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"?