Why is it rude to use the word "Jew"?

I remember growing up, kids were taught by grownups (like the nuns teaching in my school) that you should say “Jewish person” instead of “Jew” and “Jewish people” instead of “Jews.” Except that it was all right to say “Hitler persecuted the Jews” but you couldn’t say the folks next door were “Jews”, they were “Jewish people.”

Likewise, when I took French in high school, the teacher said we shouldn’t say juif, we should use the euphemism isréalite.

The nuns told us this back in the 1960s when I was a young kid. How did this taboo on monosyllables get started? Is it still in effect? Nowdays I don’t notice anyone keeping up this particular taboo.

I’ve never heard about this taboo. When I was studying Hebrew, one teacher was English-speaking and used the word “Jew” all the time. I never noticed anyone taking offense, Jewish or not.

The American Heritage Dictionary has great Usage Notes. Here’s how hey explain this issue.

The 4th edition (2000) of the AHD has this Usage Note. The 1st edition (1969) didn’t. Seems that over the years between the 60s and 2000, people finally figured this out.

The only time that I’ve known it to be offensive is when it is used as a verb, i.e. to “jew” someone down on the price.

Jomo, we posted at about the same time and I didn’t see your explanation – which makes perfect sense.

I would use the word “Jew” the same as “Christian”, “Buddhist”, “Muslim” or whatever. Not to, IMO, is overly PC, and drawing attention to the antisemitic language now consigned to the dustbin of history, at least in enlightened cultures.

Simple. It’s because so many people have used “jew” in a derogatory sense that it has taken on a negative connotation. I’m Jewish and have no problem referring to myself and my family as Jews. But I bristle when I hear somebody else use the term because so often it is used as an insult. Even the most inoffensive word will become an insult if enough people use it that way.

In a larger sense, I think people generally prefer to be referred to with adjectives instead of nouns. To call somebody Jewish acknowledges that he or she is, first and foremost, a human being. “Jewish” is simply a modifer of that larger, more important state. Calling somebody a “Jew,” on the other hand, can be seen as an attempt to dehumanize that person by focusing solely on a single distinguishing characteristic. An analogy could possibly be made with calling somebody “dark skinned” (non offensive) as opposed to “a darkie” (highly offensive).

Just a thought…


It seems to me that Godzillatemple has it right, the usage note of the American Heritage Dictionary notwithstanding. I remember being corrected by one of my Jewish acquaintances in NYC when I used the word infelicitously, and she said Jewish people can use the word “Jew,” and you–not being Jewish–generally shouldn’t. I should add that I teach history, and often I have to use the word “Jew” so as to avoid the American Heritage catch, but I think the context in which I use it–reasoned historical explanations as opposed to, say, expressing an opinion–gives me a bit more latitude.

My ex was Jewish, and he had no problems with the word Jew. His explanation was that Hitler tried to make ‘Jew’ a dirty word, so if we continued to use it only in a derogatory sense, we’d be doing what Hitler wanted.

Jeez…sorry if I’ve offended anyone, but I always use the word Jew, but within the correct context. I wouldn’t think of saying “Dirty Jew” or “Jewed him down”, but I wouldn’t feel bad about saying something like, “The Weinsteins are Jews so we’ll have to put the party off until after Yom Kippur” or “Jews were the largest percentage of that population.” I think intent and usage has everything to do with it. But if it’s offensive, I’ll knock it off. I think we had this conversation here on the boards before, and the majority thought it was OK when not used in a derrogatory fashion.

It also just happens to be a word (at least in spoken English) that has a really hard turn in it (I don’t know the technical definition). It’s short, sharp and poignant. “JEW!” as opposed to “CHRISTIAN!” “MUSLIM!” OR “HINDU!” It has a kind of hissing ring to it, whereas “Jewish people” softens it up a little.

Kalhoun, I don’t think that’s necessary. If you’re using “Jew” as a simple identifier, such as “surveys show that Jews in American feel that…” is perfectly fine. You get into trouble when you use the term in a derogatory or stereotyping way.

Stereotype: “Of course he’s a good lawyer, he’s a Jew.”
Adjective: “I want to hire your best Jew lawyer.”
Verb: “I want you to Jew them down at settlement.”

“Oh look, he’s got a menorah in the window. He must be a Jew.”
“It say’s here in this survey that 85% of American Jews vote for Democrats.”
“On the Ecumenical Council there was a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim and a Hindu.”

Another thing to consider: in most endeavors in life, a person’s religion or ethnic background should not be worthy of comment with regards to that endeavor.

I’m a Jew, or at least I was once. I see nothing wrong with using the word in the proper context.

I’m with Godzilla. I know myself that if I said to someone “Are you a Jew?” that I’d feel kind of funny. Not so if I said “Are you Jewish?”. Maybe the derrogatory sense is easy in English because it’s just one syllable. Or maybe it’s from the adjective, as described above (Jew Lawyer, etc). Just goes to show who wonderfully nuanced language is (sorry to have to use something this as a demo…).

Sigh. When I was I kid I saw a made-for-TV movie about Nazis marching through a Jewish neighborhood. A character played by Danny Kaye snapped at someone for using the term “Jewish people” when “Jews” would have been more appropriate. The point was that we shouldn’t treat “Jew” as a dirty word. So I’m sorry if Danny Kaye led me astray, but all these years I thought I was using the correct, respectful term.

From Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” lyrics:

"Paul Newman’s half Jewish
and Goldie Hawn’s half, too
Put them together,
What a fine looking Jew!

O.J. Simpson [not a Jew]
But guess who is? Hall of Famer Rod Carew [He converted]

So many Jews are in Show Biz
Tom Cruise isn’t but I think his agent is"

I realize that Sandler is himself Jewish, so his use of this word would be considered “OK” even for the purposes of this argument. But this song contains many references to Jewish people as “Jews” and there have never been objections raised, and the context in which the word is used here could not possibly be considered offensive. Even if a Gentile were to say “OJ Simpson…not a Jew” it would not be considered objectionable.

I work in a law firm with many Jewish lawyers and have used both “Jewish people” and “Jew(s)” and have never heard even the faintest objection. Jomo mojo’s high school made a mountain out of a molehill…

It’s NOT inherently rude to use the word “Jew.” American Jews use it all the time themselves. Calling Sandy Koufax “a Jew” is not a slur, and it’s not like calling Jackie Robinson the “n” word.

That said, there are certainly times when I’ll hear someone use the word “Jew” with a tone or manner that conveys disdain or disgust. The tone is unmistakeable when you hear it.

So, my philosophy is, go ahead and use the word “Jew” whenever it seems appropriate. If your tone and manner don’t convey anything negative, Jews who hear it won’t bat an eyelash.

On the other hand, Jews will recognize the aforementioned tone in an anti-Semite’s voice even if he uses euphemisms.

You should see the looks you get for saying “Jap”. It’s also become a dirty word even though it’s really just an abbreviated form of “Japanese”.

Someone on a guitar forum took quite a tongue lashing for referring to a Japanese made guitar as a Jap model. He truely meant no harm…but his unintentional faux paz garnered him a thurough griping.

Think of the word black (with regard to race). It is both normal and apropriate to say “Blacks [or Jews] tended to vote Democratic in the last election.” It would sound awkward, or worse, to say “My lawyer is a black.” To sensative ears, the same is true of “My lawyer is a Jew.” “My lawyer is black [or Jewish]” sounds . . . well, the sentiment might sound racist (depending on the context), but the language is fine. Many people prefer to be identified racially with an adjective rather than a noun, especially when refering to an individual rather than a group. As a rule of thumb, substitute “black” for “Jew” to see if it sounds appropriate. (Just be sure you can tell when you’re using “black” as a noun, and when it’s an adjective.)

David Bowie sang:

A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children
If the black hadn’t pulled her off, I think she would have killed them

(“Five Years”, from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars)

Here Bowie refers to a black man as “the black.” (Maybe to fit the scansion of the line, maybe it’s considered acceptable to talk like that in Britain, I don’t know.) It does sound stark and abrupt when phrased like that. But he spoke of the black man in a positive light: he saved the kids’ lives. Is it offensive? Or does the positive light mitigate the phrase?

Oh, and considering what everyone has said, I still think the AHD4’s Usage Note is the most reasonable and sensible analysis of the situation, so I’m gonna go with that.