Daily Archives: October 7, 2009


This is a not-nice word for a tosser who’s not shy about stirring the pot to clean you out in court – a shameless heist. A shyster is not a Shylock; the latter is an abusive term for a moneylender and has racist overtones, but our word du jour is not related to it and has no racist history. It’s an abusive term for a pettifogger, a larcenous liar of a lawyer, senior partner in Dewy Cheetham & Howe. The American Heritage Dictionary points out that calling someone a shyster might be considered libellous, and I will add that if the person in question really is a shyster, you can count on being sued so hard you even lose your fillings.

So obviously this is the sort of person about whom people say rude, even vulgar, things. In English we might make reference to such a person’s parentage, illegitimate, canine, or otherwise; in German, they will declare that he defecates – er ist ein Scheisser. Odd, that, isn’t it, given that everyone does it now and again? But this type does it on you. And this German word, with its big [aI] diphthong so like the sound you make when you get your bill, was borrowed into English. The spelling was modified to something more English- or Dutch-looking (perhaps with an influence of Shylock, but that’s speculation), and the ending was changed to the English ster, which we see in such as seamster, brewster, and gamester – and also trickster, huckster, and gangster.

The word has its share of hissing voiceless fricatives, marked with those two snakelike s‘s, and it ends with the retroflex (in North America) /r/, a sound thought of as too low-grade to be held long in pretty song. And, like its object, this word often keeps disreputable company, hanging around with types such as two-bit, blowhard, snake-oil peddler, money-grubbing, low-life, charlatan, sleaze, and – cover your eyes – used-car dealer.


“How was Spain?”

I knew this simple question would lead to a treat. Marica and Ronald were a bit of an odd couple and could have two different conversations simultaneously using the same words.

“I loved the triptych,” Marica said. For her, the point of any trip was to see art. And she had mentioned she wanted to see Bosch’s Haywain triptych in the Museo del Prado, a sure highlight for a medieval fantasist.

“Oh, yeah,” Ronald concurred, “the Trip Tik was pretty good. There were some puzzling aspects, but it seemed clear enough by the right edge.”

Although Ronald’s interest in trip planning always focused on which model of car he would be renting, Marica nonetheless managed to cozen herself into believing he cared about art. “Yes,” she said, “such a grand progression: innocence in the beginning, the great hay wagon in the middle, with the Christ” – Ronald snorted – “and then the descent into Hell at the end.”

“Well, you’re being a bit dramatic about the Madrid traffic, perhaps, but just a bit. But, yeah, I almost forgot that hay wagon. And what I said when I nearly ran into it!”

Marica turned and squinted at him. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, you and your driving. I bet you don’t even know who’s Bosch.” She pronounced Bosch in the Dutch manner, rather like “boss.”

“Obviously,” he said, “you are, since I only drive to get you from gallery to gallery! But you’re the one who started in about the Trip Tik. I didn’t think you even cared about the CAA.”

“I don’t,” she said. “Nasty people who work against public transportation. But what has that to do with – I do say, James, would you like to share something with the class?”

I was nearly convulsing with laughter; I contained myself enough to launch into one of my wonted explanations. “She’s talking about a triptych as in a three-panelled painting,” I explained to Ronald. “You may perhaps remember a painting on three wooden panels hinged together –”

“More than one of them,” Ronald replied. “The place is infested with them. Next thing she’s going to want to paint our closet doors. But they don’t all have to do with trips.”

“Oh,” I said, “it’s from the Greek tri, ‘three,’ and ptuché, ‘fold.’ Nothing to do with trips. Whereas you’re talking about a route guide with tips and tricks for your trip. Trip plus Tik. No fancy ych ending to make it look arcane.”

“Or yecchy,” Ronald muttered. He added more conversationally, “But my Trip Tik has nothing to do with her triptychs.”

“And what, pray tell, would be a Tik?” Marica interjected.

“Obviously triptych influenced this formation,” I said. “They did it more to make it stick than to trip your tongue. But I suspect it was also influenced by the international motoring passport that came out in the early 20th century, the triptyque. Which was a card that folded in three, hence the name. Linear route maps, for their part, have also been around longer than the CAA, AAA, or AA.”

“They sure beat a big road atlas,” Ronald declared.

“Well,” Marica said with contained disdain, “a road atlas is still the only kind of diptych you’ll look at.”

“Hey!” Ronald looked almost hurt. “I checked the dipstick when we picked up the car! Not my fault the thing developed a leak and we ran out of oil.”