The y-word

There is a curious, if incomplete, parallelism between the words yid and nigger. In both cases, their use as an exonym is pejorative, while use as an endonym (or autonym) is acceptable. English-speaking Jews don’t normally refer to themselves as “yids” when speaking ordinary (“parastandard“) English, but they often do so when speaking Yinglish (as defined here and not in Wikipedia), that is, English peppered with Yiddish words. By the same token, African-Americans are far more likely to use “nigger” when speaking AAVE (“Black English”) than when using the common language. In fact, in the latter case they are likely to overuse African-American, as when a black journalist was heard on the radio to refer to Nelson Mandela as “the first African-American president of South Africa.”

Until the 19th century, the words nigger and negro were interchangeable designations for (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) “a dark-skinned person of sub-Saharan African origin or descent.” The former was usually spelled niger, which is simply the Latin word for ‘black’; the second g seems to have been added around the end of the 18th century to maintain the Latin “short i“, that is, to ensure that the words rhymes with bigger and not with tiger.  The first unmistakably pejorative citation dates from about 1850. Negro (Spanish and Portuguese for ‘black’) remained the polite form until the mid-20th century. But while in most forms of English the two words have quite distinct sounds, in the vernacular of the Southern US negro comes out sounding like nigra and therefore differs only slightly from nigger (which may sound like nigga). Common usage in English therefore decided to forgo the Romance borrowings and stick to English terms like black or African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-British or even just plain African.

Yid is simply the Yiddish word for ‘Jew’. But this word is in turn derived from the German Jüde, not the standard Jude. Jüde is probably a back-formation from the derived forms jüdisch (‘Jewish’) and Jüdin (‘Jewess’). I have heard Jüde used in Bavaria (pronounced as though written Jid) with a distinctly pejorative tone, and in southern Germany only Jude is the polite variant; the Jewish streets there are called Judengasse or Judenstraße. In northern and central Germany, on the other hand, one finds frequent examples of Jüdenstraße (in Göttingen, for example) or Jüdengasse (in Naumburg, Altenburg and elsewhere), so that the pejorative connotation does not seem to have been there; otherwise the Jewish communities there would have insisted on a change. The Low German equivalents of Jude and Jüde are Jode and Jöde, respectively, and the Low German Wikipedia gives them as equivalent. On the other hand, the only (High) German references to Jüde are as a Middle High German form, belying its survival in street names to the present day. The Jewish Museum in Berlin houses a collection of signs designating Jewish streets in Germany, as seen in this picture.Juden

What seems mysterious is why Jews speaking Yiddish, which is closer to Bavarian than to any other German dialect, chose Jüde and not Jude as the etymon of their endonym. Perhaps in Middle High German (and even Early Modern German) one was no more pejorative than the other, just like negro and nigger until 1850.

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