The New York City Council resolution calling on New Yorkers to stop using the word “nigger” has its comical side, as observers have noted, not only because people do not choose the words they use on the basis of city council resolutions, but because the use of “nigger” is most widespread in the United States among African Americans themselves. The same black person who will quite rightly consider it a crude racial slur to be called “nigger” by a white person will use the word casually with another black person in a wide variety of contexts — sometimes as a neutral descriptive term, sometimes as an affectionate form of address, sometimes as a way of expressing contempt and sometimes with a defiant pride, as if to say, “Let the world call us what it wants; we’re not ashamed of it.” Although it has been many generations since “nigger” was ever used by American whites in anything but a pejorative sense, its use by American blacks, which goes back hundreds of years to the early period of slavery, has a wide variety of nuances.
This is something that we English-speaking Jews should have no trouble understanding, because we have in our own linguistic history a close, if far less pervasive, parallel. This is the word “yid,” which simply means “Jew” in Yiddish but was turned into a derogatory term, such as “kike” or “sheenie,” by non-Jews at the time of the great Eastern European immigration to the United States and England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And yet although any Jew in the 1920s or ’30s would have fiercely resented being called a “yid” by a gentile, Jews, when speaking English, often used the term among themselves in many of the same ways that African Americans used “nigger.” The same Jew who would bristle if told by a non-Jew, “You yids are always sticking together,” could say to another Jew, “We yids need to stick together,” with a mixture of intimacy and irony that only another Jew could appreciate and understand. Uttered by Jews in this way, “yid” was shorthand for “The world may not like us, sometimes for good reasons, because we are in fact different from others and have our faults as well as our good points, but only we know who we really are, and we’re not going to let anyone else define us for ourselves.”
Although this use of “yid” has lingered on to some extent in Anglo-Jewish English — in part because “the Yids” is a popular nickname for the Tottenham Hotspurs, a London soccer team with a large contingent of Jewish fans — it has largely disappeared from American Jewish English under the influence of the word’s pejorative sense in general society. And yet it has not done so entirely, because in American Jewish English, too, “yid” is still permissible if it clearly occurs in an intra-Jewish context.
Thus, for instance, the same American Jew who no longer would feel right about saying to another Jew, “We yids need to stick together,” still might feel perfectly at ease saying, “We yidn need to stick together,” using the Yiddish plural form as a way of declaring, “I’m using the word ‘yid’ not in its American but in its Yiddish sense — and I’m using it because, unlike ‘Jew,’ it’s our own word for ourselves and conveys a sense of mutual connection and solidarity that ‘Jew’ does not.” And by the same token, although if a Jew today were to say to a second Jew about a third Jew, “He’s a clever yid,” there definitely would be something derogatory about it (the implication being that the third Jew’s cleverness is that of a “yid” in the gentile sense, — that is, of someone who tries to haggle or outsmart), the sentence “He’s a kluger yid” could be interpreted only as a genuine compliment. The logic is the same as with “yidn.” While kluger in Yiddish means the exact same thing as “clever” does in English, its adjectival coupling with “yid” indicates that the latter’s semantic context is a Yiddish and not an English one.
Of course, not all American Jews are familiar with such a form as “yidn,” let alone with Yiddish adjectives — but those who are and are most likely to use “yid” in such ways are often the Jews with the greatest Jewish identification, knowledge and pride. When we think of the African American use of “nigger,” we might keep this in mind, especially because American blacks have similar strategies for indicating to themselves that “nigger” is being used in a strictly intra-black context. One way of doing this, for example, is by using the word only when talking “black English,” so that the same African American who would not say “nigger” when speaking standard English — whether to a white person or to another African American — will have no qualms about using it in a conversation in which the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are clearly black.
As Jews, we have the right to insist that no one call us “yids” while also having the right to use the word among ourselves in ways with which we feel comfortable. African Americans, for whom the word “nigger” is much more central, certainly have the same right in regard to it.
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