Persons of (Linguistic) Interest

The Word 'Jew' Has Fallen Out of Favor

Jew or Jewish? Mel Brooks poked fun at sensitivity over the term Jew in ‘Spaceballs’ when he created the materialistic Princess Vespa as a ‘Druish Princess.’
MGM studios
Jew or Jewish? Mel Brooks poked fun at sensitivity over the term Jew in ‘Spaceballs’ when he created the materialistic Princess Vespa as a ‘Druish Princess.’

By Philologos

Published January 16, 2012, issue of January 20, 2012.
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Forward reader Bill Morris writes a letter about the pejorative associations that some non-Jews who are not at all anti-Semitic have with the word “Jew,” observing, “I have non-Jewish friends who still balk at saying ‘Jew’ — one friend always says ‘Jewish person.’”

It’s not only non-Jews. I’ve also occasionally heard American Jews — almost always rather assimilated ones — refer to “Jewish persons” rather than to “Jews.” Not long ago, in fact, I read an op-ed by Harvard University professor James R. Russell in the English edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in which, in the course of expressing opposition to a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear installations, he wrote: “I’m a middle-aged Jewish man who teaches Armenian, and thus I remember two holocausts. I accept that Israel must make the final decision about its security. Yet nothing, and I mean nothing, is worth the mass extinction of possible nuclear war.”

Had the professor been born and raised in Sweden, and had his first name, like James, left no room for doubt that he was male, he almost surely would have written, “I’m a middle-aged Swede who teaches Armenian” and not “I’m a middle-aged Swedish man.” Like “Jewish person,” “Jewish man” in such a context is a way — although most probably an unconscious one to which no thought was given — to avoid saying “Jew.”

Still, I agree with Mr. Morris that the usage is more common among well-meaning non-Jews who think they are being considerate toward Jews by resorting to it. Here are a few instances culled from the Internet.

From a Christian evangelical site: “Recently, there has been a swirl of controversy whether a Jewish person can go to heaven or not. The answer is a resounding yes!!!”

From a non-Jew writing to a rabbi: “A Jewish person in my extended family has just died. Since I am not of that faith, what do I do?”

From a language site: “Is it considered offensive to call a Jewish person a Semite?”

From an online forum: Chatter A: “Is it mean to call a Jewish person a Jew?” Chatter B: “It depends on the context and how it’s said.” Chatter C: “I agree [with Chatter B]. It depends on how it’s said. But it’s politer to say ‘Jewish.’”

Why is it that so many people who have nothing against Jews believe that the word “Jew” may be offensive when the word “Jewish” is not? I can think of three reasons, all undoubtedly true.

The first reason is that when Jews are slurred, it is the word “Jew” they are slurred with. No one, unless it’s Jackie Mason or Woody Allen, ever said, “You better watch out, you dirty Jewish man,” or, “Those goddamn Jewish persons steal you blind.” Particularly in the minds of people who have grown up or live in environments in which Jews may be spoken of scurrilously, “Jew” can have nasty associations that “Jewish” lacks.

Second, when used not as a noun but as an adjective, “Jew” in English is always scurrilous. To call a Jewish politician or a Jewish businessman a “Jew politician” or a “Jew businessman” is by definition anti-Semitic. This gives “Jew” a sometimes objectively pejorative meaning that “Jewish” never has.

And third, when used as a verb, “jew” is always pejorative, too. “That chiseler jewished me out of $10,” on the other hand, is not something you’re going to hear.

This is also the reason that the more Jewish you are and the more you associate mainly with other Jews, the more absurd the euphemism “Jewish person” will seem to you, since you don’t move in circles in which “Jew” may be used negatively. Assimilated Jews sometimes do. They may even find themselves in conversations with non-Jews who don’t know that they’re Jewish and therefore make nasty remarks about Jews, which renders them sensitive to the word “Jew” in a way that more Jewishly involved Jews are not. In general, it’s one of the paradoxes of belonging to any minority that the less one identifies with it, the more easily one is hurt by prejudice against it and the more suspicious one tends to be that such prejudice exists even when it doesn’t.

And of course, it works the other way around, too: The Jew who expects to be called a Jew is likely to take offense upon hearing himself — or indeed, any Jew — called a “Jewish person,” since this suggests an embarrassment with the word “Jew” that he finds distasteful. My own practice in such cases is to correct the offender by indirection. If someone says to me, “I know many Jewish persons who vote Republican,” my answer will be, “Yes, not all Jews are Democrats”; tell me, “My brother’s ex-wife is going out with a Jewish man,” and I’ll ask, “Is he the first Jew she’s gone out with?” Eventually, the message gets across. Usually it doesn’t even take that long.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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