The Grauniad's Hadley Freeman refers to Michael Cohen, of the alleged wire-fraud and the checked jacket, as nothing more than a shonky used-car salesman in a column today. I had come across the word shonky a few times and inferred its meaning—unreliable, untrustworthy, shoddy. I hadn't thought about its derivation, though, and I thought that perhaps y'all might be interested, so: to the OED, W&S friends!

And, well, they don't really know. Ah, well.

But—and this is a big but—it just might be related to the noun shonk or shonniker, which was an ethnic slur term for Jews. It might not be! It's hard to be sure. The slur was in use in England in the mid-20th century and may have transferred to Australia after, possibly (but probably not) losing its anti-Semitic specificity. A Google search seems to indicate that shonk and spiv are definitely connected in Australia, at least rhetorically. I don't know that anyone thinks of either of them as anti-Semitic, but then I have heard that Australians use the slang motza (or motzer) to mean a large sum of money without anyone thinking of it as anti-Semitic, either. You know?

Anyway, I am not actually offended. It seems unlikely that Hadley Freeman (who is Jewish and occasionally writes about anti-Semitism) used a term with anti-Semitic connotations to describe an attorney named Cohen. It is more likely that the term, whatever its derivation, does not actually have those anti-Semitic overtones. And yet, to be honest, having looked it up, I don't think I would be comfortable using it myself, either.


4 Responses to “shonky”

  1. Jed

    Interesting! I had never heard this term before; thanks for posting about it. When I get back home I’ll try to remember to look it up in my slang dictionaries to see what they say. (Not that I expect them to have better etymology resources than the OED; just curious.)

  2. Normandy

    Terry Pratchett uses it, I think in Night Watch. A shonky shop is a used clothing place. He has it run by an Asian monk. Part of the poverty economy. Pratchett was very aware of folklore & Brit traditions.

  3. Maria Curwell

    I’m pretty sure that the term shonky shop has also been used by Charles Dickens. It appears also in the glossary and describes very old and dirty clothes, that are washed and repaired at the end of it’s life being sold to the very poorest to wear until it falls to pieces (and the cycle repeats if its possible)

  4. Colin Whelan

    This is a very common term in Australia. The leading national consumer magazine, “Choice” has an annual award ceremony for the worst products on offer with most terrible receiving the Golden Shonky. ( There is no more element of anti-semitism in its use than in the equivalent “suss”.


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