Mind your language

The uncomfortable truth about ‘shonky’

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

A reader sent in a television preview from the Daily Star for Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in which ‘Brad Pitt leads a squad of Jewish-American soldiers on a Nazi killing spree’. The film, it added, is ‘not as funny as ’Allo ’Allo! but Pitt raises laughs out of his shonky language skills’. The reader was shocked by what she thought a crude piece of anti-Semitic vocabulary.

I am old enough to be aware of shonky as an offensive term referring to Jews, but I don’t think that was meant here. Indeed it is frequently used in the papers to mean ‘wobbly’ (as if it were wonky) or ‘ropy’. It has diverged from an Australian sense of ‘crooked, fraudulent’, though Allison Pearson said innocently in the Telegraph that her ‘new favourite phrase’ (referring to EU leaders) was ‘shonky retreads’.

In 2014 in New Zealand, a Labour candidate mocked the then prime minister, John Key, who has Jewish roots, calling him on Facebook ‘Shonky Johnkey Shylock’. The offender deleted the remark, and apologised, saying he was not aware of the racial overtones of the term Shylock.

In a Neil Gaiman narrative poem, one character remembers ‘children who ran into her father’s shop shouting Shonky shonky sheeny, running away; she would not let me wear a black shirt because, she said, she remembered the marches through the East End’.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists two adjectives shonky. The first (’offensive’) means ‘avaricious, mean’; the second means ‘unreliable, dishonest, crooked’ and perhaps derives from the first. The first definitely comes from shonk, an offensive name for a Jew, a shortening of shoniker, the folk etymology of which is from schnozzle (‘nose’) though that is hard to sustain. Others say it is from Yiddish shoniker (‘pedlar’).

So first in Australia and now in Britain shonky is used in ignorance of its historical connections. It is as though people started using darky as a term of disapproval, not realising its racial connotations. In the blog Words & Stuff a couple of years ago, Ed Bernstein wrote of shonky: ‘Having looked it up, I don’t think I would be comfortable using it myself.’ Nor would I.

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