to a Manhattan newspaper editor in 1843–1844. According to, during this time, there was a crusade against legal and political corruption in the city, and the editor derived the term shyster from the German word scheisse, meaning “excrement.”

      There are several reasons for the anti-Semitic confusion, including the closeness to Shakespeare’s Shylock and belief that the term came from the proper name of Scheuster, who some think was a corrupt lawyer. The etymology of the word indicates it was never intended as a racial slur, and that it was applied derogatorily to lawyers in general and not to any single ethnic group.”

      I can understand wanting to call corrupt lawyers “shitsters”, and no one race can claim all the corrupt lawyers. Unfortunately, there are way too many legitimate racial slurs out there, no need to add words that don’t belong. That’s not to say that prejudice people haven’t used that word and meant it to be a Jewish slur, but they’ve used all the other words in the dictionary, too.


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