The American Heritage Dictionary states that the origins of "sheeny," a pejorative slang word for a Jew, are unknown. As a Jew, I am interested in finding out where and when this word developed. Any clues?


2 Answers 2


I found sheeny used as a group definition in 1797:

  • SHEEN, ſhe'n. 7 a. Bright, glit- SHEENY, (he'n-y. 3 tering, ſhowy.

  • SHEEP, ſce'p. f. The animal that bears wool ; a fooliſh ſilly fellow.

A complete dictionary of the English language, both with regard to sound and meaning: . . . but not a antisemitic reference; notably, the negative connotation is that ‘sheepbiter' was a thief, and ‘sheepbite’ was petty theft.

By 1891, The American Slang Dictionary, by James Maitland defined

Sheeny, a Jew. The origin of the word is much disputed.

Published in Wisps of Wit and Wisdom, 1892:

  1. — How did the term,"Sheeny," originate? As a result of the kindness shown to them, by the nations among whom they lived during the Middle Ages, the Jews, out of love for their neighbors, came to use as a benediction, salutation, valediction or malediction, the fervent wish, “Misah Meshina!’ (“Mayst thou die one of the five judicial deaths!”) Thus, a German baron pulling out the rabbi’s beard was prayed for by the whole congregation that he might take a Misah Meshina. The use of this curse became common to the extent that it was used on the slightest provocation, and the English, catching the terminal sound from the same class of people, constantly used it, or its corruption, “Sheeny,” to designate them in slang phrase.
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    Note that some of the "f"s at the start of sentences in the 1797 quote are actually "s"s (for example "filly" is "silly").
    – keshlam
    Jun 8, 2014 at 4:44
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    Please see this question, your transcription is incorrect.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 8, 2014 at 4:55
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    @Mari-LouA,as pointed out, the 'f' reflects the usage at printing in this directly quoted text. -Thanks
    – Third News
    Jun 8, 2014 at 5:00
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    @Mari-LouA People never used an f. There was simply a long ess and a round one, like how Greek has Σ, σ, and ς, so too had Latin S, ſ, and d. This represents an older tradition which many young people are unaware of; there was never ever an f in the real printing. This is from some uncorrected, dodgy scan.
    – tchrist
    Jun 8, 2014 at 5:34
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    Maybe it's lost in the editing, but my main question is, why is sheep mentioned at all? No link between sheen and sheep is established in this answer, except that both words appear in the same dictionary.
    – oerkelens
    Jun 10, 2014 at 12:01

OED says "sheeny" is of obscure origin, with a first reference referring to Jews in 1824, and other references from 1828 and 1893 (none of them obviously pejorative), and an 1888 Kipling reference where it is used as part of an insult.

They relate it to a Russian word (which I can't transcribe, so photo below) and then Polish and Czech words "zid" for a Jew.

Here is an essay on the subject, which disagrees with the OED.

enter image description here

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    That’s quite an archaic Cyrillic font they’re using there, but it appears to say жидъ (žid). Jun 10, 2014 at 14:07
  • Fascinating article, and the 'second generation' chagrin is a historically repeatable phenomena. If indeed "Sheeny goes back to Yiddish sheen “schön” (...a hateful, oddly dressed, and therefore ugly person was ironically called beautiful...)", and the local pop. mimicked the term's inference whilst remaining ignorant on the etymology, their 1797 'filthy/silly' understanding is perhaps the 'fill in the blank' replacement.
    – Third News
    Jun 10, 2014 at 16:39
  • It is a farfetched theory. There is no pronunciation of the German schon in Yiddish that sounds like "sheen." In Lithuania and Byelorus, it would have been pronounced "shayn," while in Galicia, Poland, Romania, Hungary, and parts of the Ukraine it would have been "shine."
    – Daniel
    Jun 10, 2014 at 23:02

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