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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_libermanAnatoly 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 blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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22 Responses to “Why Don’t We Know the Origin of the Word Ghetto?”
  1. Bruce Oksol says:

    Your comment that Shakespeare never saw a Jew in his life jumped out at me.

    In fact, no one knows who William Shakespeare met during his “Ten Lost Years.” Many suggest he traveled widely during this time (unlikely, in my mind).

    Knowing that the real writer of Shakespearian plays and sonnets was Henry Neville changes everything. In fact, Henry Neville was very well traveled and would have met people of many ethnic backgrounds on the continent.

    My gut feeling is that if JRR Tolkien were alive today, he could sort out the origin of “ghetto.”

  2. zamenhof says:

    Maybe you should check the Hebrew word
    “גט” <– don’t know if you can see that

    It appeared in the bible and well before the
    The 17 or 16 century

    anyhow, gr8 article.. 10x

  3. [...] Prescriptivists (think an MD’s awful writing) are people who think the language (really any Why Don’t We Know the Origin of the Word Ghetto? – blog.oup.com 03/04/2009 By Anatoly Liberman Linguists, historians, journalists, and well-meaning [...]

  4. [...] 2009 Update: Anatoly Liberman has done a far more exacting job on the word over on the Oxford University Press blog where he [...]

  5. [...] °Everyone’s favorite Oxford Etymologist asks, “Why Don’t We Know the Origin of the Word Ghetto?” [...]

  6. walter says:

    My guess re:origin of “ghetto” is to be found where “ghettos” were most concentrated, namely Poland and Ukraine during the times of the “pale of settlement”. Ukrainian word “zhytlo” and “zhytia” meaning shelter (place for living)and life.

  7. [...] to ghetto. Several days after I posted my etymology on ghetto, I received a letter from Doug Wilson, who has more than once supplied me with valuable [...]

  8. [...] Why Don’t We Know the Origin of the Word Ghetto? (oup.com) [...]

  9. J P Maher says:

    Vowel quality does not differ in Italian diminutive -etto and bor-ghetto. American tourists report hearin italian guides saying “gate-oh”.

    Professor Liberman wrote “Contemporaries of the first ghetto in Venice failed to associate ghetto with borghetto.” The complex sentence has these propositions:
    1. why the contemporaries
    2. of the first ghetto in Venice
    3. failed to associate ghetto with borghetto
    4. invented Hebrew etymologies for it.

    The Venice Jewish quarter that we now call “il ghetto” was not the first such Jewish precinct, in Venice or anywhere else. The 1516 sequestration of Jews on the Venice island written variously Geto ~ Gheto ~ Ghetto was not the first “ghettoization”. Sequestratiom of Jews and others is common around the world over the centuries. Areas predominantly inhabited by Jews at other times had gentile inhabitants, too. Many foreigners in Venice were segregated (Lucchesi, Lombards, Tuscans, Germans, Muslims). Before 1516 Jews lived on various islands of Venice. The Senate considered segregating Jews on the islands Giudecca (Venetian Zoega) and Murano, but the plans fell through.
    It was not in 1516 in Venice, to explain the Venetian island toponym Ghetto, that a Hebrew folk etymology ghet ‘divorce decree’ was invoked by Jewish notaries. It was in Rome, a full century later, and had to do, not with Venice, but with a foul-smelling Roman street (even in the mid 1800s), called Ghetto. In the papal bull Nimis Absurdum (‘enough’s enough’) issued by Paul IV in 1555, the ecclesiastical Latin word used by the pope’s amanuenses was vicus ‘street, vici ‘streets’, not mock-Latin ghectus. In a second papal bull Dudum a felicis (‘it’s about time’), not Venice’s, but the name of Rome’s slum street Ghetto was written ghectus, just as scribes wrote the Italian word tutti ‘all’ as tucti, Matteo as Macthaeo; they wrote quattro ’4′ as quactro.
    In Venice every street is an island, every island a street. A street is a cluster of houses. Italian maps label settlements “case di ‘houses of X”. The people call “the mean streets” a “ghetto”. Northeastern and central Italy have scores of ghetti. The Italian Post Office has postal codes/ZIP Codes for them, CAP (Codice Avviamento Postale).
    “Contemporaries of the first ghetto in Venice failed to associate ghetto with borghetto.” —What evidence.is there that they didn’t? Association of the words ghetto and borghetto is inescapable in Italian Sprachgefühl.
    Aphesis: for anyone knowing Venetian and Tuscan the connection is unavoidable. Compare in English ’shrooms for mushrooms, drawing room, to which English gentlemen withdrew to smoke, leaving their ladies to their amusements; mend for amend/emend, cute for acute, pert for apert (note the homonymy of the indefinite article (a) and prefixes) Aphesis flourishes in Itralian (and Venetian). In English aAnyone can trace the source of ’puter (my grandson’s creation). Or ’buke (Southern Baptist for rebuke). In the Veneto America is Merica; l’arena is la rena A satirical paper features the head of a reindeer, La Renna, in a logo pun on L’Arena di Verona, adverting to Verona’s famous Roman amphitheater and the major local newspaper.

    The source of ghetto is all over the map of Italy, toponomastically and in figurative language.

  10. [...] at night.  To see an interesting and insightful examination of the etymology of the word ghetto click here).  We went specifically to see the reconstructed temple from 1598 and meander the streets that [...]

  11. J P Maher says:

    Giudaicetum is a bit weird, but not too much. There are many Latin nouns for places, albeit named for (stands of) trees that became place names. Most famous is Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, Olivetum ‘olive grove’. The suffix doesn’t directly mean ‘grove’, but names a sort of place: there’s Italy’s city of Rovereto < Latin Roburetum ‘oak grove’. A different species of oak is behind quercetum (quercus). Cf. also dumetum ‘thicket’, alnetum ‘alder grove’, castanetum ‘chestnut’, pinetum, salicetum ‘willow’ (as in sodium acetyl salicylate (aspirin), English sallow [complexion], Irish sally [garden]. Siena’s Jews dwelt just up the hill above a locality Salicotto.

  12. J P Maher says:

    Walls: Venice’s diarist Marin Sanudo, who was eye-witness to the proceedings that proclaimed the sequestration of 29 March 1516 describes (in Venetian language) the place, an island of course, and well off from the city proper: it was “como un castello – like a castle”. The island, that is, was already walled before its Jewish chapter. Furthermore GETO (NOT “the” ghetto) was one island that had no church to deconsecrate. The Turkish counterpart, Fondaco dei Turchi, had its windows overlooking the canals walled up. Light came in only through a central courtyard. They too were locked in at night like the Christians in Istanbul.

  13. mike says:

    I have always had this idea that the word GHETTO originated from Dutch, is it possible?

  14. Itzik Kaiser says:

    This term is a quarter Jewish Ghetto in Venice, where he was the foundry environment Quarter (Italian: Ghetto), and has since become a name to be a space for Jewish quarters in Europe.

  15. Ken A. says:

    Why is the word ghetto associated with minorities that live in poverty stricken urban areas?

    Is ghetto a social mind set to describe a way of life among those that grew up in poverty stricken areas?

    If the christian faith supports that Jesus Christ came to bring the good news to the poor, than why should someone get offended if you are delivered from the “ghetto”?

    You can take a person out of the country, but can you take the country out of the person?

    What is liberation?

    Let’s bury the word ghetto, and we don’t have to worry about it’s origin, being that we obviously don’t have an origin for the word and ignorance is no excuse for not knowing that freedom is available for all.

  16. Stephen ffrench Davis says:

    Nice roam through the possibilities but I was not so convinced by the eschewing of ghetta – that seems a more cogent theorem. I will give the whole matter more thought and if I come up with more meat to put on the bone I shall revert. Nice to find I am not the only one thinking about this question, all the same.

  17. natan rosenfeld says:

    Dear Anatoly, I’ve only just read your blog tonight since i searched the Web for the origins of “ghetto”. My humble opinion is that ghetto comes from the Hebrew word “gad”(“gd”)which appears in the Bible as Gad (one the 12 Tribes), a son of the Patriach Jacob. But in particular in the Prohibition “TitGoDeDu” (Deuteronomy, 14.1), which means forming a (separate)group ie separating oneself from the general community. The root of that word -to separate- is GoDD, or GuD, or GeD. In modern Hebrew a GDUD is a Battalion, which describes a particular military grouping. In Hebrew, vowels which originate, ie. are vocally pronounced, from the same part of the mouth often interchange. In this case the sound “D” and “T” are interchangeable. So in place of “GeD” we have “GeT”. From that it’s a short step away to Italianizing GeT to Getto and hence Ghetto. The basic idea still remains as a separation, which fits in nicely with your idea of a jetty. All this of course means that Hebrew words have crept into other languages- which is of course well known. I’d like to hear from you on this. Perhaps you know some Hebrew Philologists with whom you might like to exchange this idea with them.

  18. [...] Professor John Peter Maher, the author of a detailed comment on my post on ghetto, allowed me to disclose his identity and restated his views. We agree that most of the current [...]

  19. John Peter Maher says:

    The first Jewish ghetto did not appear in Venice in 1516; there were Jewish ghettos centuries earlier, but were called streets. See Max Weinreich,1980, page 177. History of the Yiddish Language. The term ghectus in the papal bull of 1562 is a false reconstruction (Yakov Malkiel) modelled on Latin octo/Italian otto ’8′. Compare early Italian Macteo for Matteo ‘Matthew’ etc. The real word here was Ghetto, (not the ghetto), which is even today a Roman neighborhood comprising several streets. The word used in the 1555 papal bull was Latin vicus ‘street’. The only tenable etymology of ghetto is by aphesis from the Germanic borghetto, from borgo, from Gothic baurgs [pronounced borg-], ‘street’, cognate of German Burg.

  20. Anita Notrica says:

    Is there a relationship between the term “marrano” for forcibly converted Jews in Spain and the name of the island of “Murano” in Venice?

  21. Byron says:

    Did you check the translation of the word ‘separation’ in German?

  22. Marco Scarpa says:

    I’m venetian.
    Ghetto comes from a foundry that was in the area in the ghetto.
    Getto means coulee, the metal that was thrown inside forms.
    A mispelling of this word is ghetto and so it become the name of the area.

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