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Practically everyone has read (or seen in a film or on TV) about a situation in which someone "stuck a shiv" into someone else. The image is of some kind of dagger, and the most common use I have observed for shiv is as a term for the kind of makeshift dagger used by prison inmates.

I use the term dagger because the shiv in this case appears to be a thrusting weapon, not a slashing one. Yet its etymology is not really clear. Etymonline describes it this way:

"a razor," 1915, variant of chive, thieves' cant word for "knife" (1670s), of unknown origin.

The American Heritage Dictionary weights in with:

A knife, razor, or other sharp or pointed implement, especially one used as a weapon. [Probably Romani chiv, blade.]

Several other sources plump for the Romani explanation, dating from the early 20th century, but while Collins says the term's origin in British English is the Romani one, it insists that the American term is from 1855-60, although on the subject of actual origin it is strangely mute. This makes me suspect it also favors the Romani origin—but how?

All this seems something of a muddle. Certainly the usages may have sprung up independently, but then there's that "of unknown origin" given by Etymonline, dating it from the 17th century. Can anyone provide a clearer picture?

Side note: I wonder if there could be some kind of line traceable between this term and one meaning of shiver, about which Etymonline says:

"small piece, splinter, fragment, chip," c. 1200, perhaps from an unrecorded Old English word, related to Middle Low German schever schiver "splinter," Old High German scivero, from Proto-Germanic *skif- "split" (source also of Old High German skivaro "splinter," German Schiefer "splinter, slate"), from PIE root *skei- "to cut, split." Commonly in phrases to break to shivers "break into bits" (mid-15c.). Also, shiver is still dialectal for "a splinter" in Norfolk and Lincolnshire.

When I entertain this term in my mind's eye I see a sharp shard of glass or ceramic that could look very much like a dagger.

  • 2
    I don’t like to entertain the thought of a shiv in anyone’s eye. :-) – Jim Feb 1 at 2:38
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Shiv (preferred spelling in US slang) is from chiv or chive in thieves' cant (from British slang). Chiv is from chivomengro (meaning knife in Gypsy or Romani language) according to several sources. Most cant terms are said to be from Anglo-Romani language which has roots in Sanskrit. The word might be related to the Gypsy word churi (meaning knife) and ultimately Sanskrit word छुरी (churī) (meaning knife, dagger).

OED mentions that chiv(e) (n) is from thieve's cant and has the earliest usage from 1673:

R. Head Canting Acad. 12      He takes his Chive and cuts us down.

Listed below are the sources mentioning chivomengro:

From Modern Language Notes (by Johns Hopkins Press):

Another cant term which may have come from the Romani is chive 'knife'. This word first noted in 1673 (N.E.D.) is still in use at the present time. The preferred spelling is chive , but it is often given as chivvy , chiv, shiv , or shive. The pronunciation is either 'shiv' (rhyming with 'to live') or 'shivvy'. There is a Gypsy word chivomengro 'knife' whose stem 'chiv' suggests itself as the origin of the underworld chive.

From Wise Young Fool (by Sean Beaudoin):

A shiv (from the Romani word chivomengro, or "knife") is a slang term for any sharp or pointed implement used as a weapon. Inmates in prisons around the world make shivs.

From Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (by The Society):

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Some sources say that it is from Gypsy chive meaning 'to stab':

From "A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant: Embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian Slang, Pidgin English, Tinker's Jargon and Other Irregular Phraseology" by Albert Barrère, Charles Godfrey Leland:

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From "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue" by Francis Grose:

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Shiv is of Romany origin. It is included by George Borrow in his Romano Lavo-Lil Word-Book of the Romany or English Gypsy Language (1874):

  • chiv, chiva, chuva: verbum activum to cast, fling, throw, place, put.

Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (3rd edition, 1949) has the following about chive or chiv which are variants of shiv:

  • chive or chiv - of Romany origin - 17th-20th century cant for a knife, a file, a saw; Romany and cant for to stab, to cut or saw (through), to ‘knife’: mid 18th-20th century (Grose, 1st edition)

Grose refers to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue first published in 1785 where chive or chife is defined as a knife, file or saw. Partridge edited Grose's dictionary and added comments to it. Here is Partridge's addition to chive:

  • In Romany chive has the specific sense to stab, from chiv, chiva (chive), chuva, to cast, fling, throw, also to place, put. G.B.

G.B. stands here for George Borrow and brings us back to the Romano Lavo-Lil.

Yet more information is found in Partridge's Dictionary of the Underworld British & American (1949):

  • Shiv, noun, is a variant of shive, than which, indeed, it is much more common. In e.g. Ersine [Noel Ersine, Underworld and Prison Slang, 1933]
  • Shive A knife, late 19th-20th century. Donald Lowrie, who was at San Quentin in 1901-11, makes an old hand say, in reference to the 1890's, ‘I always carried a shive m'self. Everybody carried a shive. Y'r had t' carry one.’ (My life in Prison, 1912)

It is interesting to note that in numerous languages one of the slang words for knife has also been borrowed from Romany but directly from ćhuri meaning knife in that language. It appears for example in French as chourin, which is now obsolete, or surin, which is still used. Wartburg in his Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch has the following remark about it:

  • chourin ist aus dem zigeunerischen churí entlehnt, so auch im argot von Barcelona xurí, im calo Spaniens churí.
  • chourin is borrowed from Romany, as in Barcelona slang xurí and in Spanish caló churí.

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