It seems that the term ghetto was used for the first time at the beginning of the 17th century to specifically indicate an area in Venice where Jews were restricted. According to the Etymonline Dictionary and Wikipedia various theories of its origin include:

a) Yiddish get "deed of separation;

b) special use of Venetian getto "foundry" (there was one near the site of that city's ghetto in 1516);

c) a clipped word from Egitto "Egypt," from Latin Aegyptus (presumably in memory of the exile);

d) or Italian borghetto "small section of a town".

Is there evidence that any of these theories, or others, can be considered as the most reliable source of the origin of the term or, is its origin to remain unclear as it appears to be now?

  • OED say Of uncertain etymology, perhaps < Italian getto = foundry, as the first ghetto founded in Venice in 1516 was on the site of a foundry. I find their use of first significant, and notice it's not in your phrasing. I also find it significant that OED don't specifically identify any of your other possibilities. And since they were created/enforced by non-Jews, it seems unlikely to me they'd have a name derived from Yiddish. Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 23:43
  • @FumbleFingers - The Jewish Encyclopedia states that the first Jewish ghetto was in Prague in the 900s. Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 0:03
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    @medica: But fairly obviously no-one called that one a "ghetto". Besides, it relates to a completely different age and culture; I doubt it would have much connection to the Venetian one except insofar as they both segregated Jews. Presumably later writers will have referred to "ghettos" segregating other (non-Jewish) minorities from far earlier. The authorities in Venice/Prague would not have been the first ever to do such things. Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 0:22

3 Answers 3


According to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, ghetto originally meant "the street or quarter of a city in which the Jews were compelled to live, and which was closed every evening by gates." The term is [now] applied to that part of any city or locality chiefly or entirely inhabited by Jews.

"Ghetto" is probably of Italian origin, although no Italian dictionary gives any clue to its etymology. In documents dating back to 1090 the streets in Venice and Salerno assigned to the Jews are called "Judaca" or "Judacaria." Venice and Salerno had ghettos in the eleventh century, and Prague is said to have had one as early as the tenth.

According to Anatoly Libermann in his etymology column for the Oxford University Press, the word's origin remains unclear:

The word "ghetto" is an etymological mystery. Is it from the Hebrew get, or bill of divorce? From the Venetian ghèto, or foundry? From the Yiddish gehektes, "enclosed"? From Latin Giudaicetum, for "Jewish"? From the Italian borghetto, "little town"? From the Old French guect, "guard"? From the Latin for "ribbon"? German for "street"? Latin for "to throw"?

The word's origin is a "stubborn mystery", but its meaning is not: "the quarter in a city, chiefly in Italy, to which the Jews were restricted." (OED)

In the 16th and 17th centuries, cities like Venice, Frankfurt, Prague and Rome forcibly segregated their Jewish populations, often walling them off and submitting them to onerous restrictions. In documents dating back to 1090 the streets in Venice and Salerno assigned to the Jews are called "Judaca" or "Judacaria." At Capua there was a place called "San Nicolo ad Judaicam..." (1375) Hence it is assumed that "Judaicam" became the Italian "Giudeica," and was then corrupted into "ghetto."

The [1906 Jewish Encyclopedia](1906 Jewish Encyclopedia) has a long and interesting article on Jewish ghettos.

As early as 1908, "ghetto" was sometimes used metaphorically to describe slum areas that weren't mandated by law but that were limited to a single group of people because of other constraints. That year, Jack London wrote of "the working-class ghetto."


The Italian version of Wikepedia gives credit to the theory of the Venetian term 'geto' ( meaning foundry) which was pronounced 'gheto' by the local Jews (Aschenziati) of German origin. That part of the city was a foundry before it became a restricted area for Jews.

But it also mentions the use if the term 'ghetto' in the thirteen century to indicate the upper part to a small town called Antrodoco in the center part of Italy (near Rieti) which was set up by Jews at that time. Here both the Italian word 'borghetto' or the Yiddish 'get' may be the origin of the name.

It appears that there is no a clear and generally agreed origin of the term 'ghetto'.


The foundry teaching (getto=foundry) has the advantage that it explains the protection of the area by a wall for fire prevention reasons.

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