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Fighting Words

Kids are exposed to many loaded terms each day, from ‘gay’ to ‘Yid’ to the n-word. Some are OK to use, in some contexts, for some people. Some are not. How can we teach them which are which?

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Last week was a banner week for the thorniness of language, at least in my world. I wrote about a reality show schmuck teaching my kids the disparaging use of the word “fairy.” (Until that moment, they’d thought fairies had wands and were awesome.) Also last week, a Southern publisher announced it would produce a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the word “nigger” is replaced throughout by the word “slave.”

These events are unrelated, yet they have much in common. Thinking about the power of words—and the way the same word can feel embracing or abusive, depending on who’s saying it—made me think about when and how to teach kids about the nuances of terms that may or may not be epithets.

Here’s what I mean: gay, queer, nigga, yid, heeb. All can be used as slurs, but they can also be used as badges of in-group identification.

Josie is 9, and she attends a diverse public school in a diverse neighborhood. She’s heard the n-word used as a term of affection and identity between kids of color. She doesn’t listen to much hip-hop (at home we tend to favor show tunes, old-school punk rock, and Parliament-Funkadelic, thus covering most of the 100 Best Jewish Songs of All Time), but, like most urban kids, she’s certainly going to hear more and more of it as she gets older. And that means I’m going to have to teach her and her little sister that however much you hear the n-word, you don’t get to say it.

And yet I don’t think we should be censoring Mark Twain (or hip-hop artists, or Frederick Douglass, or Ishmael Reed). We should talk to our older kids about historical context, about why the word can be shocking and upsetting. Huck Finn has a specific setting; it’s right and proper to read the book in the frame of reference of the 19th-century South. To change the words is to throw up our hands and refuse to wrestle with our problematic historical past. We abdicate a teachable moment.

Words are complicated. I’ve talked to Josie about the fact that we don’t say “that’s so gay.” (There’s an excellent current public service campaign—my favorite ad is with comedian Wanda Sykes—with the same message.) But it will be a long while before my kids and I have the conversation I had a few years ago with my brother and his husband about the phenomenon of young gay people saying, with edgy irony, “That’s so gay.” When you get to be confident enough about your place in the world, do you get to reclaim that kind of use of language? (My brother thinks maybe. My brother-in-law thinks no.) Is using “gay” in the old-school pejorative way the next evolutionary step after reclaiming “queer”? (That reclamation took a bad word and made it a good word, but the gays who say, “That’s so gay” are using “gay” as a bad word! It makes your head spin.)

And then there’s the problem of Jewish words that swing both ways, like Yid and Hebe. In the Ashkenazi Orthodox world, of course, Yid and Yidden mean simply Jews and Jewish people; the words have a homey, positive gloss. (“Yid equals man plus mitzves,” or good deeds, writes Michael Wex in Born to Kvetch.) But reading back through American Jewish history and literature, you’ll see “yid” used repeatedly by non-Jews as a slur. “Hebe” used to be a verbal slap, too, but now, reborn as “Heeb,” it’s a hipster magazine, a fist-bump among the cool kids of the tribe. Jon Stewart, who I credit with popularizing one of my fave could-go-either-way descriptors, “Jewy,” was there early with “Hebe,” too—in 2000, long before Heeb magazine was pondering calling Joe Lieberman a dickhead (though, of course, that was before Joe Lieberman was a dickhead), Stewart titled a segment about Hillary Clinton’s alleged anti-Semitism “Hebe Said, She Said.”

“Language meaning changes,” says Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College. “Pejoration, in which the meaning of a word gets more negative, and amelioration, in which a word’s meaning becomes more favorable, happen constantly. In Mexico City, there’s a Syrian Jewish community known as shajatos, which comes from the Arabic word for slipper and is a derogatory term; the term is now being reclaimed by young Syrian Jews. There are Shajato Pride Facebook groups.”

Even “Jew” is a loaded word. Sure, there’s the verb—to jew someone down—but the noun, too, is laden with years of history and bias, from Shakespeare to Dickens to, oh, practically everybody. “Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale says that Satan has his wasps’ nest in the hearts of Jews,” Michael Wex told me in an interview. “There’s ‘The Ballad of Little Sir Hugh’ and sundry Latin and English accounts of the supposed ritual murder of Hugh of Lincoln. And let’s not forget The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta. In the latter of case, trust me, ‘Jew’ did not mean ‘fellow citizen of the Mosaic persuasion.’ ”

Historically, Wex says, “ ‘I went to the Jew,’ would have been understood as ‘I went to the pawnbroker/moneylender.’ Likewise, the idea of the ‘Jew store,’ generally a low-priced dry goods or secondhand store, was widespread for a very long time—I can recall it from the sixties.” The word “Jew” connoted “totally unlike us.” Even today, many of us know non-Jews who go out of their way not to say the word Jew; they carefully say “Jewish person.”

“People who avoid the word Jew,” Benor says, “think of it as a negative word because they know it was used in an ugly way in the past.”

Which brings me back to my own little yidden. How do I teach them about the minefield that is the flexibility of language, with all its layers of history and sediment and love and hate?

“It’s all about context,” says Kiki Schaffer, director of the Parenting, Family, and Early Childhood Center at the 14th Street Y in New York City. “It’s not that an individual word has some magic; it’s that we have to consider how that word is going to land. You can explain to kids that words can land with affection in one context and as a putdown in another context. They can say ‘I’m like you’ or ‘I have more power than you.’ ”

Shaffer says that educating kids on the nuances of language can begin as early as age 3 or 4, when theory of mind sets in. That’s when children start to understand that other people have thoughts, feelings, and desires, and those thoughts, feelings, and desires aren’t always in line with theirs. You can explain multiple perspectives to a 4-year-old—calling people a stupidhead can hurt their feelings—and add more complexity as kids get older.

“You can tell a 9-year-old, ‘You have to be scrupulously careful with language,’ ” Shaffer says. “You could tell a Jewish joke because you’re in the in-group; the joke’s about yourself and your people. But if you joke about a group you’re not part of, even if your intentions are good, you could wind up being hurtful. There are trails of memory involved that you don’t share and don’t necessarily understand.”

Parents of kids in Jewish day schools should be particularly clueful about talking about race. Research shows that insisting “children don’t see color” and not discussing difference with them can actually reinforce racism.

Words are complicated. Should we really expect explaining them to kids to be easy? Choosing to say nothing, though, is no answer at all.

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J Carpenter says:

Sentence no. 2 in your article uses the word “schmuck”—is that word acceptible? Unless it’s accurate, of course . . . .

Pamela Scharaga says:

I grew up on a household where my parents didn’t curse at all . These words were also considered curse words including words like faggot.
I brought up my children the same way I told them that using those words “hurt G-d’s ears ”
As they grew older I reminded them to monitor their their friends use of speech in our house or I would do it for them.
Their best friend is African American I asked him how his Mom felt about the n word and he said she felt the same way I did .
These days there is a new dynamic and the onus is off of many of these word in the right circumstances. My grown children’s circle of friends include all races and religions and a mix of gay and straight . Among themselves they call each other nigga and other epithets and use gay as an adjective.
Sadly, Jew ,shylock and heeb are still used negatively.

Thanks for the thoughtful piece, Marjorie. I was having trouble pinpointing what, exactly, bothered me so much about the new edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” While I sometimes rankle at political correctness, in the case of the Twain “update,” it wasn’t mere frustration with PC-dom that upset me so. You’ve clarified the issue for me. By changing the novel – fiction, yes, but also a historical document – we’re not just glossing over an ugly aspect of the past, we’re also depriving ourselves of the opportunity to learn (and to educate) from it.

You left out the word “retarded.” It is used as a pejorative to demean and bully.Considering the spate of bullying across the country those who read this post should join the ranks of us fighting to end the use of this word and to relegate it to the dustbin of history just as society views the “n” word. It is not descriptive of challenges.Its evil implication is so great that the Congress even passed legislation to remove the word from all laws and regulations and replace it with the term, “intellectual disability or challenges”.

Old queers are not okay with young queers using the word “gay”? What about saying “fag” or sporting pink triangles?

I love these generational linguistic shifts. Should have mentioned Bill Cosby…

I’ve literally never heard the phrase “Jew someone down” used in any context other than articles discussing antisemitism.

Prof Brown had us read second rate medieval French books to show us what the culture was. It was an excellent lesson. How would he have done this in the PC era?

Sue Fendrick says:

Sarah Bunin Benor and Marjorie Ingall–two of the smartest Jewish women I know. Love when they collide in a thoughtful article like this.

Jacob Adenbaum says:

I hate to nitpick, but this happens to be one of my pet peeves. Using the word “nigger” in Huck Finn isn’t a reflection of “the frame of reference of the 19th-century South.” In fact, even a perfunctory reading of Huck Finn reveals that his use of such words isn’t offensive at all. Mark Twain was not a racist, he was a satirist and an ardent abolitionist. Huck Finn is a satire, and should be treated as such.

VHJM van Neerven says:

Dear Marjorie, dear readers,

The focus on words is an outdated remnant of Anglo- Saxon (as opposed to European) language philosophy. Wittgenstein and his schools were overly concerned with clarity of terms. They assumed a word refers to a thing in reality and that when the terms were clear, one would see reality for what it is. I do not have to tell you how much of human experience was thus deemed of no importance.
French structuralism changed all that by making the sentence the unit of meaning and paying great attention to metaphors, thus exploding the myth of the “clarity of terms.” Bachelard had already shown that even the most scientific of terms and descriptions were full of human history. Marjorie, you said it so very well: “There are trails of memory involved that you don’t share and don’t necessarily understand.”
Paul Ricœur went one step further and claims that history and story are the units of meaning. The above engaged story illustrates his point. It’s in telling about the world that reality reveals itself.
Our concern should not be one or another word, PC or not and so on; but all the worlds people live in. Setting, frame of reference, context, pejoration and amelioration: all these are old hangups on language, details. They take us away from the real, the worlds we live in.

I could not agree more with the end of the piece. Children are never too young to learn about ‘all that.’ They know already. Parents and teachers only have to build on what is already there.

So, let us have your stories. Tell us, tell us all about it.
Too many of us have been mangled by terminology and destroyed by silence.

Thank you.

VHJM van Neerven

Just a few words about “Jew store.” These Jewish-owned stores were the only ones in the Jim Crow South that allowed African Americans to try on clothing and purchase on credit. The owners were often the only Jewish family in a small Southern town. I highly recommend the memoir “The Jew Store,” by Stella Suberman, about her childhood as a daughter of the owner of such a store in a small town in Tennessee in the 1920s.

This article is especially on point now, considering the latest Sarah Palin rhetorical misstep with the slur ‘blood libel.’ Not that anyone would or could ever try to take back or identify proudly with such a heinous slur–but it is interesting how she has tried to co-opt this saying and re-interpret it for her own use. Yikes!

I like the illustration! Great work.

Sunnie says:

The two most powerful weapons on earth are our minds and our mouths-they should always be used wisely. Words of demeaning intent are never realy ‘terms of endwearment’

Alaine says:

Years ago, my older daughter attended an inner city preschool, whose kids were primarily black and biracial and of which my parents highly disapproved. One day while visiting Grandma, she repeated an extremely racist joke that she thought was funny for entirely different, little kid reasons. My mother was horrified. “You have to take Aviva out of that place. Just listen to what she’s learning to repeat….” It *was* a nasty “joke,” and one I had objected to when it was said in front of my daughter — at the Orthodox shul.

velville says:

When we were growing up in Atlanta there were words we knew were inappropriate (and which might gain a bite off a bar of Ivory Soap for emphasis)…now we have language nitwits in Hollywood who think it is clever to have a movie called “Dinner for Schmucks (2010).” I cannot imagine how outraged my Bubbie would have been had she been alive when the movie came out. Outraged plenty because “civilized people don’t talk like that…”

Language is important even if folks will be backing off because that momzhuck in Arizona is supposed to have written, “And he adds, ‘I can’t trust the current government because of fabrications. The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar.’” [Explain that, Noam Chomsky, and then blame it on Israel and Zionism.]

(But Litvaks were still not supposed to marry Galitzianers…)

velville says:

Ilan, I have heard “I was hoping to Jew you down” from someone I thought was smart (wrong assumption) who obviously did not recognize that he was being offensive. I often wondered what he might have said in response to my saying that I wanted to “goy him up?”

Lots of nitwits wandering clothed as intelligent.

virginia says:

Around 1968 I was spending the afternoon in Huntinton, L. I. N. Y. , I came across a Roman Catholic church named St. Hugh of Lincoln. Talk about enshrining hate. I wonder if it ever changed its name.

Long-Divorced says:

I am Jewish. A long time ago I was married to a non-Jew who owned a store. An old friend of his came to the shop and started haggling with me over the price of something. At one point he used the phrase “jew it down”. I had (inexplicably) never heard that phrase before but it only took about 2 seconds for me to understand what he was trying to communicate. I was offended and appalled that this apparently educated, erudite man thought that was acceptable language. I let him know I was offended and refused to deal with him. Later I told my husband too.

My husband spoke to his friend and then told me the guy “hadn’t meant to offend me”, that he was unaware I was Jewish (as if that was a excuse), and said he had apologized. I told him that if the man meant the apology, he could damn well apologize directly to me.

My husband (now my ex-) tried to get me to forget the whole thing. I said I’d be happy to, after the offender apologized properly.

I never received that apology, and I never spoke to that man again. I hope that the incident at least made him think about the hurtful meaning of his words.

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Fighting Words

Kids are exposed to many loaded terms each day, from ‘gay’ to ‘Yid’ to the n-word. Some are OK to use, in some contexts, for some people. Some are not. How can we teach them which are which?

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