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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.”

63 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, 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”.

  • 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 accomodate 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.

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