Updated: Mar 25
It was a rather lovely story of Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe arriving as immigrants into New York, so for the benefit of those who weren’t in class that day (Shaymus Dust? Shahmus Dust? Posted 19 August), let’s get up to speed.
Now, as the brightest sparks will remember, and the etymologists won’t need to be told, the shamash is - and I more or less quote - the Hanukkah candle, not itself one of the eight lit on the eight nights of the holiday, used to light the others. Got that? The shammes, on the other hand, is the Synagogue’s house man, the eagle eye and the ear to the ground who’s meant to know what’s going down in the shtetl. Since we’re into film noir around here, think of it this way: in The Blue Dahlia the shammes is Dad Newell, the house man in the shadows, always patrolling around the Morrisons’ apartment court. Add a wordplay between shamash and shammes, and when those European immigrants came across the (to them) novel notion of a private eye, they naturally reached for an equivalent from the old country. It was in New York that a gumshoe - a man set apart, his eye always on what goes on - first got to be called a shamus.
The question last time around was, Fine. So How Do You Say It? The quick studies will recall that in The Big Sleep (1946), Bogie says Shahmus. Just recently, watching Somewhere In the Night from the very same year, I heard decent, reliable Police Lieutenant Kendall (Lloyd Nolan) saying Shaymus. Which, I admit, doesn’t get us any further forward. Though it’s interesting that, like Bogie, the police detective needs to explain to the chanteuse that the word means private eye.
Appreciating that you might be more confused now than when I started, here’s a short, short story by Will Byrnes to help you out. It’s a small jewel, Christmassy, ingenious and interdenominational. Whether you’re a Shaymus or a Shahmus-sayer, read it and you’ll never forget again where the word originates. Appropriately enough it’s called The Short Goodbye.
Enjoy it on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/609237-the-short-goodbye