Why Don’t We Know the Origin of the Word Ghetto?
By Anatoly Liberman
Linguists, historians, journalists, and well-meaning amateurs have offered various conjectures on the rise of the word ghetto, none of which has won universal approval. Even the information in our best dictionaries should be treated with caution, for not all of them contain the disclaimer that whatever is said there reflects the opinion of the editor (who has rarely studied the vast literature on the subject) rather than the ultimate truth. The only uncontroversial facts are that the first Jewish ghetto appeared in Venice in 1516 and that in the Pope’s bull of 1562 the enclosure assigned to the Jews in Rome was called ghectus. (In parentheses: the Jews were expelled from England in 1290. Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice around 1594; he never saw a Jew in his life. The drama is based on a widespread folklore plot of outsmarting the devil.)
Before turning to the etymology of ghetto, I would like to answer the question given in the title of this post. We don’t know whether ghetto is a Hebrew, Latin, Italian, or Yiddish word (in order not to complicate matters, I’ll refer to all the varieties of the Jewish language in the Diaspora as Yiddish, in contradistinction to Hebrew). In linguistic reconstruction, it is customary to move from the center of the enquiry to the periphery. Since the first ghetto was built in Venice, we should first look for the word’s origin in some Italian, preferably the Venetian, dialect. If this attempt fails, a Hebrew or Yiddish etymology should be tried. If we again draw blank, we will be bound to explore the vocabulary of some other language that could have influenced the coining of ghetto. Although this is a natural approach to reconstruction, it need not be confused with the natural order of things in language or anywhere in life. If I go from point A to point B, a straight line will be the shortest distance between them. But on my way I may meet a friend and go an extra mile with him, get cold and drop into a bar for a drink, or do any other unpredictable thing. Retracing my route according to the laws of geometry or logic is a dangerous enterprise. We expect an Italian origin of ghetto, but why shouldn’t the Jews have used their own word for the hateful enclosure, or why shouldn’t a foreign name for such a place have been used? After all, the word ghetto entered most European languages, including English, and it is a borrowing in all of them.
Reference books often cite the Hebrew noun get (pronounced approximately like Engl. get) “a bill or letter of divorce.” Allegedly, ghetto goes back to it and stands for “separation.” In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Jews believed that this is how the word came into being. But this connection seems to owe its existence to folk etymology, for a change from “a bill of divorce” to “a place of forced isolation” is hard to imagine. The Yiddish hypothesis makes much of ghectus understood as the Latinized form of gehektes “enclosed.” However, the spelling ghectus has little value for reconstruction. Since Latin ct became tt in Italian (compare Latin perfectus “perfect” and Italian perfetto), it was customary to give medieval Italian words a pseudo-Latin appearance. Finally, one of the oldest conjectures traces ghetto to the Latin neuter Giudaicetum “Jewish.” This etymology is indefensible from a phonetic point of view and from almost every other. The Hebrew-Yiddish search for the origin of ghetto should be abandoned.
While evaluating a dozen or so mutually conflicting theories, one should not be swayed by authority. Some of the least persuasive conjectures stem from the works of distinguished scholars. Such is the derivation of ghetto from Latin Aegyptus. The Jews were often looked upon as foreigners, but it is inconceivable that the Venetians trading with half of the world could have confused the Jews with Egyptians. Later the author of this derivation thought better of his proposal, but it found a safe haven in the most solid German dictionary and reemerged in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, a fact worthy of regret. Nor are the other suggestions, all of which have been given short shrift above, the products of ignorance. The same holds for the etymology that the OED chose for want of a better one, namely, ghetto as being the second half of the Italian word borghetto “little town.” Clipping is ubiquitous in English: doc, math, lab, and their likes are universally used words. A name can lose either its first or its last syllable: Fredrick is Fred for some and Rick for others. Suburbs shrank to burbs. In Italian, ghetto (or Ghetto) “district; street” exists despite the fact that this type of word formation is much less productive, but it has been applied to numerous places unrelated to the segregation of the Jews. It is not specific enough for our purposes. Italian, like French, has two e’s: open and closed (compare the pronunciation of Engl. man and men, though the difference between the Romance vowels is smaller than in English). This difference complicates the relation between ghetto and the suffix -etto. However, the question of phonetics can be passed over here. The Venetian ghetto had a wall built around it. Christian guards closed the gates at a certain hour, so that no one could enter or leave the place. From time to time Old French guect “guard” is pressed into service: the word resembles ghectum, mentioned above, and has been cited as the etymon (source) of ghetto. The supporters of the guet etymology did not explain why a French word was used for the designation of an Italian “institution.” Those are all fruitless guesses. To remain realistic, I think we should agree that the word from which ghetto was derived denoted a certain place. Borghetto does denote a place, but referring to it is a shot in the dark.
In Italian, the first sound of ghetto is identical with g- in Engl. get, and the spelling gh- makes the pronunciation clear. In older documents our word sometimes appears with initial g- and sometimes with gh-, but gratuitous variation is so typical of medieval and early modern texts, that no conclusions can be drawn from the coexistence of ghetto and getto. In all likelihood, the 16th century Italians pronounced ghetto as we do. The Spanish and Portuguese exiles could have used the form jetto. Yet even if they did, this circumstance is of no consequence for the etymology of ghetto. The gh-g difference is the main stumbling block in the etymology that traces ghetto to the Latin verb jactare “to throw (about)”: Latin j- would not have become g-. Jactare has been conjured up because the island where the Jews were made to live at one time supposedly had getti glossed as “foundries,” and ghetto, according to an often-repeated hypothesis, received its name from getto “foundry.” Despite many attempts this hypothesis has been unable to overcome the g- ~ gh- hurdle. Getto was certainly derived from gettare “to cast (metal),” an Italian continuation of jactare, but getto is not ghetto. One also wonders whether any area would have been called “foundry” rather than “foundries.” To make matters worse, there is no certainty that getto ever meant “foundry” in the Venetian dialect. A variant of the getto-ghetto etymology connects ghetto with Old Italian ghetta “protoxide of lead.” The reference is to the verb ghettare “to refine metal by means of ghetta.” The plot thickens without bringing us closer to the denouement.
At a certain moment, I decided that all the etymologies of ghetto are wrong and was pleased to find an ally in Harri Meier, a Romance scholar, who published an article on this question in 1972. He attempted to derive ghetto from Latin vitta “ribbon,” and I liked his suggestion no more than I did those of his predecessors, but I think he was right to abandon foundries, Egyptians, borghetto, and alloys and to look for the etymon in some word meaning “street.” All over Europe, one finds a nook called Jüdische Gass(e) or its translation into the local language, that is, “Jewish Street.” Gasse is a southern German form related to Icelandic and Swedish gata (Norwegian gate, Danish gade) “street”; for the regular ss ~ t alternation compare German Wasser and Engl. water. Gata is an obscure word. Its unquestionable Gothic cognate is gatwo, but the origin of w in it has not been explained (Gothic was recorded in the 4th century). By contrast, the similar-looking Engl. gate (originally, “opening”) should probably be separated from gatwo/gata. The speakers of Old Germanic did not have towns and, consequently, did not have streets. When they needed an equivalent of “street” in Greek or Latin, they resorted to borrowing or chose a native word meaning “area” (public space) or “market.”
Surprisingly, Latin jactare will now return to our narrative. Via French, English has jetty, a derivative of this verb. Enigmatic things happened in its history. All of a sudden it seems to have developed the variant jutty. No one has even tried to explain this change that lacks analogues. The verb jet is of the same origin. It too acquired the variant jut. Jutty is restricted to dialects, but jut out is a respectable form of Standard English. The meaning of jetty also poses problems. We are familiar with jetty “pier,” but in central and northern England it means “a passage between two houses” (per The English Dialect Dictionary by Joseph Wright). In 1882 a certain A. H. G. wrote in Notes and Queries: “In rambling about Warwickshire I found the name jetty locally applied to narrow thoroughfares consisting of ancient houses, just such quarters as Houndsditch [a street in the City of London], and which might be plausibly assigned to Jews in the Middle Ages. The edifices are quite old enough for this ascription, and it may be in the power of some readers of “N. & Q.” to say if jetty is a probable corruption of ghetto, or if it is correctly spelled and used as jetty in this sense.” 126 years after A. H. G.’s query appeared I want to respond to it. I suspect that in some parts of the Romance speaking world a slangy borrowing from Germanic existed, a word traceable to gata and meaning “street,” perhaps even “narrow street,” and that it had some currency in several forms, with initial g-, as in get, and with initial j-, as in jet, with the vowel a and with the vowel e, a common situation in slang. Ghetto will then emerge as an Italian variant of that word. I suspect that from the beginning it had a derogatory meaning (“poor, miserable quarters”), the right place for the exiled Venetian Jews. Folk etymology influenced the word more than once: some people remembered that in old days cannons had been made on the Jewish island, whereas the Jews associated ghetto with separation. If I am right, the regional English sense of jetty is the most ancient; “pier” came later. In history, jutty possibly predated jetty. “It may be in the power of some readers” of this blog to develop my idea or to refute it. Whatever the result, I will be overjoyed if we succeed in making even one step toward demystifying the intractable word ghetto.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”