Learn English – How did “Jew” become pejorative


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?

Best Answer

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.