LINGUIST List 3.842

Thu 29 Oct 1992

Disc: Objectionable Words

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Julie Coleman, RE: 3.833 Objectionable Words?
  2. , "Jew" vs. "Jewish people"
  3. Dennis Baron, jew(ish)
  4. "David M. W. Powers", Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?
  5. Stanley Dubinsky, Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?
  6. Larry Horn, Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?
  7. Stavros Macrakis, "Jew"
  8. benji wald, Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

Message 1: RE: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 92 8:14 GMT RE: 3.833 Objectionable Words?
From: Julie Coleman <UDLE036ASH.CC.KCL.AC.UK>
Subject: RE: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

For me, one reason for avoiding the nouns 'jew', 'gay' (etc.) is that they
seem assign the referent to that category only -- as if to say that the main
or the only important fact about that individual is that they are gay or
jewish; whereas the circumlocutions 'a jewish person', 'a gay man',
at least suggest the possibility that there may also be other relevant features.

It's also possible that this applies only to my usage.
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Message 2: "Jew" vs. "Jewish people"

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 92 13:07
From: <>
Subject: "Jew" vs. "Jewish people"

To my British gentile ears, "Jewish people" seems less likely to be
construed as offensive than "Jew". But I wonder if there is another
variable at work here, namely gender-inclusiveness. I doubt whether
anyone says "Jewess" any more (if they did it surely WOULD be
offensive), but the fact that for a while it was in contrast with
"Jew" would seem to leave "Jew" as exclusively male. Wouldn't
"there were two Jews on the panel" conjure up an image of two
Jewish MEN in the hearer's mind? Whereas "two Jewish people" leaves
the sex(es) of the referents more open.

Afterthought: was there ever a time when "Jewess" WASN'T offensive?

Sue Blackwell
University of Birmingham
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Message 3: jew(ish)

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 1992 09:41:38 jew(ish)
From: Dennis Baron <>
Subject: jew(ish)

The usage of *Jew* still remains divided, which Geoff Nunberg's
usage note in AHD 3e confirms, though perhaps not so clearly as
some people might like. The following excerpt from my *Declining
Grammar* (1989) shows the lexicographical history relating to this
and related words. It has been updated for this post.

Jews and Jesuits

Jews, at least in America, prefer *Jewish person* or the
simple adjective *Jewish* (in UK usage *Jew* seems more
common). As Dwight Bolinger notes in *Aspects of Language*
(1968, p. 11), "The word *Jew* has been used unfavorably by
so many of the world's big and little defamers that it is
sometimes avoided even at the expense of grammar." At one
time *Hebrew* was considered the polite term (hence YMHA,
Young Men's Hebrew Association, and UAHC, Union of American
Hebrew Congregations), though it is no longer current. *The
Standard Dictionary* (1890) recommends *Hebrew* for the race
and language, *Israelite* for one who practices the religion
(for example, the newspaper *The Carolina Israelite*; the
meaning of this word too has changed).

 In the 1870s, complaints about two words, *jew* and
*jesuitical*, caused a stir in the American press. Richard
Grant White (1870) discusses a case in which the *New York
Times* labeled certain criminals as Jews. A reader
objected, asking the question, "Would you speak of the
arrest of two Episcopalians, a Puseyite, three
Presbyterians, and a Baptist?" White, who felt the label
*Jew* was racial rather than religious (and therefore of
legitimate interest to the readers of the newspaper!), was
disturbed because the *Times* apologized for its error.

 White was not the only writer on correct English to be
insensitive to the implications of words. Both George
Philip Krapp, in his *Comprehensive Guide to Good English*
(1927), and Maurice H. Weseen, in *Crowell's Dictionary of
English Grammar and Handbook of American Usage* (1928),
label *jew down*, meaning `to cheat, to bargain down the
price of something,' as colloquial, and both explain in the
front matter to their usage guides that colloquial speech is
good, careful, acceptable, informal English.

 The use of *jew* as a verb meaning `to cheat' is cited
as early as 1849 by the OED, and the *Dictionary of
Americanisms* records the word even earlier in this country,
in citations dated 1824 and 1825. It did not appear in the
dictionaries of Noah Webster or Joseph Emerson Worcester,
the two major nineteenth-century American lexicographers,
until mid-century, however, and then it was labeled either
colloquial or opprobrious. In 1872 Mr. A. S. Solomons wrote
to G. & C. Merriam, publishers of Webster's dictionaries, to
protest the definition. Merriam agreed to drop it in the
next edition, and it is still omitted from their series of
Collegiate desk dictionaries, although it soon reappeared in
the larger, unabridged books.
 A usage note on *jew down* in *The Century Dictionary*
(1889-97) calls the phrase well-established in colloquial
speech, having little or no overt reference to the Jews
themselves, but adds, "regarded by Jews as offensive and
opprobrious." *Webster's New International Dictionary*
(1925) warns of the antisemitic character of jew as a verb,
though it does admit a neutral sense as well: "Used
opprobriously in allusion to practices imputed to the Jews
by those who dislike them, or now sometimes colloquially
without conscious reference to the Jews." Funk and
Wagnalls' *Standard Dictionary* derives it from stereotype:
"Referring to the proverbial keenness of Jewish traders,"
but adds a second sense that is somewhat more negative: "To
practice sharp methods in trade, such as are vulgarly
ascribed to Jews." *Webster's Third*, which was roundly and
mistakenly criticized for not providing usage guidance to
its readers, comments after its definition of *jew down*,
"usually taken to be offensive."

 Despite the legitimate insistence of dictionaries on
publishing the bad meanings of words alongside the good
ones, complaints of discrimination can still be heard. In
1973 Marcus Shloimovitz, a Manchester textile merchant, lost
a four-year court battle to have the *Oxford English
Dictionary* drop what he considered to be the "derogatory,
defamatory and wholly deplorable definitions" of the word
Jew. Shloimovitz argued that the dictionary editors "should
have the decency to make it clear that the definitions are
obsolete, archaic and past usage." Being careful not to set
a precedent, the judge dismissed the suit on a technicality,
ruling that no *personal* damage had been done to the

 In defining *Jew*, the OED does note that the word
frequently carries, in its early use, an opprobrious sense.
But the dictionary does not mark those negative definitions
based on stereotype as in any way obsolete, since in fact
they are not. Thus *Jew* can serve as an insulting term for
any "grasping or extortionate money-lender or usurer, or a
trader who drives hard bargains or deals craftily."

[matter omitted on *dogmatic*, *cabal*, *pontificate*]

 Another word with even clearer anti-Catholic
associations is *jesuitical*. Although they acknowledged
the nineteenth-century complaint against *jew* as a verb,
Merriam's dictionary editors refused to honor another
contemporary complaint against *jesuitical*, one of whose
senses was defined as `crafty, sly, deceitful, or
prevaricating.' While most dictionary makers agree that
*jew down* is at best offensive slang, and at worst
outright, raving antisemitism, *jesuitical* seems to the
lexicographers more a part of the genteel English literary
tradition (itself xenophobic as well as anti-Catholic and
antisemitic at times). Worcester's dictionary of 1860 does
note after its definition of Jesuit, "their opponents have
also ascribed to them those [qualities] of craft and deceit,
and have accordingly given odious meanings to the word," and
Webster's dictionary of 1864 says of *jesuitical*, "now
marked as opprobrious," though subsequent editions do not
repeat this warning. To this day the word has not been
labeled as defamatory in the Merriam-Webster publications,
although *Webster's New World Dictionary* (1982) marks
Jesuit, `crafty schemer, cunning dissembler, casuist,' as a
"hostile and offensive term, as used by anti-Jesuits," while
the *American Heritage Dictionary* (1975) disguises the
negative sense of Jesuit by simply defining it as "one given
to subtle casuistry." Only by checking under casuist do we
discover the comment, "often used disparagingly."

Dictionary update: *Random House Webster's College
Dictionary* (1991) notes sense 4 of *Jew*, `of Jews, Jewish'
is offensive. Neither RHWCD nor AHD 3e suggests the
negative definitions of *jesuit* and *jesuitical* may be
offensive. (\ 217-333-2392
 \'\ fax: 217-333-4321
Dennis Baron \'\ __________
Department of English / '| ()_________)
Univ. of Illinois \ '/ \ ~~~~~~~~ \
608 S. Wright St. \ \ ~~~~~~ \
Urbana IL 61801 ==). \__________\
 (__) ()__________)
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Message 4: Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 92 10:09:37 MERe: 3.833 Objectionable Words?
From: "David M. W. Powers" <>
Subject: Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

Is the objection to refering to people as Jews/gays uniquely American?

I find it surprising, awkward and unidiomatic in terms of Australian
and British English. It's an interesting contrast to that of "nigger,
negro, black, coloured", where even the substantivized adjectives
are not necessarily negatively marked (except where the adjective
is simpler - "He is black" rather than "He is a black"). Of course
good style might prefer "Black human-rights crusaders in Jo'burg
today ... " to "Blacks in Jo'burg ...". Use of an adjective as a noun
implies that there is no more appropriate classification of the
person, but in my book since "person" adds nothing to this classification,
it is redundant. However, if the group concerned is habitually devalued,
the addition may well serve as a reminder/sop/insurance that the
membership, or these individuals, are "still" human and have the dignity
and rights which go with that. Addition of "man" or "woman" does
convey additional information, "a black man" is more usual or
"a male caucasian" or "a black female" in police usage - where
description mandates use of adjectives, and there may be a grammatical
factor in the ordering of these and the choice of which to nominalize.

What about indians, eskimos and aboriginals? Most European nationalities
take the form "Xman" when individuals are referred too. Englishman,
Welshman, Irishman, Frenchman (German ;-), Scotsman (or Scotchman ;-)
alternates with Scot. Further afield, we don't have the Xman form:
Turk, Indian, Australia, US of American, South American, Canadian.
(I don't know what the origin of the -sh adjectival form is, but
only these take -man). Now that man has lost its common gender reading,
is person taking its place in the production of similar forms?

David Powers
Dr David M. W. Powers +49-631-13786 (GMT+1) E xtraction
Auf der Vogelweide 1 +49-631-205-3210 (FAX) O f SHOE
W-6750 KAISERSLAUTERN FRG H ierarchical
 S tructure
for Machine Learning of Natural Language and Ontology
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Message 5: Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 92 14:40:48 ESRe: 3.833 Objectionable Words?
Subject: Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

I must second Ellen Prince's reaction to the use of the nominal
appelation 'Jew' (vs. 'Jewish'). Agreed that the word has been,
all too often and for far too long, pronounced by non-Jews with
that certain derisive intonation which is designed to offend.
I have always felt, however, that the avoidance of the noun by
certain Jews is a tacit acknowledgement on their
part that the word actually =is= derisive. I think that it
requires a bit more positive self-identification to say
'I am a Jew', as opposed to 'I am Jewish'.
In some ways, Christians and Moslems are categorially more comfortable,
never having to =overtly= choose between an adjective and a noun.
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Message 6: Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 92 16:13:57 ESRe: 3.833 Objectionable Words?
From: Larry Horn <LHORNYaleVM.YCC.Yale.Edu>
Subject: Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

On 'Jew' vs. 'Jewish person': while I agree with Ellen Prince that the latter
does seem like a lily-livered euphemism for a denotatum that shouldn't really
need euphemizing, the opposition between the noun and the adjective is subtler
in other contexts, especially predicatively. My favorite example of this is
Jonathan Miller's line, in which the neurologist/comedian/opera director
maintains "I'm not a Jew. I'm Jew-ISH. I don't go the whole hog." The
standard treatment of the relative loading or semantic power of nouns
vis-a-vis other, non-categorizing labels is probably Bolinger's; in his
discussion in "Language--the Loaded Weapon" (1980) and "Aspects of Language"
he somewhere cites a Vietnam-era exile in Sweden as insisting "I'm not a
deserter--I deserted." Whether or not "(be) Jewish" can be viewed as a
euphemism for "(be a) Jew" or as a way of avoiding the classificatory, if not
pigeonholic, effect characteristically associated with the nominal version,
the same factor is evidently responsible
for the perception on the part of at least some
respondents on the 'gay'/'lesbian' question (LinguistList 3.793; full
summary forthcoming when I get the chance) that the former can sometimes count
as an attenuated version of the latter, as in the following reported dialogue:
 Woman #1: I came out to my mother over the break. I told her I'm gay.
 Woman #2: That's very brave, telling your mother you're a lesbian.
 W #1: Oh, I'm not ready to tell to her I'm a \lesbian/...

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Message 7: "Jew"

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 1992 17:40:42 "Jew"
From: Stavros Macrakis <>
Subject: "Jew"

I am not Jewish, but grew up in an upper-middle class environment
where Jews were well represented. I agree with Prince's judgement
that 'jewish people' seems like a genteelism.

As for linguistic reasons for all this, there doesn't seem to be any
phonological particularity with either "Jew" (ju(nior), (d)ew, (p)ew
-- although the latter have glides) or "Jewish" ((n)ewish).

One might think the zero of the zero/-ish alternation is marked. But
other ethnica follow this pattern with no pejorative connotations:

	Jew		Jewish
	Swede		Swedish
	Lett		Lettish
	Finn		Finnish
	Turk		Turkish
	Dane		Danish
	Moor		Moorish
	Scot		Scottish
	Pole		Polish

So it seems that the problem is strictly lexical: historically, "Jew"
was extended beyond Jewish individuals to cover anyone with
stereotypically Jewish characteristics: "stingy person", "userer",
etc. (cf. OED).

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Message 8: Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

Date: Wed, 28 Oct 92 19:54 PST
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

RE: Ellen's observations, sure there are sociolinguistic variables going
on here. My own experience -- and I have spoken with other Jews from NY
about this topic over the years -- is as follows:
I'm about the same age as Ellen and grew up in Queens in the 50s. At that
time I perceived what I would call a class as well as an ethnic slant to
using "Jew/s" the noun or "Jewish" the adjective. Working class people used
the noun. If they were Jewish (I mean, Jews) I perceived them to be using
in-group talk. If they were non-Jews, I figured they were hostile to Jews.
My perception was that working class non-Jews ere hostile to Jews, so I
expected them to use the noun -- and they did. On the other hand, I expected
middle-class people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, to use the adjective. This
was "proper" to me, not colloquial. Regardless of class, a non-Jew could
not use the noun without sounding hostile. A Jew never sounded hostile
using the noun, just colloquial vs. proper. Maybe my perception od proper
is related to Ellen's perception of euphemism, but to me it was necessary
that a non-Jew avoid the noun in order not to sound hostile. Blacks, by
the way, didn't count as far as usage. My perception of Blacks in Queens
(but not Manhattan) at that time was that they did not make a distinction
between Jews and other whites, and if they came from the South they might
even use "I tried to jew him" or "he tried to jew me" with what I felt was
innocence of its offense to Jews, not that I expected them to care. With
regard to linguistic contexts, Jew/s was inevitable and thus not subject to
such judgment when it occurred with an adjective, because here the alternative
"Jewish" was already an adjective which would make modifying it intolerable,
e.g., "Russian Jew/s", not "Jewish Russians" or "Russian Jewish people". The
sociolinguistics went into operation when the syntax was simpler, e.g.,
and I expect Ellen to agree, the non-Jewish "are you a Jew?" sounded
hostile, "are you Jewish?" was OK. Meanwhile, "are you a Russian Jew?"
I suppose would not be hostile -- it really didn't come up, and anti-
Semites were not expected to be interested in distinctions among Jews.
Of course, super-hostile was the expunging of "Jewish" from the vocabulary
altogether so that "Jew" was used as an adjective, e.g., "the Jew lady",
"the Jew church"... (but not necessarily the apparent toponym Jew Town,
which referred to an area in Manhattan). This went beyond "normal"
hostility, in my view. It was, to say the least, disrespectful, whereas
I perceived "Jew" when used by non-Jews, to be a manifestation of "normal"
hostility, maybe even an unintentional breech of verbal etiquette by some
who did not know any better.
Needless to say, my experience and the times have changed since the 50s --
and even they weren't so bad compared to the 30s and 40s. By the 70s
and certainly in Los Angeles -- where Jews are somewhat less of a presence
and topic than in New York -- I no longer found the noun to even suggest
hostility to Jews. Meantime, it did seem to me that Jews were more
assertive about their identity, probably a ripple of the wave of it's OK
to be different which started with the Blacks in the'60s and moved
through other non-white to white ethnic groups, so that they no longer
shrank from using the in-group-like noun in self-identification to non-Jews.
(Here I also have a general impression of a younger cohort of Jews, who
I wouldn't expect to be aware of the connotations of "Jew" in the 50s)in the
 city. Although their English was fluent, I found myself moved to say
when in this context one woman referred to somebody as "a Jew", that in
English usage it is "better" to say "Jewish". An inside and baffling
fact about English to young Germans. But I figured if they want Jews
to realize that they're sympathetic to Jews they are better off saying
"she's Jewish" than "she's a Jew" (and I don't wanna hear from "she's a
Jewess!". Benji
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