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I had thought that Jew was gender-neutral, until I heard somebody who was asked if their mother was a Jew and responded, "of course not; she's a Jewess".

Is Jew a gender-neutral form, or does one need to distinguish between Jew and Jewess?

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In the US, as far as I know "Jew" isn't used. Someone is Jewish but not a Jew. –  simchona Sep 11 '11 at 17:20
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@simchona: that varies a lot. Some people find Jew, the noun, mildly offensive, because of its associations with anti-semitism; so in a lot of places/subcultures/situations in the states, people will avoid using it. But there are also plenty of people who do use it — including (in my experience) most of the Jewish friends I’ve had in the states. So, YMMV, though although among people you don’t know, avoiding it is probably safer and more polite. –  PLL Sep 11 '11 at 19:21
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@simochona, that's not universal. I know lots of people who use "Jew" to refer to themselves and others (without negative connotations), male and female, and who would consider "Jewess" to be offensive. –  Monica Cellio Sep 11 '11 at 19:25
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@PLL This is just to note that if you search for "jew" on Google you get a Google ad for a page Google hosts about "Offensive Search Results" with an interesting discussion about the history of the word "Jew" –  nohat Sep 12 '11 at 20:03
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@nohat: indeed, yes; the anti-Semitic associations of Jew are very much based in reality. My apologies if I sounded like I was dismissing them — I didn’t mean to do so. I only meant to point out that, as with many such words, peoples’ opinions, reactions, and usage varies tremendously. –  PLL Sep 12 '11 at 21:52

3 Answers 3

According to the OALD, Jew can refer to either sex, while Jewess is old-fashioned and usually offensive.

MW also agrees with the neutrality of Jew and possible offensiveness of Jewess.

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+1. Google ngrams confirms that Jewess is completely archaic today. –  PLL Sep 11 '11 at 19:23
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@PLL Careful, Ngram is case sensitive: ngrams.googlelabs.com/… (and how do you make comment links?) –  Hugo Sep 11 '11 at 19:42
    
This is what the NOAD reports too. –  kiamlaluno Sep 11 '11 at 21:06
    
@Hugo: ah, thankyou — good point. To get a named link (in either a comment or a post), input it in the form: [snappy link title](http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ). –  PLL Sep 12 '11 at 21:59

To me Jew is gender-neutral while Jewess is feminine and old-fashioned but not necessarily offensive. It's like poet and poetess.

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Jewess is offensive because of the anti-semetic connotations. Poetess has no such loaded meaning. –  Optimal Cynic Sep 12 '11 at 9:40
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I understand the religion/race relationship to the word. However, as a Jew, I don't find the term 'Jewess' to be offensive or loaded unless it's used in an offensive way, as is the case with many other non-offensive words. –  Mark Sep 12 '11 at 9:54
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Jewess and poetess are offensive because they move the emphasis from the thing being talked about (Jewishness, poetery) to "ess", as if women are in a different class than men. Women are poets, or Jews, same as men, if you want to avoid giving offense. –  Monica Cellio Sep 12 '11 at 12:52
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@MonicaCellio I'm not sure why having a distinction between male and female is offensive. Would you also say that having separate words for "man" and "woman", "king" and "queen", "emperor" and "empress", "prince" and "princess", "god" and "godess" are also offensive? –  Peter Olson Oct 4 '11 at 2:51
    
Jewess is basically only, and exclusively used by anti-Semites. By contrast, Jew is widely used by, well, Jews to describe ourselves. –  LessPop_MoreFizz Apr 11 at 2:22

Jew is offensive due to associations with anti-Semitism.

Jewess is even more offensive, due to associations with anti-Semitism, and it is sexist on top of that.

As @Monica Cellio said in a comment elsewhere here:

Jewess and poetess are offensive because they move the emphasis from the thing being talked about (Jewishness, poetry) to "ess", as if women are in a different class than men. Women are poets, or Jews, same as men, if you want to avoid giving offense

Both Jew and Jewess are fairly "loaded" terms and are likely to cause offense. It is my personal recommendation that non-Jews avoid both terms. However, given that, Jew is orders of magnitude less offensive than Jewess. You can use the word Jew to mean "a Jewish person", if you use the word very gently. That is, it is important to not convey any sense of an "us-vs-them" mentality. But never use Jewess unless you know you can get away with it. If you have any doubts as to whether you can get away with it, then you can't, so don't use it. If you don't have any such doubts, you didn't need me to tell you. So, if you weren't sure going in to reading this paragraph, then the answer for you is "no, never use the word Jewess".


After watching this 1980 Saturday Night Live sketch for "Jewess Jeans", I'm not sure what to think.

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+1 for being the first person to say that Jew can be considered offensive. I thought I was the only one who thought this. –  simchona Sep 12 '11 at 20:11
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Jew is only considered offensive if taken to be offensive. A slang word for African-Americans (Blacks), is nigger. But the way to say Blacks in Spanish is los Negros. I don't see how that is any more offensive than nigger if it is meant to be offensive. Wh should a Jewish person be offended when called a Jew if that is what he is? IMHO, a Jewish person who does not want to be called a Jew is like a tree not wanting to be considered part of a forest. For more on this, see what Mark writes in his answer and comments there. –  Adam Mosheh May 25 '12 at 15:21
    
@Adam words don't live in a vacuum. Where a word has a history of being used in an offensive way by oppressors and other offensive people then the word can develop an offensive association, especially from those who were the victims of offensive statements using the word "Jew". –  nohat May 25 '12 at 21:14
    
Based on the articles linked in the question comments, it seems that Jew has been rehabilitated in recent years, at least as a noun, although it is still offensive to use Jew as an adjective in place of Jewish. –  Bradd Szonye Mar 27 at 7:10
    
The best analogue to 'Jew' as a noun when discussing offensiveness is probably 'gay' as an adjective. Which is to say, that when you use it to mean what it actually means, you're usually in the clear, unless the rest of the content of your speech is offensive. But if you use it to mean something else (cheap, effeminate respectively, for example), you're taking a sharp right turn down the road to assholesville, population, you. –  LessPop_MoreFizz Apr 11 at 2:21

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