Someone suggested to me that the idiom "to shine someone on" is racist in origin.

I'm not talking about shine on or shine or any of those other uses. What I'm referring to is shining someone on meaning in either of its meanings listed here, but mainly the first one:

shine (one) on

  1. To deceive one or to tell one a lie, especially in order to deflect or avoid responsibility for something.
    He told me he hadn't touched a drop of alcohol, but I think he was shining me on.
    Don't shine us on, Marty. We know you're the one who screwed up the accounts!
  2. To insult, provoke, or aggravate one.
    After the neighbors complained about my Christmas lights, I decided to shine them on a bit by adding even more to my house.
    If you really want to shine him on, you should bring his sister to the Christmas party as your date. Don't shine the immigration officer on, or you very well might get booted out of the country!
    TFD Online, Farlex Dictionary of Idioms

I can't find any etymology for this. I'd like to know when and how it came about because if its roots are racist (shine being an offensive term for a Black person), I want to avoid it.

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    I can infer why shine might be offensive in some contexts, but for the sake of clarity, you should add the reason for it to your question rather than just assuming everybody thinks the same way. I also don't think that anybody would find it offensive in every context. So what would make shine (one) on more potentially racist than shine a light? Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 1:14
  • @Jason: See my final sentence. I give the reason there.
    – Robusto
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 2:12
  • The final sentence doesn't explain anything. All it says is that it's an offensive term for a Black person. There is no explanation for why that should be the case. Can you support that claim? Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 2:20
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    Interesting. I've never encountered its derogatory sense before, and was only making some assumptions about why it might be so. Even more interesting is that not even Etymology Online knows exactly why it's derogatory—instead using words like "perhaps" and "guess." You should add some of those references to the question for context. Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 3:14

6 Answers 6


It's a hard phrase to search for. A Google N-Gram search for "shine him on" offers a number of hits in accord with the definitions in the questions.

In the following, the phrase is described as an "old theatrical expression." In this case an actor says the script writer recognizes the script's weaknesses, and thus the actor doesn't have to "shine him on:"


All His Jazz: The Life And Death Of Bob Fosse By Martin Gottfried (1990)


According to GDoS “shine” in shine someone on and other related expressions is a euphemism for shit (a US black usage).

Shine someone on (v.) (also put someone on (the) shine, shine it on, shine on someone) [euph. shit n. (1)] (US black) to ignore, to disdain. 1968

  • 1968 [US] ‘Sl. of Watts’ in Current Sl. III:2 41: Shine it on, v. Forget about it; don’t pay it any attention.
  • 1969 [US] Cressey & Ward Delinquency, Crime, and Social Process 808: If an initiate arrives on the scene and presents an image of being ‘rowdy,’ ‘lame,’ or ‘uncool,’ he is immediately ‘put on the shine’ (shunned).
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    Can you explain how "shine someone on" acquired this pejorative meaning? I read your answer twice but I can't seem to understand how it explains that. I understand "shine" as a non-pejorative word and has very positive connotations but don't understand how it acquired this pejorative meaning.
    – user387258
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 5:33
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    @Melancholy - shine is used as a euphemism for shit, a US black usage. “Shit someone on, shit on someone, put someone on the shit.....” probably because of their opposite meanings and assonance.
    – user 66974
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 5:36
  • In the sense of "to deceive one or to tell one a lie", could the usage be in the sense of "(bull)shitting"? So "(bull)shitting someone on"?
    – dtw
    Commented Jul 16 at 14:10

in our (white) working class neighborhood we used this to imply that someone was being duped, or ignored, or deceived in some way.

"He said he would, do it, but you know he's just shining us"

"if you can't come and get me, just stop shining then, I'll find another ride"

"I asked her to come, but I guess she said "shine on that!" after I was gone.

Just my opinion, but any racist origin could be the stereotypical newsstand shoe shiner, convincing a less wary victim to "sit down, sit down it will only take a second boss"and with enough spit, and polish, and hustle, an old boot might briefly pass as new. The shine won't last and you've wasted a nickle.

  • This doesn't answer the question, it merely offers a personal opinion that confirms the expression's (already confirmed) usage. Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 5:29

It is black vernacular in America. I think it refers to smiling at someone when they're a clueless dipshit and you just tolerate it for the duration of the interchange. It could also refer to the smile of the shoe-shine toward his customers, but that's a much earlier reference. It could be the root. It basically is about a power interchange with a racist or privileged white person.

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    Please show some earlier usage to support your explanation. Commented Feb 7, 2021 at 7:54
  • In the southern US, this phrase is used by everyone regardless of skin color. Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 12:57

Shine can come from the german/jiddish "der Schein" resp. "der Anschein" which translates to "its superficial appearance" with a connotation that what's behind the appearance is not what the appearance suggested. "Der Schein kann trügen" = "appearances can be deceiving" or "der Schein trügt" = "of deceiving appearance"

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    Axel, do you have any evidence to support your suggestion that this specific expression and meaning comes from German/Yiddish? It seems unnecessary to point out the connection with German, given that the English verb shine and the German verb scheinen share a common Proto-Germanic root. Please note that EL&U is a bit different from other Q&A sites: we're looking for authoritative answers supported by evidence. For further guidance, see How to Answer and take our Tour. :-) Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 5:44

Although the term itself may not have a racist origin, use of the word "shine" could be construed as racist, depending on the context. In U.S. urban cities (usually transportation hubs), some men and boys would shine shoes to make money. Often, they would be Black males. They would be called (and respond to) "Shoe-shine" or just "Shine".
While making an honest buck was fine, the real issue here was its public image: a man (usually Caucasian and middle-class) sitting in a high-perched chair and getting his shoes shined by a Black man or boy on his knees. The image is considered subservient or servile, referencing a slave-like position and, therefore, a racist connotation.

Please understand my contribution here is merely conjecture and speculation. I have not done any formal research or read anything definitive.

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    This site seeks definitive and sourced answers, not conjecture and speculation. Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 12:58

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