Quite by chance, I encountered the following in Sylva Clapin's 1902 A New Dictionary of Americanisms:

Jew (to). The earlier editions of "Webster's Dictionary" contained the verb "to jew," and defined it "to cheat," "to play with," etc. At the request of a number of influential Israelites the word was eliminated from the book. As a matter of fact, however, the word had no connection with or reference to the followers of the Mosaic faith. It was derived from the French jeu and jouir, which means "to play with", "to cheat," etc.; but its orthography had become corrupted to "jew." It did not appear in subsequent editions of the work.

Not having encountered this information before, and having as a child gotten in an inordinate amount of trouble for using the verb (after reading it in Mark Twain, and adopting its use without the reservations that might have accompanied a broader acquaintance with the term), I looked around to see if I could corroborate Clapin's account.

OED does not give the etymology as per Clapin, but rather foists the etymology of the verb onto the noun:

Middle English < Old French giu, gyu, giue, earlier juieu, juiu, jueu < Latin iūdaeum (nominative iūdaeus) Jew (compare French dieu, ebreu < Latin deum. hebræum); in later French juif, feminine juive.

OED does, however, include jouir in the etymologies of some verbs, giving "to enjoy" as its meaning. 'Joy' (hence 'enjoy') is among the more obscure, and obsolete, 'enjoyse' and 'jouise', along with the noun 'jouissance'.

I looked farther for corroboration of Clapin's etymology and a more detailed account of the controversy that rewrote Webster's Dictionary, without much success.

The English Dialect Dictionary online (from J. Wright's 1902 English Dialect Dictionary, vol. 3) supplies dialectal attestations of the verb in the sense of "to cheat, defraud", dating as early as 1870, but remains mum on the etymology. T. Wright's 1857 Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English (vol. 2) does not mention the term. M. Schele De Vere's 1872 Americanisms; the English of the New World mentions that the verb in America is often used "in the sense of haggling, bargaining", while in England it is used in the sense of "to cheat". J. Reinius's 1903 On Transferred Appellations of Human Beings does not touch the etymology of the verb. J. Maitland's 1891 The American Slang Dictionary gives the bare American definition, without etymology, and associates it with Clapin's "followers of the Mosaic faith": "Jew, to beat down in a bargain; a habit of the Isrealite trader." Farmer and Henley's 1896 Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (vol. 4) supplies a very early (1690) attestation of the noun used pejoratively. I found nothing to the point in Barrère and Leland's 1889 A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant (vol. 1), nor in Bartlett's 1884 Dictionary of Americanisms.

Clapin's claim regarding Webster's Dictionary also proved to be a tough nut to crack, and my findings were not conclusive. An 1886 edition of Webster's Complete Dictionary of the English Language, which on its title page declares it is the "new edition of 1880", does not mention the verb. An 1884 edition of Webster's Practical Dictionary, however, does define the transitive verb 'to jew' as "to cheat or defraud (an opprobrious use of the word)." No etymology is given in the latter work. An online version of the 1828 Dictionary of the English Language does not include the verb, and does not show the verb appearing in either the 1844 or 1913 editions.

For the rest: this is a point of historical curiosity for me, nothing more. The verb 'to jew', whether or not it should be (whatever should be means, if anything, in this context), is considered offensive, and its use is pejorative.

In this context, however, it is worthwhile to point out that, at least in contemporary mythos, driving a hard bargain, even to the point of cheating those on the losing end of the bargain, was regarded with, if not approval, at least not wholehearted disapproval. As now portrayed in literature and historical accounts, the Yankee bargainer was notoriously elevated in the public estimation for precisely the behavior said to be condemned by pejorative use of the verb 'to jew'. That ambivalent attitude continues to this day, and is presently represented by the tacit public approval of prominent public figures in the US, whose chief claim to prominence rests on their having successfully cheated many elderly or otherwise vulnerable people through the enterprising practice of what is fondly if falsely proclaimed as the "art of the deal".

In sum, my question is whether Clapin's account of the verb 'jew' is accurate. That one question might be broken down into these component questions:

  • Is Clapin's derivation of 'to jew' from jeu and jouir correct?
  • Was it "at the request of a number of influential Israelites" that the verb was "eliminated from" later editions of Webster's Dictionary and, if so, who were those "influential Israelites"?
  • 1
    Does Bernard Madoff figure prominently among those "elevated" by cheating others? There is a joy in a bargain where both sides win something. There is joy in thievery for the thief but for few others. Aug 23, 2017 at 3:46
  • @anongoodnurse, Robin Hood? I avoided examples (sort of), because there are so many, and because it's the ambivalent attitude toward the individuals and their behavior that's on point. In regards to Yankee traders (then and now), as long as it was a Yankee behaving that way, it was fine or at least acceptable; anybody else, not so good.
    – JEL
    Aug 23, 2017 at 5:02
  • 1
    This 1865 edition of Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language does contain the verb. That seems to make the omission from the 1886 edition strange. However, 1865 defines it as "to cheat or defraud; to swindle." No mention of the words "to play with." Aug 23, 2017 at 17:44
  • I'm confused. Where do your references say anything about the "joy of a hard bargain"?
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 7, 2018 at 20:53

3 Answers 3


According to Dictionnaire complet français-allemand-anglais à l'usage des trois nations (1889):

The English translation of "Juiver" is "to jew" (and the German is "Handet betrogen").

The translation of "Jouir" is "to enjoy".

"Jeu" is "game, play, sport, jest".

The same dictionary has the French word "Juiverie" translated as:

Jew's quarter or ward; usurious bargain

So, in French, there is a connection between the Jewish people and the verb meaning.

It can also be understood by the capitalization of Jew by the 28 December 1861 Michigan Farmer newspaper in the phrase:

so don't try to Jew us down twenty five cents when we need every cent to get up a good paper for you

that the word was understood as referring to Jewish people.

According to the 5 September 1874 Appletons' Journal (quoting the Tribune) the verb was removed from Webster's dictionary at the request of Mr. Solomons, "a very respectable Hebrew bookseller in Washington".

  • I'm not understanding how 'juiver' relates to either 'jouir' or 'jeu', and so not understanding how 'juiver' sponsored or otherwise plays into Clapin's derivation of the English verb 'jew' from 'jouir' and 'jeu'. Clapin's claim was that orthographic corruption of 'jouir' or 'jeu' (it's not clear which, or if he means both) resulted in English 'to jew'. Yours are both very helpful observations. Given that another excellent answer credits yours as identifying the "influential Isrealites" (one of them, anyhow), I'm going to award you the inital bounty prematurely--due to circumstances.
    – JEL
    Aug 26, 2017 at 7:11
  • @JEL my point is that even in French in 1889, rather than "Jeu" or "Jouir" the word "Juiver" (which refers to Jewish people) was use for unfair bargaining. See especially footnote 25 on page 287 here: books.google.com/… which cites 1835 and 1836 French dictionaries as explaining the bargaining meaning of "juiver" and relationship to Jews.
    – DavePhD
    Aug 29, 2017 at 12:46
  • @JEL and footnote 175 on page 58 here: books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Aug 29, 2017 at 12:48

I believe DavePhD's excellent answer has identified the source of the assertion that the change was made at the "request of a number of influential Israelites."

To elaborate further, the bookseller who made the request appears to be Adolphus Solomons (1826 - 1910).

Some of the correspondence between Solomons and the dictionary was in fact published in The Chicago Tribune in 1872.

WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan 15 1872,

Messrs. G. & C. Merriam, Springfield, Mass.:

GENTS: Feeling assured that your liberality of sentiment will not knowingly permit you to do violence to the religious feelings of any of your fellow citizens by assisting to perpetuate the bigotry of the past dark age, which happily finds no resting place in our country, permit me, a Jew, to respectfully call your attention to the intolerant definition of a word which appears in the latest and all previous editions of "Webster's Unabridged Dictionary," of which you are the publishers:

I allude to the word,

"JEW," v. a. To cheat or defraud; to swindle. [Colloq.]

I would do injustice to your intelligence to offer any arguments in support of the exceptions I take to the constructions of the word in the sense given, and therefore respectfully submit that in subsequent editions you omit the objectionable definitions from your standard and deservedly popular dictionary.

Asking the favor of a reply, I am, yours truly,

A. S. Solomons.

The reply was published as well:

Hon. A. S. Solomons:

Dear Sir: We have your favor of the 15th instant, and are obliged by its frank statement of the difficulties in regard to the objectionable word. It is one of those cases where a word is used in an opprobrious sense without necessarily any offensive sense attending the original word. Thus, "Jesuitical" is used popularly to indicate a kind of artfulness and cunning. If this Dictionary in defining it, adds "used opprobriously," it is understood no offensive sense is understood, or should be appropriated to the class, sect, race or nation, from whom the word is derived.

We have ordered these words attached to the word you mention. Does that meet your wish, or what would you suggest?

The word is found in Worcester, and we believe in other Dictionaries.

We are always anxious no injustice should be done to any in our Dictionary, which has been ever impartial.

Truly yours,

G. & C. Merriam

The Tribune describes these as the first letters on the subject, and writes in a footnote that there was further correspondence indicating that "the publishers of Webster's and of Worcester's Dictionaries agree to remedy the outrage on good taste and justice which the retention of such a word with such a meaning offered to a great people. In future numbers the definition will be excluded."

According to The Missouri Granger in 1874, the word was stricken from the 1873 edition of Webster's, but reappeared in some prints of "the edition for the present year."

This prompted another appeal from Solomons, to which he received this explanation from the publishers, published in the Granger and confirming that Webster's was still resolved to remove the word:

Dear Sir: Yours of the 27th received. We are very glad you have noticed and called attention to the matter you have mentioned. When the present edition of Webster's was stereotyped we had two plates cast. We have printed from one set until last spring, making in that set from time to time such corrections as seemed needful. A record of such corrections was kept by our editor. Last spring we commenced printing from the second set, instructing our editor and electro-typer to have the corrections made in the second set that had been made in the first, and until we received your letter we supposed they had all been made before printing from them. We infer from that failure in the instance you mention occurred by a failure to put on record that correction when it was made. We now send your letter to our editor, with direction to have the correction made at once, which we trust will be satisfactory. We will see that the correction is duly made.

As for Clapin's assertion that the verb derived from French and not from the noun form of Jew, I can't find any corroborating evidence and suspect that the assertion is wrong, although proving the negative is hard to do conclusively.

One argument I would make in favor of the noun-to-verb etymology would be observing that attestations of "Jew" as a pejorative adjective extend back further than the use as a verb, and looking through these uses could show how precursors to the verb use evolved. OED's earliest attestation of the verb is from 1825, with a capital 'J.'

We hope, for the honour and character of the state, that neither the legislature nor the people, will Jew the items of expence.

  • Constitutional Adv. (Frankfort, Kentucky) · 1825.

Green's Dictionary of Slang includes from 1824 an instance that uses the verb in participle form.

He is a country clergyman; and, from his Jewing disposition, I should judge he had more taste in tithes than pictures .

  • Diary by Samuel Pepys, 1824

This participle use is similar to derogatory "adjectival" uses, which Green attests as early as 1613:

Thus you see the Iew-butcher had need be no botcher, but halfe a Physitian in Anatomizing, and halfe a Rabbine in case of conscience .

  • S. Purchas Purchas his Pilgrimage, 1613.

An attestation temporally closer to the participle variant is taken from 1818.

One sees / Jew clothes-men, like shepherds, reclin’d under trees.

  • The Fudge Family in Paris, Thomas Brown, 1818.

Antedating all of these uses is the derogatory form of the noun, which OED defines as sense 2 and attests in 1606.

As a name of opprobrium: spec. applied to a grasping or extortionate person (whether Jewish or not) who drives hard bargains.

If the sunne of thy bewtie, doe not white me like a shippards holland I am a Iewe to my Creator.

  • George Chapman · Sir Gyles Goosecappe Knight: a comedie · 1st edition, 1606 (1 vol.).

With this in mind, it appears to me that the derogatory uses of the word "Jew" as a verb evolved in a reasonably traceable manner, deriving somewhat like this:

Jew v. (derogatory) > Jewing participle (derogatory) > Jew adj. (derogatory) > Jew n. (derogatory) > Jew n. (sense 1).

This seems like a convincing explanation of the verb and seems to be the one implied by OED in linking the verb sense to the noun sense. I see it as an argument against Clapin's claim only insofar as it would take significant evidence to the contrary to suggest that the derogatory verb form didn't derive this way, and that evidence remains elusive.

  • 1
    This is an outstanding answer. A significant amount of effort went into the productive research. I will award this answer an additional 300 bounty on its supplemental merits, when I can without putting the bounty at risk of dilution or deletion.
    – JEL
    Aug 26, 2017 at 7:19

The OED has not attempted to change history. Stating that it is/was colloquial it says:

trans. To cheat or overreach, in the way attributed to Jewish traders or usurers. Also, to drive a hard bargain, and intr., to haggle. Phr. to jew down, to beat down in price; also transf.

These uses are now considered to be offensive.

Numerous examples are given between 1825 and 1972.

I have looked at the OED etymology of the noun Jew, and fail to see how it "foists the etymology of the verb on to the noun". What exactly did you mean?

Etymology: Middle English < Old French giu , gyu , giue , earlier juieu , juiu , jueu < Latin iūdaeum (nominative iūdaeus ) Jew (compare French dieu , ebreu < Latin deum. hebræum ); in later French juif , feminine juive . Latin iūdaeus was < Greek ἰουδαῖος , < Aramaic y'hūdāi , corresponding to Hebrew y'hūdī Jew, < y'hūdāh Judah, name of a Hebrew patriarch and the tribe descended from him. (The Old English equivalent was Iudeas Jews, Early Middle English Iudeow , Iudew : see Judew n.)

I would not have thought there was any justification whatever for proposing that the verb "to Jew" derives from the French "jeu" or "jouir".

Anyone who wanted to disguise the fact that sharp business practices were once attributed to Jewish people would need to ban Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" from the stage together with much other literature.

Burning martyrs at the stake was evil, but no one seeks to cover up that it happened. Why would it be necessary to disguise the anti-social mores of the past (such as anti-Semitism)?

  • 2
    I think "foists the etymology of the verb on the noun" is a reference to OED's etymology listed under the verb: Etymology: < Jew n. (sense 2). This conflicts with the Clapin derivation, hence the question. Aug 23, 2017 at 13:20
  • @RaceYouAnytime In that case shouldn't he have said "foists the etymology of the noun (sense 1) on the verb". The OED does not provide any etymology for sense 2 of the noun.
    – WS2
    Aug 23, 2017 at 15:39
  • 1
    @RaceYouAnytime The Clapin etymology seems quite preposterous to me, nothing short of an attempt to re-write history. I note that no supporting references are given to the entry in the 1902 New Dictionary of Americanisms.
    – WS2
    Aug 23, 2017 at 15:53
  • That's an interesting question (regarding "foists"). Based on the context provided in the question it seems to me that the point is to contrast OED's etymological link between the verb and noun with Clapin's claim that "the word had no connection with or reference to the followers of the Mosaic faith." (By the way, it was not me who downvoted, my intent was only to clarify.) Aug 23, 2017 at 15:58
  • I suppose 'foists' could go either way, depending on perspective, @RaceYouAnytime and WS2. From my perspective, what was being palmed (what I couldn't see immediately) was the etymology of the verb. Be that as it may, you seem to be suggesting Clapin made the account RE the verb up out of whole cloth? Not only the etymology, but the disappearance from Webster's?
    – JEL
    Aug 23, 2017 at 16:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.