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‘Peoplehood’ From the Jews?

I was writing an article the other day that had in it the phrase “Jewish peoplehood,” when my computer underlined “peoplehood” in red. That’s its smart-alecky way of telling me that I’ve misspelled a word or that it doesn’t exist. Although I knew the computer was wrong (its internal word list is small, and it often thinks words don’t exist when they do), out of habit, I opened the dictionary that I regularly keep on my desk, my 1,550-page, 1969 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and checked it out. To my surprise, “peoplehood” wasn’t there.

I own six other English dictionaries and I checked them one by one. My 1,432-page, 1947 American College Dictionary did not have “peoplehood” either. Neither did my 1174-page, 1961 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Nor did my 2059-page, 1961 Random House Dictionary of the English Language. Seriously worried by now, I went to my 4,116-page Oxford English Dictionary (whose “p” section was completed in 1909), which aspires to include every word that has “formed the English vocabulary from the time of the earliest records down to the present day.” Peoplehood? Forget it.

I was beginning to sweat. There were two dictionaries left. I tried my 2,074-page, 1998 Encarta World English Dictionary first. Bingo, at last! P. 1,336, Column A: “peoplehood: identity as a member of a particular people, especially a nation or ethnic group.” Greatly relieved, I looked at my 2,140-page, 1992 American Heritage, an update of the 1969 edition. Another hit! Peoplehood: The state or condition of being a people or one of a people: ‘As symbols go, few are as national and sectarian as the menorah. It is the symbol of Jewish peoplehood’ (Charles Krauthammer).”

There were, I thought, two definite conclusions to be drawn from this, plus one possible one: 1) computers should mind their own business; 2) the word “peoplehood” entered the English language or, more precisely, was recognized as having entered it, some time between 1961 and 1992; and, 3) its introduction into English may have had something to do with the Jews.

Conclusion 3 alone, I think, is likely to be controversial. Obviously, my 1992 American Heritage’s citing as a source for “peoplehood,” a contextually Jewish but undated remark by the political commentator Charles Krauthammer, who began publishing circa 1980, proves nothing. After all, there may have been many uses of “peoplehood” before Krauthammer’s, and these may not have referred to Jews. And yet, the citation does make one wonder who would have felt a need for the word “peoplehood” after the English language had gotten along without it until the late 20th century — and Jews do seem likely candidates.

Let’s think about this for a minute. We commonly speak not only of the “Jewish people,” but also of the “American people,” the “French people,” the “Russian people,” etc. And yet, whereas “Jewish peoplehood” strikes our contemporary ear as quite ordinary, “American peoplehood,” “French peoplehood” or “Russian peoplehood” sounds rather odd. Why?

The answer, I believe, is that, when we talk, say, about “the state or condition of being an American or one of the American people,” we usually speak of American nationality or nationhood, just as we speak of “French nationhood” and “Russian nationhood.” “Nationhood” is an English word that goes back to 1850; since it describes quite well the state of being American, French, or Russian, no one bothered for a long time to put a “hood” on “people,” too. Nationhood was peoplehood. And by the same token, for the sense of “identity as a member of a particular ethnic group,” English had the word “ethnicity” (which goes back to 1772) and did not need “peoplehood,” either.

But although the Jews also have been referred to sometimes as a “nation” and sometimes as an “ethnic group,” these are not terms they have generally felt comfortable with, since the first suggests a degree of geographical and political unity that they never have had and the second a weaker sense of distinctiveness and solidarity than they always have had. Traditionally Jews have viewed themselves as a people rather than as a nation or an ethnic group, and if the word “peoplehood” did not exist in the English language, sooner or later they would have felt the need to invent it.

Did they? I don’t have any smoking guns, but I do have one interesting piece of evidence gleaned from my bookshelves. In Volume II of the “The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion,” published in 1949, there is an essay by Salo Baron on “The Contribution of Judaism to World Ethics” in which I found the sentence, “It may justly be interpreted [in the writings of Saadia Gaon] that the constitutive principle of Jewish peoplehood is… the opportunity which the Jewish group affords the individual Jew to share the way of life promulgated in the Torah.” Inasmuch as, more than 10 years later, reputable dictionaries still did not include the word “peoplehood,” this use of it by a noted historian must have been a very early one. The fact that he was a Jewish historian writing on a Jewish subject is unlikely to have been accidental.

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