Does the Slang Word "Shamus" Come from the Yiddish "Shammash" or the Irish "Seamus"?

The long-running case of the word for private detective can finally be considered closed.

Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.

Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.

Dec. 12 2023
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Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

As we Hanukkah-candle lighters know, the candle that is used to light all the other candles but is not itself counted as one of them is called the shammash. The word denotes a servant or helper in classical Hebrew but assumed a pair of more specific meanings in the late Middle Ages—that of the auxiliary Hanukkah candle, and that of the sexton or beadle of a synagogue. In Yiddish, this became shammes, with the Hebrew accent characteristically moving from the last to the next-to-the-last syllable and the final Hebrew shin uncharacteristically changing to an “s.”

Has shammes also led another, semi-secret life in yet another language? Already in the middle of the last century, the suggestion was made that the English slang word “shamus” comes from it. Some etymologists thought this likely. The generally reliable Wentworth-Flexner Dictionary of American Slang (1960), for example, which defines a shamus as “a policeman, [and] increasingly, a police, hotel, or private detective,” had this to say about it:

Very common, especially in detective fiction, since about 1930. The spelling “shamus” is much more common than other forms [such as “shammus,” “shamos,” and “shommus”]. Probably from the Hebrew shomus [sic], a caretaker or synagogue watchman, reinforced by Irish proper names Shamus and Seamas. The most common pronunciation rhymes with Thomas, but the Irish of New York City pronounce it “shay-mus.”

The British slang authority Eric Partridge, on the other hand, thought the likelihood of an Irish origin greater. His entry for shamus in the 1966 Supplement to his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English reads:

Shamus. A private detective; adopted [in Great Britain] ca. 1944 from U.S. servicemen. From the Irish name Seamas, there being so many Irishmen in America, and so many of them connected with police work. [The British slang pundit] Julian Franklyn, however, suggests that the word may represent [Yiddish] shamus, a servant of a synagogue, a man addicted to minding everyone else’s business.

How to choose between these two derivations? The detective novelist Erle Stanley Gardner, commenting in the Atlantic in 1965 about the lack of evidence for either hypothesis, could only say, “I have made it a point to try to find out and I am completely baffled.”

“Shamus,” Gardner observed, did not seem to enjoy much currency in the actual speech of either criminals or law enforcers. A well-known private detective of his acquaintance, he wrote, “told me he had never heard the word. At my request, he asked private detectives whom he employed, and they, too, had never heard it used. I asked the wardens of various penitentiaries, and they told me they had never encountered the word except in fiction. . . . I have had quite a few contacts with inmates of penitentiaries. I have asked them about ‘shamus’ and whether they had ever heard it applied to a private detective. Not one of them ever had.”

It was the writer Dashiell Hammet, wrote Gardner, and his legendary private eye Sam Spade, played in Hollywood’s 1941 film The Maltese Falcon by Humphrey (“I’m a shamus”) Bogart, who first popularized the word, after which it was picked up by additional practitioners of the trade. Subsequently, Shamus served as the title of a 1973 movie in its own right, starring Burt Reynolds, while a Shamus Award has been given annually since 1982 for the best detective novel of the year.

Yet uncertainty over the word’s origins persists. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, for instance, which dates the first appearance of “shamus” in print to 1925, opts for the Yiddish derivation, attributing the word to a “comparison of [the detective’s job] with the duties of a sexton.” Wikipedia prefers its rival, “the Irish name Séamus, on account of many American police officers being of Irish descent.”

Allow me to break the deadlock once and for all. I call to the witness stand a forgotten novel, hitherto ignored in the debate, titled The Shamus and published by the Chicago police detective, criminologist, and writer Harry J. Loose (1881–1943) in 1920, five years before Merriam-Webster’s supposed terminus a quo. Despite the fact that it comes up among dozens of items when “shamus” is Googled, no one concerned with the word’s provenance has to the best of my knowledge acknowledged the book’s relevance, much less bothered to read it.

They’ve missed nothing of great fictional value. While Loose had his gifts as a storyteller, The Shamus, subtitled A true tale of thiefdom and an exposé of the real system in crime, is far too melodramatic and sentimental to be considered well-written. Yet it keeps one turning its pages, and, like the debate over “shamus,” it pits Jews against Irish—in this case, a Chicago Jewish criminal gang against the largely Irish police force of the city’s 61st precinct, which is hunting for one of its men, an officer named Mason, who has gone missing.

Mason’s disappearance lies at the heart of The Shamus’s complex plot. Unlike the police, with their names of Kelly, O’Malley, O’Rourke, MacGurn, and “Paddy the Pig” Madden, the novel’s readers know from early on what has happened to Mason. Having run into him after making their getaway from a successful safe-cracking job, the gang members, whose own names are Schmooze, Itsky, Katusky, Ruth, Riba, and Mottel der Starker, knock him unconscious, drag him to their hideout in Mottel’s saloon to prevent him from identifying them, discover when he awakes that he has lost his memory, and proceed to give him a new name and identity, teaching him Yiddish and training him for a life of crime like their own. Mason is now Max, a Jewish thief like his adopters. Naturally, Ruth and Riba, both of whom die before the story’s end, fall in love with him, and quite unnaturally, a second blow on the head in the novel’s closing chapter restores his memory, his Irish self, and his good standing in the 61st precinct.

The Shamus is not an anti-Semitic novel. Although its Jewish criminals are its “bad guys,” they are treated with a measure of sympathy and the police’s battle with them is more one of Irish against Jewish wits than of Good against Evil. Yet Loose knew his Irish better than his Jews, his portrayals of whom are often cartoonish, especially when he tries to reproduce their Yiddish or Yiddish-inflected English. They eat “gefulda fish” and feel “vericht” (Loose, with German verrücken in mind, apparently thought this was the Yiddish word for “crazy”), and their sentences are Germanized caricatures of what Loose took to be Yiddish syntax, as when the dying Ruth tells the 61st precinct’s lieutenant, when describing her first encounter with Mason, “Under the bed at Mottel’s where lays the Max, I find it the clothes of a ‘shamus.’ These I all burn except the buttons, which I in the river throw.”

“Shamus” is a word resorted to frequently by the gang members. It is their term for a policeman, and theirs alone, since the police (who refer to themselves as “cops” or “coppers,” and to a detective as a “dick”) never use it. Not all of them are even familiar with it, and when Ruth sends a young runner to the precinct station to tell the “high shamus,” that is, the lieutenant, that she needs to see him, he has to have the word explained to him. The Irish desk sergeant does so, saying:

“Shamus” is really Jew for the janitor or somebody in the Jew Church, lieut. As a kind of joke I guess, the Jew thieves started calling a policeman a “shamus,” and the name has stuck with the Jews. By “high shamus,” this kid means high officer. . . . He means that this woman will tell you something she won’t tell the man on the post or one of the “dicks.”

Could anything make clearer that “shamus” comes from Yiddish shammes, not from Irish Seamus, and that it originated in Jewish underworld slang? Harry Loose, as we have said, was a police detective himself. While he was certainly no expert on Yiddish or Jewish life, he did have experience with Jewish criminals, and we can, at a distance of a hundred years, trust his account, which he must have heard from a Jewish source. The case of “shamus” can finally be considered closed.

A happy last days of Hanukkah to you all!

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