One shaman, two shamuses?

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I came across an interesting innovation in English morphology while reading this article on "Inukpasuit, Inuit and Viking contact in ancient times". Recounting an Inuit legend, the author says:

Angered by her reluctance, the rich shaman called upon other equally strong shamuses to punish her.

The usual plural of shaman is shamans. shamuses is the plural of shamus, American slang for "private detective", apparently from Yiddish shammes "sexton", due to an equation of the duties of the sexton of a synagogue with those of store security.


  1. Amitav said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 3:35 am

    I always thought shamus was derived from the Irish name Seamus, an allusion to the prominence of Irish policemen and detectives. Interesting how an etymology invented in childhood can become cemented in my brain for decades.

  2. Jack Collins said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 4:24 am

    I'd always assumed it came from the Irish name Séamus (=James, Jacob), as part of a larger corpus of slang associating the Irish with law-enforcement (paddy wagon) and crime (hooligan). The OED offers both.

  3. Dave Bath said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 4:33 am

    It's a pity that ural-altaic shaman (and/or semitic shammes) cannot be tied in with anglo-saxon "sham", "shame" (and possibly "scam") via german "scham" because of the fodder this would give skeptics of both religion and the ethics of private investigators.

  4. Mossy said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 5:00 am


  5. Faldone said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 5:30 am


  6. Gary said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 8:20 am


    so others won't have to find it for themselves.

  7. Amy Stoller said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    This article in the Forward puts forth an interesting case for derivation from shammes. I wonder whether Daniel Cassidy, author of How the Irish Invented Slang, can make as good a case for derivation from Séamus? I wouldn't be at all surprised.

    As a kid I thought it interesting that shamus sounded like shamos, the candle used to light the other candles in a Hanukkah menorah, but I never could make anything out of that beyond coincidence.

  8. Bruce Rusk said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 9:36 am

    I haven't read it yet, but this sounds like something that could have come from Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (set in Alaska).

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    Oddly enough, this scholarly analysis of the TV detective Monk finds close parallels between the shaman and the shamus (in the background of nervous illness that's part of doing their job). The analogy could probably be extended to the many other neurotic fictional detectives: see Dysthymic Dicks.

  10. Brett said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    The use of "shamus" specifically for a specifically private detective seems to be a post-WWII thing. I've found older books where the term seems to be applied more frequently to policemen. My dictionary confirms this and gives policeman as a intermediate step in the etymology, between sexton and PI.

  11. Oop said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    Wouldn't it make more sense to use shaman:shamen and shamus:shami (like cacti)? For shaman:shamus I can't even recall a pattern.

  12. John Cowan said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

    I never thought of "shamus" being connected with "shammes", but I have always assumed that the shammes candle is so called because it lights all the other candles each night, being as such the "worker" candle, the one that keeps the operation going.

  13. Charles said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    What, 12 comments already and nobody's thought that this might be a Cupertino?

    Although I can't figure out just exactly what typo would have led to this one.

  14. Arnold Zwicky said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    Charles: "What, 12 comments already and nobody's thought that this might be a Cupertino?"

    Faldone suggested this a little while back.

    My spell-checker, given "shamuns", suggests "shamans" and "shamus", the second of which is in the ball park.

  15. Q. Pheevr said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    Hmm. My copy of Microsoft Word suggests shamuses as the first alternative for shamasal, which is what Wiktionary says would be "the etymologically-consistent plural form from the original Evenki." On the other hand, there's no particular reason to expect that someone writing in English about an Inuit legend would be at all likely to type "shamasal" in the first place.

  16. language hat said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

    I assume that Bill's "interesting innovation in English morphology" is a joke; it's obviously either a Cupertino or some other sort of typo/mistake. In any case, the Online Etymology Dictionary says "probably from Yiddish, lit. 'sexton of a synagogue,' from Heb. shamash 'servant;' influenced by Celt. Seamus 'James,' as a typical name for an Irish cop," and that's how I've always understood it (for one thing, the pronunciation "SHAY-mus" cannot be derived from the Yiddish word).

    I wonder whether Daniel Cassidy, author of How the Irish Invented Slang, can make as good a case for derivation from Séamus?

    I'm not sure whether this is a joke, but in case anyone isn't aware of the egregious Daniel Cassidy, he's not an authority on anything except his own blarney, and his opinion of etymology is utterly worthless.

  17. James C. said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

    I have used the shaman:shamen pair for so much of my life that even upon being corrected by an anthropology professor I still can’t get over it. In Alaska you still hear occasionally about practicing Eskimo shamen shamans, and Tlingit elders talk about them a lot too, so I guess must have I analyzed it in my youth as |sha-man| and carried the irregular plural over, just like I did with |walk-man|.

    BTW, I pronounce the words as /ʃɑ.mən/ and /ʃɑ.mɛn/. Apparently /ʃe.mən/ is pretty common though?

  18. Neal Goldfarb said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 12:17 am

    I'm amazed — no, dismayed — that nobody has mentioned the Big Lebowski yet.

    Da Fino: "I'm a brother shamus."
    The Dude: "An Irish monk?"

  19. dr pepper said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 1:05 am

    Perhaps shamus started out as slang for police officer and then some influential writer used it to refer to a private detective and it spread among detective fandom.

  20. Charles said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 2:21 am

    You're right, someone did mention a Cupertino. I blame either my family tendency to not see things are right in front of me, or the possibility that said comment had not yet appeared on my screen by the time I started typing.

  21. Arnold Zwicky said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:05 am

    To previous commenters who mention Daniel Cassidy: I don't know if DC commented on "shamus" in his writing — it would seem like an obvious candidate for his eccentric program of tracing American slang back to Irish — but if anyone is thinking of consulting DC on the point, it's too late; he died last October 11.

  22. Matthew Baerman said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 10:52 am

    re Language Hat's comment: "…for one thing, the pronunciation "SHAY-mus" cannot be derived from the Yiddish word)."

    One of Humphrey Bogart's first lines in The Big Sleep is "I'm a sh[a]mus.", i.e. the like Yiddish shammes. Dim recollection tells me this was typical for movies of that era (1946). That suggests the current pronunciation does come from later blending with Seamus (or maybe spelling pronunciation, but then, whence the spelling?).

  23. language hat said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    Yes, I had forgotten the details but that's the kind of thing that made me think it was, as you say, a later blending with Seamus.

  24. Ginger Yellow said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 8:11 am

    Huh. I'd never even realised that the word for detective wasn't spelled Seamus.

  25. ajay said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

    a larger corpus of slang associating the Irish with law-enforcement (paddy wagon)

    A paddy wagon isn't derived from "paddy" meaning a state of violent fury? I.e. when people get into a paddy, sooner or later the paddy wagon gets called? Like calling it the "riot van" or something?

  26. Arnold Zwicky said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    ajay: "A paddy wagon isn't derived from "paddy" meaning a state of violent fury?"

    An ingenious association of words, but unlikely to be the correct derivation. The OED Online identifies "paddy wagon" as originally U.S. slang, but gives only British and New Zealand cites for "in a paddy" (comparing it to "in an Irish" with similar meaning). Most sources connect the "paddy" of "paddy wagon" in one way or another to "Paddy" for an Irishman — which means that "in a paddy" and "paddy wagon" are separate derivations from the same source.

  27. Jessica said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

    Oh thank you! I've listening to old time radio and I was wondering why they were called that!

  28. Mark Liberman said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 11:08 pm

    It may be worth noting that the Irish name Seamus was routinely spelled "Shamus" well into the 20th century, e.g. here (from 1793), here (from 1844), here (from 1896), here (from 1918), here (from 1942).

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