"shyster" does not derive from a lawyer named Scheuster

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Fri Apr 18 00:14:53 UTC 2003

At 8:02 AM -0700 4/17/03, James Smith wrote:

>I looked-up "shyster" in my handy Websterís New
>Collegiate (1977).  It gives the etymology as from Mr.
>Scheuster, an attorney "frequently rebuked in a New
>York court for pettifoggery."  Any credence to that?

    No.  There is no chance (zero) that "shyster" derives from a
lawyer named Scheuster.  The etymology was first set forth by Frank
Moss in his 1897 _The American Metropolis From Knickerbocker Days To
The Present Time_, p.183:

    "The term shyster had its origin in the Essex Market Police Court
fifty years ago, when Justice Osbourne dispensed (with) justice.
There was a Clinton Street lawyer named Scheuster, whose practices
were reprehensible and were obnoxious to the judge, and when another
lawyer played a mean trick, the judge would call it 'Scheuster'
practice.' Soon those lawyers who emulated him were call shysters."

    I will now skip the two later people who adopted Moss' etymology
and cut to the chase: Barnabas Osborn became a police justice (1845)
only after "shyster" originated (1843); so even if a lawyer named
Scheuster irritated Judge Osborn, "shyster" could not have arisen
from this confrontation. Also, Scheuster turns out be be almost
certainly a fictitious character; considerable searching has turned
up nary a trace that he existed.

     For a full discussion of the "Scheuster" hypothesis, see my book
_Origin of the Term "Shyster"_ (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang
Verlag), 1982, pp. 4-10.
Also, word researcher David Shulman was the first to question the
Scheuster hypothesis (1973, _The Light_, Nov. 1973, pp. 4, 15;
reprinted in my _Studies in Slang_, part 2, 1989, pp. 93-94).

    Btw, Merriam-Webster is aware of my work on "shyster" and has
included the story behind the real etymology in _Webster's Word
Histories (Frederick Mish, editor), 1989, pp.424-426.  And Jesse
Sheidlower (editor, OED) has told me that OED will update its
"shyster" entry when his staff gets to the letter S; at the very
least, this will include the earlier attestations of the term.  Might
I also give credit to former newspaper librarian at the NY Historical
Society, Roger Mohovich (pronounced Muh-HOH-Vich), who discovered the
1843 attestations in the NYC newspaper _The Subterranean_, thereby
setting me on the right track.

Gerald Cohen

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