Sheeny

Drop that Word

Dear Word Detective: The spelling may be incorrect, but the term is pronounced “sheeny man.” I believe it refers to a person who buys and sells junk; a rag and bone man. I am interested to know the derivation of this term and its correct spelling. — Mary Mulhern.

I must say that your question took me slightly aback, and before I answer it, I’ll explain why. It reminded me of a day I remember quite clearly, although I was only about 11 or 12 years old at the time. I came marching into my parents’ living room that afternoon, absentmindedly singing a little jingle I’d picked up somewhere, probably at school, as children often do. I was utterly unprepared for my mother’s shocked reaction to my little song, but after she explained that one of the words in the jingle (it was “jigaboo”) was a virulent slur against Black people, I was appropriately shocked myself.

So I am certain that you are as innocent in asking your question as I was in repeating that little jingle, which means that “sheeny” survives somewhere as acceptable conversational vocabulary, which is depressing, to put it mildly. “Sheeny” is a very old and extremely derogatory term for a Jewish person. It first appeared in the 19th century and its origin is uncertain, but it may be based on the German word “schon,” meaning “beautiful.” The theory is that Yiddish-speaking Jewish merchants pronounced “schon” as “sheen” when advertising their wares, and the word was then picked up as slang for Jews in general. While “sheeny” was at first not especially negative in connotation (and was used by Jews themselves in a joking sense in the mid-19th century), in the 20th century it has become an unambiguously anti-Semitic slur, on a par with “kike.”

16 comments on this post.
  1. Don Ballantyne:

    Actually, the origin goes back to the fifth book of Moses: Deu 28:37 And thou shalt become an astonishment 8047, a proverb 4912, and a BYWORD 8148, among all nations 5971 whither the LORD 3068 shall lead 5090 thee. Byword is translated “sheeny”.

    It was a prophetic verse telling the Israelites that they would be called Sheenies in the days to come, a slang for the Hebrew shen·?·nä’ and certainly used in a a derogatory sense. It has always been used negatively outside Jewish culture just as the term “nigger” has been used in a negative sense toward black people.

  2. Judy:

    I believe Mary is refering to the garbage pickers who pulled their wagons through the streets of Detroit back in the 1960′s and 1970′s. I don’t think she meant it in a derogatory way.

  3. Yael:

    Having just seen Don’s comment, above, and being a native Hebrew speaker (and having studies some Hebrew and Semitic linguistics as well), I feel the need to add a correction here. The word ‘Shenina’ is not ‘Sheeny’ and does not refer to a derogatory term – it basically means ‘scorn, mockery, taunt’ (from the root SH-N-N, same root as ‘tooth’, which can relate either to the word either in the sense of something sharp and cutting, or in the sense of something that is repeated often, ‘chewed over’, in the same way that the verb for ‘memorise by heart’ comes from the same root). It works well with the rest of the verse: the meaning is that ‘you’ (the people spoken to in the verse) shall become a proverbial fool, something that people of the future will make fun of for generations.
    Any etymological connection between this verse and the term ‘sheeny’ seems incredibly far-fetched to me, unless you can find actual proof that this really is the source.

  4. Ally:

    I agree with “Judy” (especially since she used the definition herself) meant only the old term for a person who deals in junk. This person usually hauled a wagon down the streets collecting “junk”. This junk could be truly junk or perhaps someone along the way would want to buy it. I believe the time would have been closer to the 40′s or 50′s, however.
    Although I have lived in Detroit, I first heard the term as a child on Ohio. Parents would sometimes threaten badly behaved children with ” giving them to the sheeny”, meaning the junk man.
    I am not sure, but possibly some junk men were Jewish, thus the term evolving into an ethnic slur. Or, perhaps it was an ethnic slur in the first place, not necessarily understood by children.

  5. Ally:

    Correction: my above comment should have read: after the parenthesis “that Mary meant..,
    Please correct or forgive misleading typo.

  6. Lynn:

    The Sheeny man was the rag and bone collector for my family. If he was Jewish we sure didn’t know. He mended pots and pans and recycled things. Sure there was the threat if you were not well behaved you would be sold to the sheeny man. The Sheeny man provided an essential service in the Great Depression. I am sad that it meant something bad. If I had not looked this up I would have had no idea I was saying something wrong. For us he was part of the neighborhood like the grocer or the milkman.
    How sad.

  7. Lynn:

    So are we insulting Jewish people by speaking of the rag and bone man as a sheeny man? I want to remove this word from my vocabulary if I aam wrong in saying this

  8. Maryk:

    Perhaps the Midwest – including Detroit – is the source for this term. Sheeny man, milkman postman egg man. All were visitors to the old neighborhood.

  9. sarah:

    language evolves and if the intent was not derogatory don’t feel bad nor delete it from your vocabulary repurposing is fashionable and apparently always has been

  10. grace:

    I also grew up in Detroit in the 50′s – 70′s. My parents grew up there also from the 20′s. My parents used ragman and sheenyman interchangeably. I never heard a derogatory connotation associated with it.And believe me, my dad was a product of his time and he expressed ethnic slurs freely.

  11. Jack Hallam:

    In the 1930s the sheenie came by in the late spring and early fall (I was away at the cottage for July and August) Our sheenie had an open cart pulled by an emaciated horse that I always felt sad for. I don’t remember whether he wore anything on his head. he looked old with a thin scraggly beard. This was in a middle class neighbourhood in Toronto. Our sheenie was only after scrap metal. I learned that he was Jewish but this term only applied to the guy in the cart who had a small whip for the horse. I remember asking my mother how do you tell someone is a Jew. The reply was unsatisfactory. This was in the years when Kristal Nacht occurred but I never learned about it till in University

  12. Linda:

    I first heard the term 30 years ago when my then mom-in-law compared my well dressed daughters to their cousins who were “dressed as little sheenies”. I had no idea where it came from but knew she meant is badly. FYI that was in Illinois. One of my daughters is now raising her 3 sons who are Jewish like their father. I’m glad I read this as I didn’t understand the racial slur.

  13. Shaun Taylor:

    We had both a Sheeny Man and a milk man who used horse drawn carts. We would feed the milk man horses Nabisco shredded wheat. Sheeny was never used in a derogatory way. Though, he used to scare the hell out of us. I’d go running into the house when he was a block away. He had a horn that he blew and tattered clothes and a beard. The whole look wasn’t far off of Dracula in the old movies. This was in the late 1940′s, early 50′s in Detroit. My paarents were post WW1 German and didn’t tollerate race descrimination of any kind. To this day I can’t use the term Jewish Rye for bread without feeling like it is inappropriate.

  14. Patricia:

    I remember when the Sheenie Man came through our neighborhood in the late 40′s, early 50′s in Ann Arbor, MI. He had a partially open tall cart with a covered roof, drawn by a very weary looking horse. If I remember correctly, he bought and sold old metal pots and pans, and he also sharpened (and sold?) knives. He dressed in rags and had shaggy salt and pepper hair, and (at my young age) I thought he was ancient. My grandmother regularly threatened she was going to “sell you to the Sheenie,” so I never got very close to him out of fear. She had such disgust in her voice when she said it that I’ve always avoided using the term because it felt so derogatory.

    It’s really interesting and enlightening to read all these comments!

  15. Julie Matuszak:

    My mother used to threaten us with the Sheeny Man, but we never new what it meant. Years later my mother went to visit her son and grandchildren in California. The grandchildren were carrying a big poster with “Grandma did you bring the Sheeny Man” right thru LAX….

  16. Ross:

    Sheeny as a slur for Jew originated in 19th century London. Definitely not the Midwest.

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