Is ‘Shyster’ Anti-Semitic?

Sometimes the most common terms mean different things to different people. Meaning depends on context, as we lawyers well know. After all, interpretation is a large part of what we do. The New York Observer, for example, recently (April 21) complained about the National Review’s use of the word “shyster.” According to the Observer, “shyster” is a “deplorable and demeaning word,” “not acceptable in polite company,” “offensive, redolent with prejudice and hatred.”

The part about “prejudice” threw me for a moment, but the Observer explained that “shyster,” “has traditionally been loaded with anti-Semitism.” To the Observer, it has “bigoted associations” because people who use the epithet are “talking about Jewish lawyers who in their minds are no different from the scheming, devious Shylock.”

Get it? The first syllables are the same: Shy-lock. . . shy-ster. It is as if the sounds to the ear become equivalent to the mind. And of course lots of lawyers are Jewish.

The editorial confused and surprised me. Of course, I had heard the word shyster before, many times, but never put an anti-Semitic cast on it. Naif that I am, I just thought it meant a crooked lawyer. Indeed, I had heard many Jewish lawyers use the word. Now I had to find out the truth.

I looked up shyster in the best reference work I could find. I turned to A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage published in 1995 by leading legal wordsmith Bryan Garner. I was not disappointed. There, on page 806, Garner defines shyster as “a rascally” lawyer; one that is “shrewdly dishonest,” “an unscrupulous lawyer.” So far, no prejudice, except the welcome and healthy prejudice against crookedness.

As Garner points out, however, the word shyster “has long been an enigma to English-language etymologists.” But the enigma was “conclusively” solved in 1982 when one Gerald Cohen wrote Origin of the Term “Shyster.” Shyster, it turns out, was born, of all places, here in New York City. Perhaps that should come as no surprise given the number of lawyers in this town.

Cohen found no anti-Semitism in the derivation of shyster. It was coined by a Manhattan newspaper editor in 1843-1844. Cohen described how the newspaper was on a crusade against legal and political corruption then in the city. During this crusade, the editor formed the word “shyster” from the vulgar German word Scheisse (= excrement), hence “scheisser” became “shyster.” This, says respected lexicologist Garner, is the correct etymology of shyster.

The linking of shyster to Shakespeare’s Shylock is, reports Garner, only one of several mistaken hypotheses. Other erroneous theories are that the word comes from the proper name Scheuster, supposedly the name of a corrupt practitioner; from the Gaelic siostair (= barrator); and variously from words in Yiddish, Dutch and Anglo-Saxon.

None of this means that the Observer is absolutely wrong. After all, bigoted people can, and frequently do, use code words to veil their prejudice. The Jewish people have long experience with such code words.

Take the word “Zionist.” Sometimes it simply refers to someone who believes in a Jewish homeland or who settles in Israel. Coming from the mouth of a sneering U.N. delegate, however, the same word can be a masked anti-Semitic slur.

On the other hand, there is such a thing as being oversensitive and imagining prejudice when none exists. Consider the word “niggardly,” which means stingy. By itself, it is an unbiased word. But niggardly can be used today only with great risk of offending many people. In 1999, a white aid to the mayor of Washington, D.C. used the word niggardly in a conversation with two other aides. Eleven days later, he resigned as romors were spreading that he had uses a racial slur. The ear plays politically correct tricks on the brain’s common sense.

To be sure, shyster is a derogatory term. It may even be defamatory. But by itself and without more, it is derogatory and defamatory to lawyers, not Jews. Shysters come in different religions.

Some of us might think linking shyster to Shakespear’s character maligns Shylock. Although he has often been portrayed as a monstrous villain, a substantial (though minority) body of commentary views Shylock as a victim of injustice, more sinned against than sinning, as the true hero of the play, shown no mercy by Portia, and trapped by secret legalities. Rather than a fiend, Shylock strikes the minority as a tragic victim of religious and ethnic prejudice.

Much turns on the speaker’s or writer’s intent and the listener’s or reader’s response.

There is a lesson here for lawyers.