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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.”

76 comments to Sheeny

  • 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.

  • 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, springs, 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 the mid-1970s, he stopped coming around. So on my little street in Ohio, Sheeny was the “rag man”.

  • Faye Marrocca

    I was putting on paper some of my memories of growing up in Detroit in the 40s and 50s and wondered about the name “Sheeny Man”. This is what the neighborhood kids called the elderly black man who collected scrap metal, and bought rags and newspapers. I never heard the name from my parents. If they’d heard me call a hard working adult a name considered derogatory I’m sure I’d have received a lecture. We had a very diverse neighborhood and my mother tried to give the man first chance at my outgrown coats in case his family could use them. At the time I thought no one was poorer than we were. Certainly Sheeney didn’t seem to us derogatory at the time and I had no idea it could be a slur against Jewish people.

  • Thomas

    I grew up in the Rouge Park area of Detroit back in the 50’s. The horse-drawn wagon made regular rounds, not only through the alleys, but the streets too. Make no mistake, the driver was always referred to as a “sheeny”. As I recall, there never was any reference to his ethnicity, and the sheeny man could be of any race or creed.

  • John

    I grew up in southwest Detroit during the late 40s and early 50s just off Woodmere between Fort St. and Vernor.
    Great neighborhood with Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, German and Irish folks. Everyone was happy even though many had relatives enslaved behind the Iron Curtain after WWII. The first sheeny I recall had a hand-drawn cart he pushed up and down the alleys of the area. He then moved to a horse-drawn cart and blew a small shrill horn. I can still hear it. Finally he used a beat-up ’48 Chevy truck with extension boards to accommodate his findings. I always thought “sheeny” was a purely benign Detroit thing, like Vernor’s Ginger Ale. I never encountered anyone outside the area who had heard the term.

  • Dan McGinn

    I recall a rag sheeny in St. Paul, MN back in the mid to late 1950’s. I was about 5 at the time. He rode in a horse-drawn wagon collecting rags. The last time I saw him his horse had collapsed on the south end of downtown St.Paul. I never saw him again. I was sad, but I’m sure the street cleaning crew were extremely happy.

  • Lucy

    A few minutes ago the word sheeny came to mind. I told my cat she was a little sheeny for misbehaving. I grew up in Detroit in the 50s. My mother would use the term when my brother and I would behave like a little imps, so that’s what I thought it meant. She is the only one who ever used it. Although we are Irish Catholics, she attended an all Jewish high school. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it or not. It wasn’t until I read all the information about the word and what people had to say about it. I appreciate all the comments. They were quite informative.

  • Margaret Waggoner Lake

    In the 50’s in Hamtramck, MI when i was five we would visit my Dzia Dzia. Every house had a back yard that had an alley. There was an old man with a horse and wagon who would come down the alley picking things out of trash cans or piled in the alley. He was called a Sheeny Man or a rag man. He was a nice guy. My mother said that during WWII it was a patriotic thing. They would pick up things that could be recycled for the war effort. She said they were looking for rags (hence the term “rag man”) and they collected metal cans and cardboard and newspaper. We would often go “alley picking”. We often found dolls..shoes..toys..and other stuff that we could play with. This ended when one of my cousins thought he found a doll but it turned out that it was a dead baby. After that none of us would go in the alley. Yes the police were called. How it ended I never knew.

  • Bryan Trottier

    I grew up in Windsor, Ont. (across from Detroit) in the 70s. I clearly remember both my Mom and her parents using the word to describe the seemingly itinerant knife-sharpener- cum-ragman who would come through the neighbourhood. My Grandpa would also use the word interchangeably with “shabby” when we were dirty from playing outside, etc. I figure now (and did then) that it was a direct comparison to the bedraggled appearance of one who relies on scavenging for an occupation. Haven’t heard the word in years until stumbling upon this post while researching Irish Travellers. When I was young, we’d often be told we’d be “given to the sheenyman” when we misbehaved. While I’m certainly the farthest thing from a proponent of politically correct speech-policing, and abhor the modern tendency to find ethnic grievance around every corner, it occurs to me that the concept of “being sold to the sheenyman” probably has its roots in the Blood Libel, whereupon the canard that Jews killed Christian children to make Passover matzoh was used to justify all manner of pogroms and atrocities. While I highly doubt the vast majority of people who used this seemingly regional word meant any offence or hate in using it, and were rather unaware of its being a slur, I’m thinking that’s probably what it started out as.

  • Diane

    My parents grew up in a small Pennsylvania coal mining town in the 30’s and 40’s. My mother has mentioned the sheeny and his wagon selling ribbons, pots and pans, and collecting rags. She had mentioned that he was Jewish, but never told the story as derogatory. She mentioned many different people in the neighborhood.

    • Doug

      I grew up in Northeast Pa in a coal mining town. The sheeny man was just another of the many vendors that made a living by driving all over town. We had grocers selling produce, the milkman, the beerman, sodaman, and the sheeny man. It was never spoken with contempt so I reject the notion of it being derogatory in common usage, although its origin I never knew. This died out in the late 60’s or early 70’s, along with the corner grocery store.

  • Merri Jo Gallant

    My father’s side called the metal scrap man a sheeny. My grandparents were of German descent so even though I personally didn’t know the derogatory meaning it’s very possible they did.

  • Chad

    How can a term be extremely offensive if the origin is unknown and “may be based on the German word meaning beautiful”?

  • David Malbuff

    The only possible way for a word to be taken as offensive is its deliberate usage as a word of offense. Its origin or original meaning make no difference.

  • RICHARD FRANCIS LITZINGER

    We had a ragman who came around crying “Rags, paper, rags!” We never referred to him as a sheeny man. I heard some people using the word as a derogatory way to refer to Jews. Our town had very few Jewish people, and they were generally involved in business, music or medicine. Names can be interesting. My dad was known as ‘Shiggy’ to his friends, a moniker he got after mispronouncing ‘Chicago’ when reading aloud a sports article to his friends.

  • JANE GUSTAR

    I remember the Sheeny man, the ice man, the knife sharpening man, and the coal man all with fondness for the simple way of life in the 1950’s. There was no racism in my life that I was aware of as a child. All if these men had a purpose. And who can forget the photographer with his pony?

  • Dorothy Santa-Maria

    Having grown up on Cleveland’s Westside in the 1940’s, one of my earliest memories is the horse drawn ice man’s long cart and the man who called out. “ Paper – Rags “ as he drove down our street. Everyone called him the “ the Sheeny “ and during WW ll we would alert my Mom, so she could give him our cooking grease in jars for the war effort. As kids on a hot summer day we would pick up any chips of ice that landed in the street and treat it like a popsicle, after wiping it off on our clothes. As we had both a Refrigerator and a wooden icebox.
    Mom would put the card in the window with the amount wanted showing at the top of the card.
    Each corner of the card had a different weight, so the iceman knew how much to deliver. The choices were 25 – 50 – 75 – 100 pounds depending on how large the icebox was. F E Walker Dairy was still home delivering dairy products by a horse drawn Cab style cart. Bread, poultry and eggs, and produce was also home delivered, and each of the major Department stores in
    Cleveland would home deliver or send your purchase gift wrapped to a bride or anyone else you chose. Those were The Days of my Life. I never knew what happened to all of that cooking grease, that was collected.

  • Marion Scott

    How interesting! I was born in 1931 and grew up in Detroit. Until I read these posts I only knew of a sheeny man who was a poor black man (Negro) who used an old horsedrawn wagon to pick up junk. I had never heard the term used any other way. I didn’t understand it to be discriminatory but rather just a title. When you use the term now most people don’t know what you’re referring to so you have to explain. My husband told a story of when he was a little boy. He came running in crying and when his Dad asked him why he was afraid of the sheeny man he replied, “I’m not afraid of the sheeny man, I’m afraid of the sheeny man’s little boy.”

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