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.”

45 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.

  17. gail:

    My mother used to tell me that one of her bigoted neighbors used to yell “beware of the sheenies” out the window to her kids every time the Jewish kids went out to play. It was in the 1920’s in Scranton, Pa. It was most definitely a derogatory term for Jews. According to my mother, the term originally may have simply meant ragman, most of whom were poor Jewish immigrants, but by the 1920’s in the U.S. it had evolved into an ethnic slur and was primarily intended as such. You may not have known that as a child, but your parents surely did. Sorry to have to tell you that.

  18. stevie:

    Enlightening to find this site and reading all the posts. I too, wasn’t sure what sheeny meant,where it came from or how to spell it. It was used by a comical story telling man who used it in a string of adjectives to describe one of the characters in his story, of which he had some business dealings with. That sheeny ass, ,mf, was the way I heard it and somehow I interpreted that it may be a way of saying the character was cheap or possibly, the character buffed his ass to shine,like some bird preening. Regardless,that is why I was happy to find this site discussing this word. Not afraid of words, but dislike the hate. The story teller bastardized many words, it was how they spoke in that area. I never sensed any hate in his story.

  19. william:

    I LIVED IN DETROIT IN THE 40S/EARLY 50S..THE SHEENY MAN WAS A BLACK MAN AS DESCRIBED WITH OLD HORSE ON THE EAST SIDE OF TOWN..WE ALSO HAD THE BOOGI MAN..

  20. Ellen Bishop:

    My mother who wad not born in MI but her mother was,my mother told the story of the Sheeney and the threat of selling children to him she know it had to do with him being Jewish, her mother was from Lennawee County MI I think it must go back well beyond the 1930 and even the 1920’s in that part of the world, and maybe even originated in New York which is where the family lived before Michigan.

  21. Richard Katz:

    My father said it was from the alphabet letter sheen!

  22. Jim:

    I grew up in Detroit in the 50’s and 60’s (east side) and the Sheeny was anyone who traveled the alleys picking up junk. Race or ethnicity or religion was not the issue.

  23. joel:

    It’s remarkable how many parents, in the midwest it seems, have threatened children with the “sheeny” I recall mother saying “if you don’t behave, we’ll give you to the sheeny” in the 1940’s in Minneapolis. He came through the ally in a horse and wagon collecting whatever, also referred to as the ragpicker and/or junkman.

  24. Bradley:

    I was born in Windsor (across the river from Detroit) in 1960. As Jim stated, neither race, ethnicity nor religion was the issue. I mistakenly equated the word “sheeny” with “junk”. The “sheeny man” was the “junk man” who would drive down the alley in an old pick up truck and lean out the window and blow a horn to let you know he was coming. The “sheeny man” was never used as a threat by my parents. Speaking to a Jewish colleague in the 80s I happened to use the word “sheeny”. I must have been relating the story about the guy who drove down the alley as that was the only context that I knew. My colleague very pointedly said that I should never use that expression again but didn’t explain why. Last night I put some garbage at the curb for pickup and my wife used the expression term “sheeny man”. I guarantee that she does not realize that the expression has its origins in a pejorative.

  25. Richard G. Burns, M.D.:

    My friend Linda’s father was named Buel Fernando,not too bad but half a mouthful at least. To friends, family and friends of family he was called Sheeny. The family said it meant jew and was derogatory when applied
    to a random man, not Buel Fernando.Excellent coverage of the type of word that needs to be covered; the article my help prevent unintended slurs by the uninitiated. RGB, King

  26. David Edwards:

    I grew up not knowing anti-anything in a very tolerant neighbourhood. The only people we hated were Nazis for we were still at war, though I don’t think we hated them (or the Japanese) as much as they were just the enemy. The German and Italian families that lived on my street were neighbours and were not to be confused with those people on the other side of the world we were fighting. We even had a couple of gentlemen that lived together, but that was okay because they were ‘brothers’ and that is how they were referred to even though they didn’t look the least bit alike. We had Catholics and Protestants among the Green and Orange Irish and, just two doors away from my parents’ house, there were three young women who didn’t seem to have jobs but no one seemed to worry about any of it. And so my first encounter with hatred came as quite a shock. We had bread and milk deliveries by horse and wagon and the rag-and-bone men shouted out something that sounded like, ‘Auuuu-dic Bone’ that I never actually understood. However, I never understood the occasional farmer who plied our street calling out, “riiii-pe berr-ies’ either. We called the rag-and-bone men, “sheeney men” amongst my contemporaries. I always thought that had something to do with American Indians because I had a book on Indians and one tribe was called Cheyenne. I learned to read when I was four (because my brother got tired of reading cartoons to me) and when I sounded out the word, I got “She” from the first syllable and “ennee” from the second, hence Sheeney. I couldn’t figure out the connection and it was at least several more years before I learned the actual pronunciation of, Cheyenne. These Sheeney men were all very sad and seemingly ancient men who were as emaciated as the poor horses they drove. They all wore either army great coats or long black overcoats and they looked as if they never had a haircut under the black wide-brimmed hats adorning their heads. They looked untidy but, from the hindsight of adulthood, that may have been because of the prayer shawls most of them wore. Whenever one of these rag-and-bone men passed by, we children took delight in running alongside, holding up three fingers as we ran. One afternoon, at the bottom of my street as we were heading home from kindergarten, a rag-and-bone man passed us in his horse and wagon. There were several of us and so we delightedly ran after him holding up three fingers while he, as usual, ignored us. He was soon enough well past us and my delight turned to curiosity. “What does holding up three fingers mean”, I asked. I was told by the biggest kid as he counted out each finger that it meant, “Jews killed Jesus”. I cannot express the various emotions and revulsion that washed through and over me. I can still feel it. I can still feel the warmth of the afternoon and the heat reflecting from the pavement and the terribly cold feeling that was residing in my gut. Christian celebrations were a big thing in those days and so the story of the nativity and the crucifixion were well known to me. I had never heard anything as stupid as ‘Jews killed Jesus’. Jesus was a Jew, I protested, and it was the Romans that killed him. I never had known shame before that moment and I wanted to run after that poor man and apologise to him. I would not have caught him anyway but, from memory, I never played with those kids again and I never made gestures to anyone from that point on. I have never understood hatred and I particularly do not understand anti-Semitism. Perhaps being Jewish is different than being of the Jewish faith, I wouldn’t know, but since the Christian god, Jehovah, and Yahweh, the god of the Jews, are one and the same (for that matter so is Allah of the followers of Islam) I fail to see what the argument is. Anyway, I will never understand hatred and I will never forget that warm mid-week afternoon when I was five.

  27. John Zoch:

    I am nearing 85 years. I knew the shinny of my time but never knew the derrivitory of the word until. I grew up knowing our shinny when I learned to walk. We kids would be calling out the window whwn we saw him coming. Were we outside we would follow his wagon as far as we allowed to go. He always had a gang of kids behind him. Thank’s for the memories.

  28. Ron Valentine:

    I recall our Sheeny, and old black man who drove his horse cart through the alleys of Detroit but in the 40’s As this was as close as a kid got to horses in Detroit his work fascinated me and I befriended him. He let me “drive” the horse as he picked through rubbish. On day, home alone I sold him rugs from my Aunt’s floors for a few quarters. It took the rest of the day to find and recover them. Still one of my best memories from city living.

  29. mcvee:

    Back in the early 50s in Shamokin, PA the sheeny man would ride thru our street in his horse drawn wagon crying out “shee-eeny mannn, shee-eeny mannn” to let us know he was there. I can’t imagine that he would use a word on himself that was considered derogatory. I was 5 at the time.

  30. Bea:

    I believe Kirk Douglas’ last name was Danielovich, not Davidovich. I have not read his book, so I do not know whether he was proud of his father for what he did, just to keep food on the table. I will have to read his book.

  31. lea:

    I grew up in northeast PA in the 70’s (near Scranton), and the sheeny was the old guy in the even older truck that pulled a huge wagon and collected metal and other junk from the sidewalks every couple of weeks. Period. The neighborhood knew when he was coming and would put out whatever they wanted to get rid of for him to take away. He was a nice enough man, waved to people that were out (and they waved back). Never was there any ethnic slur attached. In fact, we were in a mostly Eastern European neighborhood and I always thought the word sheeny must be Hungarian or Slovak, or something along that order. Never did any Jewish reference come up.

  32. Maureen:

    Your description is exactly as I remember the Sheeny Man. I wonder if they all looked like this, or did we know the same man? I never thought of this term as derogatory, that’s just what he was called. Interestingly, our west side Detroit neighborhood was mixed with Jewish, black, white, Italian, etc., and my mother was friendly with everyone. Curious that I never heard anyone object to the name Sheeny Man.

  33. El etyinger:

    I am old, 87 years old. I recall the straw-berrrroe man, the cantaloupe man and the Sheeney, who collected or bought whatever neighbors wanted to be shed of. Somehow I knew to never use that word, Sweeney, any other time. Somehow it did not feel right, and I was only 6 or 7 at the time.

  34. Maureen:

    When we were kids (in Chicago), my mom (who grew up during the Great Depression) would tell us “you sound like a rag sheeny” whenever we were yelling or hollering. Didn’t realize it was negative, until I was around 25 years old. I was relating a story to a Jewish girl and I said…I was yelling like a rag sheeny…Well, her face was disgusted and she quickly excused herself from our conversation. I kept racking my brains, as to why she suddenly took off. Realized it was immediately after I said “rag sheeny”. Figured it had to be something derogatory and wanted to kick myself because…having come from my mother, it should have been no surprise to me.

  35. Renee:

    I live in Minnesota and when I was small and my mother felt I had misbehaved she threatened to sell me to the sheeny I always wondered what it meant. I assumed it wasn’t very good.

  36. Greg Atkin:

    I was born in Windsor in 1956 and the sheenyman came thru our alleys once a month or sow with his horse-drawn wagon. The horse would defecate all over our alley which doubled as a diamond in the summer and a rink in the winter.

  37. Chris D.:

    I called my boyfriend a sheeny when he was eyeing a light that was left by my apartment’s trash dumpster. He had never heard the word and I told him that my Mom used to use it for anyone who was picking up junk and collecting it. Our family has used it throughout our lives. It’s been great fun to read the comments of this word and I would definitely say that the word must have come from Detroit, MI. My Grandmother grew up in Detroit in the early 1900’s. I think I always thought there was some Jewish relevancy, but not as a slur or never thought of the term as scary.

  38. Chris D.:

    My Mom used to use the word and to me it was anyone picking up junk and were collecting it. Her Mother grew up in Detroit, MI in the early 1900’s, so find it interesting that this is a common thread throughout the above comments. This has been and interesting read!

  39. Julane:

    I would not be surprised if it came from the Hebrew letter shin, the one that looks like a W. Most mezuzahs on Jewish doorposts have a shin, or shin dalet yud. It means Shomer Daltot Yisrael, or “He who watches over the doors of Israel. The acronym “Shaddai” is one of the names of G-d.

  40. Ruth Maginnis:

    I found a book called “gems of the universe”
    It was published in the 1930’s whichb contains a song called “Solomon Levi” which has the line “poor sheeny Levi” who has a store on Hester St. This collection of “world famous songs” contains only European tunes except for the inclusion of two Hebrew songs that are very sacred songs sung at the High Holidays. There is also a decent selection of spirituals. Very interesting.

  41. Trish Bailey:

    In my early years, my grandparents, who were Irish, used the term for an oddly dressed person, and I use it in that context still…..it’s a word used in our family for nothing derogatory,thats for sure….just a messy person….

  42. Paul:

    Shenny always meant “Trash Picker” or “Junk Collector”, (i.e Mr. Haney on Green Acres), it was a job title, no different than saying butcher, baker, or milkman. I also grew up in Detroit and everyone in my family called my grandfather a shenny because he was always bringing home stuff he picked up off the street or in an alley. I remember him bringing home everything from the old metal 35 mm film ‘cans’ with the screw lids to a huge china cabinet that my grandmother made him smash up and burn, (in a old 55 gallon drum he always had seemed to be burning behind his garage).

    Times were so different then, and as one of the other posters noted, we never used shenny as a slur, there were plenty of slurs back then, I was a “mick”…

  43. Marc Wilson:

    In Chicago, the Irish customers at my grandfather’s store called “Jewish” rye bread “sheenie bread.” My mom, et al, took it as an antisemitic epithet of Irish origin. Apparently not.

  44. George Taylor:

    Also lived in Windsor, late 50s early 60s. Same experience – the sheeny man was just the guy with a horse and cart who drove through the alley, blew his horn, and collected scrap metal. Never knew the term “sheeny man” was derogatory. Surely my parents heard us use this term, or used it themselves. If it was derogatory to them they certainly would have forbidden its use, as they were very correct about such things, and raised us to be as well.

  45. WolfPack:

    When my Father’s (Italian) Great Aunt passed away, she left $800 in her will (which was a lot of money in the early 70’s). The check was made out to Louis Sheeny (last name).Knowing Sheeny was not his middle name, I asked why? I was told that the Aunt called him Sheeny because he held on to everything, ie: nuts, bolt, spring etc and put them in coffe cans in the basement in case something broke he had parts to fix it. They then told me “like the old man with his bike and cart who rode by once a month.” They called him the sheeny man, he carried pot, pans,knives, rags etc. He even would sharpen your knives on a stone mounted to his back tire, that he would prop the bike up and move the peddle with one hand and sharpen the knife with his other.By mid 1970s, he stopped coming around. So in my little street in Ohio, Sheeny was the “rag man”.

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