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For some reason, the word Jew often carries a pejorative or offensive connotation, which the related adjective Jewish does not carry. This is most obvious when either word is used as an attributive:

  • The story was all over the Jewish media. [Not offensive; a factual statement about a story that was reported in Jewish-oriented media sources.]
  • The story was all over the Jew media. [Very offensive; "Jew media" is likely interpreted as a reference to the mainstream media, with the implication that they're controlled nefariously by the Jews.]

When used in a predicate, the same thing applies, though the differentiation is less sharp:

  • Joel Spolsky is Jewish. [Not offensive]
  • Joel Spolsky is a Jew. [Potentially offensive]

Note that any of the above could be offensive or derogatory in the right context, but the versions using "Jew" are much more likely to be interpreted that way.

The distinction seems to go away when we use either word for the subject of the sentence.

  • Six Jewish children are in my classroom. [Not offensive]
  • Six Jews are in my classroom. [Not offensive]

How did we get into this weird situation? Why is the word Jew much more likely to be taken as a pejorative than the word Jewish?

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+1 thought-provoking! –  Daniel Sep 27 '11 at 22:12
    
This is interesting problem… Where are we in this weird situation? This is not something that I have ever noticed, but then I don't live in the US, which is where I suspect that the question is being asked. –  Paul Wagland Sep 29 '11 at 6:31

6 Answers 6

Using Jew instead of Jewish as an adjective is usually done by people more interested in classifying than describing, which is why it is particularly pejorative.

The use of a noun to identify someone is often seen as pejorative anyway, because it doesn't capture the full complexity of a human being's behavior and traits. For instance:

  • He's a cocaine addict.
  • He's addicted to cocaine.

In the first, we see a person entirely limited by the identity statement. In the second, we merely see one of many traits.

  • She's a thief.
  • She stole a necklace.

This difference is used in various forms of therapy quite extensively, by getting people who identify with a particular stereotype to recognise it as (more easily changeable) behavior instead:

  • I'm an idiot.
  • Sometimes I find it hard to understand things.
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+1. An excellent explanation. –  jprete Sep 27 '11 at 18:05
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This seems like an insufficient explanation to me. For example, Christian as in He is a Christian is an identity statement, as opposed to He believes in Christianity, but Christian is not considered, at least in my experience, pejorative. –  Peter Olson Sep 27 '11 at 23:34
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You'd probably say "He believes in Jesus" or "He believes in God" rather than "He believes in Christianity". I live in the UK and have had plenty of pejorative reaction, both there and on the internet, to "I'm a Christian". I've had much less to "I believe in God." The identity statement is overloaded with a lot of other baggage too. –  Lunivore Sep 28 '11 at 10:29
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+1 This is a fascinating point. Thank you! –  Andrew Heath Oct 25 '11 at 2:46
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Using Jew as an attributive noun is even more pejorative: "I'm not travelling with some Jew taxi-driver!" In fact there aren't very many such nouns where the adjectival form is different (eg Briton/British), which accentuates the usage. –  Andrew Leach Jan 9 '13 at 8:45

The word Jew got that way in roughly the same way every other derogatory word got that way. Lots of people said really nasty things about the people the word describes for a long time, and eventually the bad things got associated with the word itself.

There are those that think somehow derogatory (or "loaded") words themselves are the problem, and insist on people using a new word instead. That's good as a stop-gap, but can't be viewed as an entire solution. If you don't attack the underlying prejudices that got the negative ideas associated with the word in the first place, they will eventually just attach themselves to the new word too. What you end up left with is something like our 6 different increasingly obtuse words for "shellshocked".

It isn't the word's fault, its the people who use it. But either way, the word ends up poisoned.

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I've upvoted this as well as @Lunivore's because the whole answer is spread across both. –  FumbleFingers Sep 27 '11 at 18:19
    
I agree, this explains the negativity of derogatory words very well too. –  Lunivore Oct 1 '11 at 13:23

People who don't encounter anti-Semitism much are usually confused about the connotation of "Jew" as a pejorative term. I'm Jewish, and a Jew, so I often find myself in the unenviable position of explaining this.

The first thing I must point out is a distinction that people often make. To be Jewish means one is of the Jewish race (a descendant of the Hebrew people), or an adherent to the Jewish faith, or both. To be a Jew means to be of the Jewish race, or practice Judaism, or both. Some people consider themselves Jewish but not Jews, while others are Jews and not Jewish. Confusing, I know. Cecil Adams tries to explain it. A Buddhist Jew is called a Jew-Bu. Don't get me started.

"Joel Spolsky is a Jew" is not a derogatory statement. He is a Jew. So is Alan Dershowitz. Where things go south is when you say, "That Jew lawyer Alan Dershowitz is at it again." The anti-Semitism should be very apparent in that context. Or to continue with the Spolsky example, "I'm not surprised FogBugz is expensive. Joel Spolsky is a Jew."

The use of Jew as a verb is almost exclusively offensive, e.g., "He tried to jew me down on the price of that car." This usage comes from the stereotype of Jews as money-grubbing cheats.

To answer your question, "How did the word Jew become pejorative?", I must answer: it is not a pejorative term. Only the context in which it is used is pejorative. Contrast that with epithets like "kike."

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Firstly, as a fellow Jew I've never heard of a distinction between being a Jew and being Jewish. You yourself didn't even explain the difference but stated that "Some people consider themselves Jewish but not Jews, while others are Jews and not Jewish." Never heard of this and think it's impossible. The link you added describes the different ways to categorize someone as a Jew or what being Jewish means, but there's no difference between being Jewish and being a Jew. –  Mark Oct 5 '11 at 9:32
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Secondly, in the derogatory examples about Dershowitz and Spolsky, the word 'Jewish' instead of 'Jew' would have been just as offensive: "The Jewish lawyer..." and Joel Spolsky is Jewish" would be pretty bad in those contexts. –  Mark Oct 5 '11 at 9:34
    
The distinction is among those Jews who distance themselves from the Jewish religion. I did say "consider," not "are." Regarding the "Jew lawyer" versus "Jewish lawyer" and where they register on the offense-o-meter, that's up to the listener/reader. I think the commentator at jewishworldreview.com/cols/jonah081500.asp sums it up best. –  Robert S. Oct 7 '11 at 14:08
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Although I like Lumivore's answer, I think this answer is closer to being correct. My Jewish friends make the distinction as: A Jew is someone who is ethnically (and truly matrilinearly) Jewish but might not practice Judaism, whereas a Jewish person is someone who practices Judaism who is not necessarily a Jew. Therefore, using Jew refers to an ethnic characteristic, while Jewish refers to religious beliefs. –  KitFox Dec 5 '11 at 13:37
    
I would never say 'Jew' - to me it smacks horribly of anti-semitism (esp. the 20th Century German kind: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jud_S%C3%BC%C3%9F_(1940_film)) Many people have ridiculed me for this stance, I always point them to this controversy: bit.ly/wMZw7J which arose because a leading German newspaper referred to British MP Malcolm Rifkind as 'the Jew Rifkind' in a context in which his heritage was of no relevance whatsoever. –  5arx Jan 20 '12 at 11:17

Lunivore's answer sounds right. Additionally, it may simply be that, when it comes to name calling, 'Jew' has the advantage of being shorter than 'Jewish'.

The British perfomer Jonathan Miller, himself of Jewish extraction, drew on the two words in the 1960s satirical show ‘Beyond the Fringe’ when he said: ‘In fact, I'm not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish. Not the whole hog, you know.’

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That is a very sweet anecdote! (Anecdote is not quite the right word, I realize. Aphorism? Not sure). I smiled at "not the whole hog". The tone reminds me of similar comments attributed to Benjamin Disraeli. –  Feral Oink Jul 28 '12 at 3:02

My close Jewish friends refer to themselves and others of their faith/culture as Jews. In fact, I've participated in enough bar mitzvas, Passover seders, etc., that they refer to me as an "honorary Jew".

I suspect it's only perceived as derogatory from the outside. As far as I know I've never offended anyone by calling a Jew a Jew.

Which is quite unlike when I've called a spade a spade...

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+1 'only derogative from outside' is a perfect way of putting it. I often struggle to explain in less than 15mins why I think it acceptable for black people to call each 'n******' but not for non-black people to address black people as such. 'only derogatory from outside' sums it up very succinctly :-) –  5arx Jan 20 '12 at 11:19

I hypothesize that the offensiveness of "Jew" used attributively (as a noun adjunct) is part of a general English pattern. That is, (generally inoffensive) nouns of classification tend to become more offensive when used attributively.

I asked about reasons for this possible pattern at Why are nouns sometimes pejorative when used attributively?.

The lesser offensive potential of "Jew" when used in "is a Jew", and its lack of inherent offensiveness when used as the subject of a sentence, is consistent with the pattern. (Of course, these could still be offensive if you're bringing up someone's Jewishness when it's not relevant, but that's not from inherent offensiveness of the usage.)

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Very nice answer! It makes sense, and it doesn't lead to any illogical, or even uncomfortable, follow-on's. –  Feral Oink Jul 28 '12 at 1:56

protected by RegDwigнt Sep 27 '11 at 13:54

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