Lexicographers Reconsidering What’s a Slur

From Associated Press

The Concise Oxford Dictionary has offered a compromise in its long-running quarrel with Jewish groups over its inclusion of the word Jew as a racial slur.

The Jewish campaigners say they welcome the change but believe it is not enough.

The disputed entry defines Jew as “1. person of Hebrew descent; person whose religion is Judaism. . . . 2. (derog., colloq.; R) person who drives hard bargains, usurer. . . .”

And as a verb: “(derog., colloq.; R) cheat, bargain with (person) to lower his price.”


“Derog., colloq.; R” stands for “derogatory, colloquial, racially offensive.”

History of a Stereotype

According to a letter from S. J. Tulloch, senior assistant editor of the dictionary, to the Council of Christians and Jews, the next edition will add: “The stereotype, which is now deeply offensive, arose from historical associations of Jews as moneylenders in medieval England.”

The aim, Tulloch wrote, is to put things into context.

But council director Canon Jim Richardson said he wished the dictionary simply would drop all the pejorative definitions.

Tulloch wrote that dictionaries had to record, not to pass judgment, and that Jew pejoratively “is still current both as a noun and as a verb.” Richardson, an Anglican clergyman whose organization fosters Christian-Jewish understanding, disagreed. “She said it was in common practice. We actually doubt that and ask: Is it really in use? Couldn’t it be left out?”

“The Jewish community is very sensitive about the definition of Jew in the Oxford Dictionary,” he said in an interview. “The definition of Jew as a usurer, as a person who strikes a hard bargain, promotes an anti-Jewish attitude.”

He said the lexicographers’ latest step was “very much a move in the right direction, but we won’t be satisfied until it (the definition) is scrapped, because it is dangerous.”

‘Certainly Offensive’

Tulloch wrote: “The meaning of Jew that you mention is certainly offensive, but that is not grounds for omitting it from the dictionary, nor does our inclusion of it imply that we condone its use in this sense. Instead, it should be carefully labeled, so that the reader understands the context in which it exists.”

Shimon Cohen, a spokesman for Lord Jakobovitz, the chief rabbi of Britain, said he was “somewhat pleased” with the proposed change, but also wanted the pejorative definitions removed altogether.

In the United States, Webster’s New World Dictionary has restored obscene words and racial slurs after prolonged banishment.

David B. Guralnik, editor-in-chief until his recent retirement, expunged the words in the 1970s in a practice mocked by some British lexicographers as “Guralnikism,” but restored them in the latest edition, published in September.

The verb to jew is defined in Webster’s as “to swindle; cheat; gyp” with the warning: “This is a vulgar and offensive usage even when not consciously expressing an anti-Semitic attitude.”

‘More Acceptance’

“Times have changed,” said the present editor in chief, Victoria Neufeldt. “There is far more acceptance in print of all the vulgar terms and what David Guralnik called the true obscenities--ethnic slurs.”

In a telephone interview from her Cleveland office, she said she did not think the dictionary inclusion of such words encouraged their usage.

“Putting ain’t in the dictionary hasn’t made ain’t more acceptable. Dictionaries don’t have that power,” she said.

In 1973, Marcus Shloimovitz, an English Jewish textile merchant, took the Oxford Dictionary to court to force it to stop defining a Jew as “a grasping or extortionate money-lender or usurer.”

He argued that “the Jewish race includes sages, scholars, judges, scientists and people from the arts and stage. They have done great service for their countries. They are not cheats or unscrupulous usurers.”

Shloimovitz lost because he failed to prove the dictionary entries caused him personal suffering. But the lexicographers subsequently toned down the disputed definitions.