LINGUIST List 3.855

Sat 31 Oct 1992

Disc: Objectionable Words

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. ALICE FABER, RE: 3.842 Objectionable Words
  2. "Ellen F. Prince", Re: 3.842 Objectionable Words
  3. BIASCA DEBRA HALPERIN, Re: 3.842 Objectionable Words
  4. Nakamura Akira, jew
  5. "LLOYD HOLLIDAY, LA TROBE UNIV,, Re: 3.847 Place-Names and Articles
  6. Geoffrey Nunberg, re: objectionable words
  7. Michael Kac, Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

Message 1: RE: 3.842 Objectionable Words

Date: Thu, 29 Oct 1992 13:49 ESTRE: 3.842 Objectionable Words
Subject: RE: 3.842 Objectionable Words

With regard to the usage notes re: Jew, Israelite, etc., posted by Dennis
Baron, it's worth noting that the sense that "Israelite" is more "polite" than
"Jew(ish person)" may persist in some parts of the country. I never
encountered it in the New York area, but when I moved to Texas for graduate
school in 1974, I was absolutely floored when, in the course of conversation,
my seatmate on the flight from Dallas to Austin asked me: "Oh, are you an
Israelite?" (I had been telling her of my plans to study Hebrew and
Linguistics, and that I had learned Hebrew in Israel.)

With regard to Benji Wald's comments on replacement of "Jewish" by "Jew" in
clearly adjectival contexts, with its clear pejorative connotation, it's worth
comparing the replacement of "Democratic" with "Democrat" in similar contexts
and with similar connotations (e.g., "the Democrat tax-and-spend Congress",
*"the long-established Democrat support of anti-poverty programs").

Alice Faber
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Message 2: Re: 3.842 Objectionable Words

Date: Thu, 29 Oct 92 14:35:36 ESRe: 3.842 Objectionable Words
From: "Ellen F. Prince" <>
Subject: Re: 3.842 Objectionable Words

one clarification of what i meant to say: when i said that i find 'jewish'
marked in contrast to 'jew', i meant in the pair 'a jewish person' vs. 'a
jew'. as a predicate adjective, e.g. i'm jewish/a jew, i probably find
'jewish' less marked--but the same for he's french/a frenchman, she's
turkish/a turk, you're greek/a greek.

with respect to julie coleman's note:

>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 o>jewish;
 whereas the circumlocutions 'a jewish person', 'a gay man',
>at least suggest the possibility that there may also be other relevant

i have heard this before but it really doesn't help clarify anything for me,
since just about anything has more than one possibly relevant feature and
we should therefore avoid all common (and maybe proper?) nouns except maybe for
'person', 'thing'. what about saying 'x is a doctor/jogger/plumber/soprano/
kid/diabetic/redhead/bird/house/pebble/song/thought/problem/...'--has one
implicated that that's the 'main or only important fact' about x? i think
i'm going to become a noun-rights activist. <:)>

seriously, we all know about the (truth-conditional) aspectual differences that
obtain when we move from verbs to adjectives to nouns, e.g. i'm typing/i
type/i'm a typist, i'm fooling (around)/i'm foolish/i'm a fool, but these
certainly don't seem relevant to (most current views of) ethnos, sex, sexual
orientation, or any of the other categories discussed (that i can recall)--all
would be at the stative end of the scale. i don't really see where the (non-
truth-conditional) 'unique important feature' implicature comes from at all.
rather, i see it as a political vogue, a phenomenon that may be interesting to
observe and document but not as a profound 'fact' about nouns vs. adjectives.
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Message 3: Re: 3.842 Objectionable Words

Date: Thu, 29 Oct 92 18:09:19 MSRe: 3.842 Objectionable Words
From: BIASCA DEBRA HALPERIN <biascaucsu.Colorado.EDU>
Subject: Re: 3.842 Objectionable Words

In response to Julie Coleman's submission on this subject, I note that "
"Jewess" was offensive in Yiddish, hence the euphemism "Jewish daughter"
which we see translated (I believe) into modern Hebrew on the dress-
code sign at the entrance to Mea Shirim in Jerusalem (I hope I am accurate
on this location) which cautions "Jewish Daughters" to dress with modesty . .
 .we do not tolerate people passing through our streets immodestly dressed. . .

I also note that in France I have heard people refer to Jews(ish people) as

Jews although I was raised in Detroit and I am Jewish.
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Message 4: jew

Date: Thu, 29 Oct 92 19:48 PST
From: Nakamura Akira <IZZYT63UCLAMVS.bitnet>
Subject: jew

The following comments are from a colleague of mine who is not currently on

It's quite clear to me that those who object to the term "Jew" (either Jew or
goy) are doing so because inherent to Christian cultures is the notion that a
a Jew is a bad thing to be. It's not. Note that anti-Semites have learned new
linguistic tricks to slant Jews. I've overheard someone saying she got an
 "Israeli lawyer" price on something or other, and that the most frequent
foreign visitors to the Grand Canyon are (something like) "Germans, Japanese,
 Canadians, and 'The Israeli's'" (cf. "The Jews", said with a sneer.) As my
 father has observed, "Jew" is the easiest word in the English language to
 sneer at while saying.
 The verb "To Jew" is certainly offensive, as is the verb "To gyp" (gyp is
so acceptable at this point that it isn't even capitalized, probably because it
's origins have been lost).
 Finally, while "goy" has negative connotations, it simply means "nation"
(i.e. non-Jew).
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Message 5: Re: 3.847 Place-Names and Articles

Date: 30 Oct 1992 23:53:22 +1000Re: 3.847 Place-Names and Articles
Subject: Re: 3.847 Place-Names and Articles

Consider the following:
1) I am a Scot.
2) I am a Chinese.
3) I am Scottish.
4) I am Chinese.
Sentence 2 sounds odd to me, yet both 1 and 3 are OK. "Scot" is a noun,
but "Chinese" is not, so ordinarily in the grammar of English the fact that
we don't use article plus adjective combinations explains the unacceptability.
On the other hand consider that 1 is more marked or emphatic than 3, but 1
may sound sexist so for the marked version using the neutral gender person,
speakers turn to constructions like "I am a Scottish person."
Speakers who do not want to be discriminated against may find using a
marked structure, i.e. one with "a" objectionable as it does exactly
what they wish to avoid, appearing different. Now, it is possible to have
an unmarked version when using an adjective without an article, e.g. "
I'm gay." but it is not possbible to omit the article if one is also
attempting to render the adjective gender neutral "*I am gay person."
What I am suggesting is that the use of "a Xish person" is an attempt
to be gender neutral, but this runs counter to another intuition that
"a Xish" is a marked form in contrast to "0 Xish".

A quick query on place names. What is the place in England that in fact
means [hill] [hill] hill, where the first two hills are Anglo-Saxon? then
Latin I think.

Lloyd Holliday
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Message 6: re: objectionable words

Date: Thu, 29 Oct 1992 10:54:27re: objectionable words
From: Geoffrey Nunberg <>
Subject: re: objectionable words

RE: objectionable words

It might be useful to clear up what is actually at stake in these
discussions. The point about gay and black is that these words are often
held to be offensive when used with certain quantifiers, as in:
 1. There are two gays (Blacks) on the panel.
 He is the only gay (Black) on the panel.
 His roommate is a gay (Black).
By contrast, the words are not offensive when used in sentences like:
 2. There are no gays (Blacks) on the panel.
 Gays (blacks) have voted for the measure.
 Many gays (Blacks) are voting Democratic in this election.
I am not sure exactly how to characterize the relevant environment, or why
the choice of quantifier should have this effect. What is clear, however,
is that the effect is not present with analogous words like Asian,
Hispanic, or lesbian, whose connotations do not vary according to the
quantifier. So the explanation will presumably have to make reference to
the particular derivational process involved in the formation of the nouns
gay and black, and not simply to the difference between using an adjective
and using a noun to describe someone's ethnicity.

On any account, the story with Jew is different. It is true that an
anathema attaches to the use of the word in attributive position, as in
phrases like "Jew lawyer." And many people appear to have generalized this
stricture to all uses of the noun. But for such speakers, presumably, there
is no difference in offensiveness between the environments in (1) and (2).

My own reaction to the use of circumlocutions like Jewish people is the
same as that of Ellen Prince, Benji Wald, and Mark Mandel. I think it
betrays, as we put it in the usage note attached to the entry for Jew in
the American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd Edition, "an unwarranted and hence
suspect delicacy." In support of this contention, I did a search on a
6-months New York Times corpus and found numerous citations in which the
noun was used unapologetically. For example:

>In the new Congress there will be 142 Catholics, 75 Methodists, 59
>Episcopalians, 59 Baptists, 51 Prebyterians and 41 Jews.

>Together, these 6.1 million people -- those who describe themselves as
>Jews by birth, conversion or ethinic origin -- represent an increase from
>the combined total of 5.4 million in the 1970 survey.

>The result could be the old joke: put five Jews in a room, and you'll wind
>up with six opinions.

>Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer and a Jew.

But I found no cites for either gay or Black used in environments like
those in (1), though there were numerous cites for these words in
environments like those in (2) (the Times resisted the use of gay for some
time, but has been using the word in news columns since about 1989):

>Taking their turn with the divisive issue of gays and religion, a national
>committee of United Methodist Church is considering changing its current
>policy that `the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian

>California Assemblyman Terry Friedman, D-Sherman Oaks, says he will
>introduce a bill next month in the state Legislature that would extend
>state protection from discrimination to gays and lesbians.

>Infused with energy from a younger generation -- many of whom are
>extremely open about their sexual orientation and impatient with the
>current pace of change -- lesbians and gays are increasingly using
>sophisticated strategies to demand not just tolerance but full and equal
>access to the same rights and privileges as heterosexuals.

However, gay tended to appear as an adjective modifying a semantically
unnecessary head noun where quantifers like those in (1) were involved:

>In addition, for the first time in the city's history, two lesbians won
>seats on the board of supervisors and a gay candidate was the top
>vote-getter in the school board election.

>Although a handful of other lesbians and gay men had been organizing in
>the city since the early 1950s,...

The pattern with Black was the same. Of course one might argue that this
shows only that the NY Times is more solicitous of the sensibilities of its
gay and Black readers than of those of its Jewish readers, but anyone
familiar with the history and direction of the newspaper will find this
theory implausible. Plainly the editors don't think that the use of Jew as
a noun is objectionable, nor do they believe that their readers will find
it so.

Geoff Nunberg
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Message 7: Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

Date: Sat, 31 Oct 92 09:33:22 CSRe: 3.833 Objectionable Words?
From: Michael Kac <>
Subject: Re: 3.833 Objectionable Words?

I wonder if sensitivity to the word *Jew* tout court isn't due to uses of the
word as either an adjective or verb that count as offensive by anyone's
definition. Example: consider the inference you'd make about the speaker's
attitude in the following two cases:

 1. That's an idea popular among Jewish intellectuals.
 2. That's an idea popular among Jew intellectuals.

(Compare also the practice, less widespread than it once was, of referring in
a disparaging way to the Democratic Party by calling it the Democrat Party.)

Then there is also the use of the word *jew* as a verb meaning 'to seek a
reduced price', as in *I jewed him down to a hundred fifty bucks*. So maybe
what we're seeing in avoidance of *Jew* as a noun is contamination from
these other uses?

Michael Kac
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