Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

On the Origin of ‘Shyster'
Tablet Magazine ^ | May 6, 2013 | Allan Metcalf

Posted on 05/06/2013 11:47:59 AM PDT by nickcarraway

Master etymologist Gerald Cohen knows how jazz got its name, why they’re called hot dogs, and much more

Out in the wilds of western Missouri, in Rolla, which is not far from the tornado-devastated town of Joplin, lives a scholar who has made etymology his life’s work. He is Gerald Leonard Cohen, professor in the department of arts, languages, and philosophy at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and grand impresario of American etymologists—as well as the world’s leading corraler of language historians, who often join him in tackling some of the most challenging puzzles of word origins.

Cohen does this through his unique self-published journal, Comments on Etymology. For more than four decades this journal has brought etymologists worldwide together in its pages, searching for the origins of everything from shyster to the Big Apple, from hot dog to hamentaschen, from gung ho to jazz. He also started a supplement called Comments on Judaica in order to preserve and present the linguistic notes of a single scholar, Nathan Süsskind.

Cohen named his journals Comments for good reason. “Comments on Etymology is a series of working papers,” he recently told me “And anyone who thinks that even the most careful research in etymology can eliminate errors simply doesn’t understand etymology. Errors are an integral part of work in the field and, I suspect, all other fields of research.”

His first major endeavor in this field, beginning in 1976, was a seven-year effort to clarify the origin of shyster. After he had begun his research, Roger Mohovich of the New-York Historical Society drew his attention to newspaper articles in 1843 about the Tombs, the city prison. Editor Mike Walsh denounced scammers who took prisoners’ money by pretending to be lawyers who would get them out. One of the scammers who actually knew something about the law disparaged his rivals by calling them shisers, British criminal slang for worthless people. (It comes ultimately from the German word for excrement.) Walsh misheard it as shiseters, and a new word was born.

Since then, Comments on Etymology has been the driving force for discovering the true origins of hot dog (late 19th century, joking about the use of dog meat), the Big Apple (New York City racetracks in the 1920s), jazz (baseball term from California a century ago), and dude (from Yankee Doodle Dandy), with important assistance from the independent scholar Barry Popik. A few years ago Cohen’s son said to him about Comments on Etymology: “This was your blog before there were blogs.” Now, in the era of the blogosphere, Comments continues to go against the grain. It is still published only on paper.

If etymology were music, Cohen would be conductor of an orchestra and a featured performer in it. The orchestra would probably be not a symphony but a jazz ensemble—because, like a jazz musician, he improvises, returning to the same theme again and again. When he has sufficiently refined an etymology to dress it up for formal presentation, he publishes it in more permanent form, in his series Studies in Slang or monographs like Origin of the Term “Hot Dog.”

Jazz, the great American word of the 20th century, is one of his favorites. Since 2000 he has published four drafts of a comprehensive article on the origin of jazz, the most recent covering some 167 pages. It too will eventually be published as a monograph.


To be skilled at that difficult science of etymology, you need to know lots of languages, ancient and modern. Cohen, who grew up in midtown Manhattan, got a good start by majoring in Russian civilization as an undergraduate at Dartmouth. With a Reynolds Fellowship for foreign study from Dartmouth, after finishing his bachelor’s he spent a year at Oxford, earning a diploma in Slavonic studies.

He then embarked on a doctorate in Slavic linguistics at Columbia University, for which degree he had to demonstrate proficiency in French, German, Russian, and two other Slavic languages. His dissertation, finished in 1971, was The Stress of the Russian Short Adjective: A Diachronic Study. He modestly admits that for a while he was the world’s foremost expert on the stress of the Russian short adjective—modestly, because that’s not a topic crowded with experts.

Meanwhile, with his graduate coursework finished, in 1968 he went to what might be considered the antipodes of Manhattan: Rolla. “I was looking for a suburban-type lifestyle—trees, grass, no crime,” he explained. “And the move to Rolla also offered me the chance to teach several languages.”

If etymology were music, Cohen would be conductor of an orchestra and a featured performer in it. At the university there ever since, he has taught general linguistics and Russian, French, German, and occasionally Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. And he began his apprenticeship in etymology. “Starting in the 1970s and continuing for eight years or so,” he has written, “I made a concerted effort to study as many languages as possible each day. The key to this effort was consistency.” Each day he would sit down with a pile of books about different languages—dictionaries and grammars, for the most part. And “each day I would try to learn something about a variety of languages, even if it was just one or two words per language, and hope that various insights would emerge from the effort.” At the peak of his endeavors, he relates, he was looking at 20 to 30 different languages per day.

The fruit of Cohen’s studies manifests itself in the variety of languages he knowledgably refers to in his articles and books. Here is a small sample:

—Origin of English strafe: overwrought anti-British hatred in WWI Germany and the ridiculing reaction it evoked

—Origin of the Linear B characters denoting A, E, I, U

—Carry the torch (for someone) possibly deriving from The Odyssey

—Origin of the name of the Indo-Iranians (arya)

—Possible lexical borrowing from Semitic (ancestor of Hebrew and Arabic) into Proto-Germanic (ancestor of English and German)

—Why Zhivago in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago?

—The Star of David: observations from the Jewish languages discussion group about its not originally being a Jewish symbol

One of Cohen’s most important achievements was publishing the etymological studies of Nathan Süsskind, professor of German and Jewish studies at City College, “In 1976 I attended the Yiddish section of an MLA conference and later wrote to the chairman with an etymological question about Yiddish,” Cohen told me. “He referred me to Nathan Süsskind, and when I next visited New York City, Süsskind invited me to shabbas dinner with him and his wife. After the meal he answered my question in detail. We stayed in contact and had a warm, very friendly relationship until his death in 1994.

“He was retired and had given up publishing, but he also mentioned that he had a drawer with various manuscripts in nearly finished condition. I was amazed that the Jewish scholarly community wasn’t beating a path to his door to draw out from him whatever insight he had to offer, and I was equally amazed that it was falling to me (a young scholar in Missouri and outside the field of Jewish studies) to encourage him to finish those incomplete articles.

“I promptly offered to start a supplement to Comments on Etymology, viz., Comments on Judaica, and to publish his material there. He agreed and eventually even became excited about doing so. I consider my encouragement and publication of his items toward the end of his life as one of the finest things I’ve done in my career.”

Süsskind, a meticulous scholar of Hebrew, Yiddish, and German, and a gifted writer, discussed biblical topics like:

—Rachel and Leah’s expressions about childbirth in Genesis 30, “She shall bear on my knees” and “I will be built up.” (Süsskind explains, “precious experiences of untold generations were preserved in a ritual where a barren woman would seek to become fertile by receiving a child directly as it came out of the womb into her lap ‘on her knees’ and raise it from that moment on.” Doing so would “build her up,” that is, make a barren woman fertile.)

—Jesus, the super-Pharisee. (In Matthew 24:20, Jesus tells his disciples concerning the pre-Messianic horrors, “Pray that your flight [to the mountains] be not in winter neither on the Sabbath.” Here he’s even stricter than the Pharisees, who would have allowed that “danger to life suspends the Sabbath restrictions.”)

and Yiddish topics like:

—shlemiel from the biblical name Shelumiel (Numbers 1. 6)

—shmeer meaning “the whole package”: not a Yiddish word at all, but from German

—Purim pastry hamentashen: why “Haman’s pockets”? because it recalls the story of Haman in the Book of Esther

TOPICS: Books/Literature; Education
KEYWORDS: etymology; shyster; wordorigins

1 posted on 05/06/2013 11:47:59 AM PDT by nickcarraway
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: nickcarraway

No, hamentashen are based on the three-cornered hat that Hamen wore.

2 posted on 05/06/2013 11:54:21 AM PDT by kabumpo (Kabumpo)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: nickcarraway

“Shyster” brings to mind the surname “Obama”:

Obama is an African surname. It is not an uncommon Luo surname.[1] The name comes from Swahili and refers to members of the Luo tribe who converted to Islam.[2]

3 posted on 05/06/2013 12:00:52 PM PDT by Jyotishi (Seeking the truth, a fact at a time.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: nickcarraway
I had thought that "Big Apple" came from a 1937 dance craze.
4 posted on 05/06/2013 12:03:42 PM PDT by Fiji Hill
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Fiji Hill

I’ve read an explanation on Wiki about the origin of Big Apple, and I’m still confused. Supposedly a sports writer used the term in his columns. The term basically died out when he stopped writing...until NYC began its big push for tourists in the late 70s/early 80s (I love NY!). Apparently someone on the marketing staff knew about the term and decided to use it.

I get asked quite often in Russia “Why is NY called the Big Apple?” And, having grown up in Northern NJ, my response is “I haven’t a clue.”

5 posted on 05/06/2013 12:25:24 PM PDT by Cowboy Bob (Democrats: Robbing Peter to buy Paul's vote.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: nickcarraway
Out in the wilds of western Missouri, in Rolla, which is not far from the tornado-devastated town of Joplin

The author destroys all credibility on any issue with these fundamental mistakes at the opening of the article.

1. Joplin is 3 hours away from Rolla. They have nothing to do with each other. Rolla is a lot closer to St. Louis than Joplin.

2. Rolla is not in the western part of Missouri.

3. Why refer to the location of the Missouri University of Science and Technology as the wilds?

This isn't literary license. It's stupidity.

6 posted on 05/06/2013 12:33:44 PM PDT by peyton randolph (FUBO and his wookie beard)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: peyton randolph

Tablet Magazine is a kind of provincial Jewish adjunct to The New York Times, amazed that anyone even lives in flyover land.

7 posted on 05/06/2013 12:41:21 PM PDT by jjotto ("Ya could look it up!")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 6 | View Replies]

To: nickcarraway

Aren’t the roots of “Shyster” in “Shylock” from Shakespeare’s Othello? Is that really that hard to figure out?

8 posted on 05/06/2013 12:57:01 PM PDT by vmivol00 (I won't be reconstructed.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: vmivol00

More likely from the German, as in “shoveling scheiss”.

9 posted on 05/06/2013 1:01:49 PM PDT by jjotto ("Ya could look it up!")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: jjotto

I’ve always been with the Shakespeare crowd, but Wiki mentions a “disreputable” Philadelphia lawyer named Schuster in 1843. Given the Germanic influences in Philly (a German language newspaper was the first to publish the Declaration of Independence), I wouldn’t be surprised with the intentional blending of scheiss and Schuster.

10 posted on 05/06/2013 1:30:43 PM PDT by Calvin Locke
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 9 | View Replies]

To: vmivol00; Calvin Locke

Why would Shyster come from Shylock? The character was not a lawyer, and I would characterize him as being a shyster? If anything, he was stickler on exact terms.

11 posted on 05/06/2013 1:35:31 PM PDT by nickcarraway
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: Calvin Locke

Just seems that a Shakespeare origin would have put it in common use long before it actually showed up.

12 posted on 05/06/2013 1:44:20 PM PDT by jjotto ("Ya could look it up!")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 10 | View Replies]

To: nickcarraway

I have always figured that “shyster” came from a bad German word—and it looks like I may be right.

13 posted on 05/06/2013 1:48:24 PM PDT by Fiji Hill
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: vmivol00
Shylock is a character in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (London: Hayes, 1600)
14 posted on 05/06/2013 1:52:11 PM PDT by Fiji Hill
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: nickcarraway
I haven't read or seen any Shakespeare in a while, save for modern cinematic variations.

However, I did see Christopher Plummer and James Earl Jones on stage, in "Othello", some 30 years ago.

But you're right. I don't see confusing Shylock/Shyster at that time. It must be that indeed, the palest ink is better than the best memory.

15 posted on 05/06/2013 2:05:28 PM PDT by Calvin Locke
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 11 | View Replies]

To: nickcarraway

Webster`s Dictionary, 1887:
“shyster- [Appar. after a New York attorney, Sheuster, frequently rebuked in court [1840ff.] for pettifoggery.] U.S. One who is professionally unscrupulous, esp. in the practice of law of politics; a pettifogger.”
pettifog - To do a petty law business; also to do law business in a petty or tricky way.”

16 posted on 05/06/2013 2:05:48 PM PDT by bunkerhill7 (("The Second Amendment has no limits on firepower"-NY State Senator Kathleen A. Marchione.))
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: nickcarraway
It comes ultimately from the German word for excrement That's where I always figured it came from.
17 posted on 05/06/2013 2:32:07 PM PDT by ifinnegan
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Fiji Hill

Thanks...brain fart,,,,ha ha

18 posted on 05/06/2013 2:49:45 PM PDT by vmivol00 (I won't be reconstructed.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 14 | View Replies]

To: Fiji Hill; vmivol00

Since both plays were in Venice, maybe Shylock was in the “original” version of Othello, but Shakespeare took him out when he realized Richard Burbage couldn’t play both roles in the same play?

19 posted on 05/06/2013 2:55:44 PM PDT by nickcarraway
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 14 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson