July 5, 2008

Classifying A Hate Word

A Twitter contact of mine posted a link to his comment on this article, in which he draws attention to what he calls "a dangerous thing" about language.

To summarize, he's asking about the use of the word "Kike" in "Casa Kike" (pronounced "kee-kay" it is a Spanish given name) and his concern is about the slur-word "kike" (rhymes with "kite").

I was interested when I saw he refereed to it as an anti-semitic word. While I'm no expert on the etymology of the word, his description made me wonder whether "anti-semitic" was a correct characterization, and I find myself coming up with more questions than answers.

Clearly, the word is and has been used by anti-semites. But it also has a well-known history of use as a slur word within the Jewish population. Although the origin is often disputed, its usages are well documented.

All parties agree that the term was originally used by German Jews who had emigrated to the United States earlier in the 19th century to describe their later-arriving Ashkenazi counterparts. In its origins, kike was used by Jews to describe other Jews who they felt were vulgar, and from there it became appropriated as part of the American vocabulary of slang. Kike is still used to this day by Jews to describe other Jews who they feel are low in character.

Calling it a slur word against Jews is certainly accurate. And saying that it has been used by anti-semites is also accurate. And even that it has been used to express an anti-semitic sentiment is also accurate. But can it really be called an anti-semitic word if its historical usage was often between semitic groups? These weren't people seeking to adopt a racist word and claim it for their own, these were people using for their own purposes as a slur. Presumably, they were not anti-semitic, but rather sought to use the term to distinguish themselves from other semites.

This makes for a very confusing situation when describing the term. On the one hand, it is a term used attack Jews. On the other hand, describing the word too broadly encourages and perpetuates an inaccurate view of the word's history.

I don't object to describing this as a word used to denigrate Jews, and for that reason it is an word that should be considered offensive by polite people. If you are not Jewish you use it at the risk of being taken for an anti-semite, with good reason. It's a word used with the intention of being hurtful.Yet I still don't entirely feel the word itself ought to be labeled "anti-semitic."

But I can't say that with complete conviction. The word is used exclusively to attack people who are Jewish, but not always because they are Jewish (in the case of other Jews using the word). Perhaps that is enough to call it "anti-semitic." But I'm not sure.

If it feels like I am drawing too fine a line, I will agree that for many purposes the distinction is unimportant. However, I feel that understanding language is often important to understanding people, even when it might be complex. It beats ignorance, and these are questions I feel are worth at least thinking about.

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Posted by James at July 5, 2008 2:06 PM
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There are broader issues I take with labelling things "anti-Semitic". First, since Jews aren't the only Semitic people, this should almost always be "anti-Jewish". Making that correction would fix at least part of the problem you describe here. I wish we could just get everyone to stop saying "anti-Semitic" when they mean "anti-Jewish", but I'm afraid that's not on.

Second, and more significantly, I have a huge problem with people piping up with claims of "anti-Semitism" at any hint of criticism of an individual Jew, of policies of the Israeli government, and that sort of thing. One can disagree, one can criticize, and one can even be vehement about it without being "anti".

And that second goes to this case: it's part of an over-sensitivity that sometimes borders on paranoia. There are lots of words that can look bad when you carry them from one language to another, and one has to understand where things came from and not be so thin-skinned that one becomes ridiculous. "Con" in Spanish means "with", in English means "cheat", and in French is a bad word to call someone ("Quel con!"). Bob Dole's last name written in Farsi means "penis", something that amused Iranians in 1996. And we can't forget the DC official who was fired (and then reinstated by an embarrassed mayor) for calling a fiscal policy "niggardly".

We gotta stop being silly.

Anyway, if something's a slur, it's a slur. A shop in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) that was called "Kike's Peak" wouldn't be funny, even though it were owned by Jews.

Posted by: Barry Leiba at July 6, 2008 1:26 PM

Well put, Barry.

Posted by: James at July 6, 2008 1:37 PM

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