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Ideas | Aimee Ortiz

The long and twisted history of ‘ghetto’

The pushcart market in the East Side Ghetto of New York’s Jewish Quarter is a hive of activity.Ewing Galloway/Getty Images/Getty Images


The loaded word carries more than 500 years of baggage, at times becoming an emblem of hate and oppression. But even with its negative connotations, it can also be a badge of authenticity and community.

It’s this long and twisted history that George Washington University professor Daniel B. Schwartz follows in his new book, “Ghetto: The History of a Word.”

From its first use in 15th century Venice to its echoes in cities such as New York and Chicago, Schwartz traces the word’s path to modernity while highlighting its Jewish past — etymology that is often overlooked.

Schwartz argues that words need to be understood not just for their immediate meanings, but also for their accumulated definitions, asking readers to think critically before using particular words or phrases. Schwartz spoke to the Globe by phone from his home in Washington, D.C. (The interview has been edited and condensed.)

What drove you to write this book now?


I became interested in the word “ghetto” just because I thought that, here’s this word that is tremendously loaded, and it’s the kind of word that almost . . . provokes emotions and memories that go well beyond the kind of purely descriptive definition you might find in the dictionary. So similar to the recent controversy over labeling the immigration detention centers on the southern border “concentration camps.” I think there are some similarities in terms of how charged certain words become, and I think the same is true in the case of ghetto.

Among other things, ghetto is about the power of words and language. We tend to think we have minimized the scope of disagreement when we boil a debate down to semantics. But the reality is that so many of our cultural arguments manifest as arguments over words (terrorism, antisemitism, concentration camps), over what they mean, how they are used, and who gets to define them.


What surprised you most when you were writing this book?

This word “ghetto” has all this kind of negative connotations of [a] place that is not just segregated but that’s overcrowded, disorderly, dilapidated. It has all the social pathologies, crime ridden, et cetera. However, over the course of its history, whether used by Jews but also African Americans, the term has also had some positive meanings as well that have been associated with community, solidarity, authenticity, being real.

. . . In the case of the memory of the Jewish ghetto, [they are sometimes] thought of as this miniature homeland that Jews had where they were kind of protected from the forces of assimilation.

There’s a kind of nostalgia you also see at times for the ghetto.

In the book, you talk about the word “ghetto” being like “queer” as far as being reclaimed in a sense. Can you explain that?

“Ghetto” is in many way double edged. It has all these kind of negative connotations to something that is low class and pathological, but also the sense of it being something that is authentic.

I think that it is somewhat similar . . . as queer, which has now become almost a neutral term for gay.

“Ghetto” still is controversial, still carries a lot of negative baggage, but there are cases in which the term is appropriated into a more, almost like I said before, as a badge of authenticity.


Do you think it’s healing to sort of reclaim the word “ghetto?”

Maybe. I think there’s a lot of resistance to it. I’ve read pieces quite critical of the colloqiual usage of “ghetto,” that argue that it’s essentially become a kind of code for blackness and even the new n-word. You can call something “ghetto” and get all these kind of racist insinuations in a way you can’t use earlier slurs. Look, the n-word is another example of a term that’s been kind of appropriated within the in group — you know it has some positive vocations within the in group exclusively. I don’t want to make a case that “ghetto” has that level of weightedness and is that charged a term, but I think there are some similarities.

In the current political atmosphere, is the negative definition overtaking whatever positive definitions exist?

I think it just depends, if “ghetto” is a native term it’s hard to use it in a way that’s ever truly value-free, ever truly neutral.

Knowing the history of the word ghetto and also recognizing its rhetorical power, what can that history teach us for the future?

Words accumulate new meanings, and if you want to understand words you can’t simply delete resonances that you don’t think fit what a ghetto should be. You have to try to understand all of them.

Part of what this book indicates is the ability of certain words to stigmatize and to provoke emotion, images, memories that go well beyond any kind of neutral facts that the terms proport to describe. In the same way that I thought Representative [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez should have been more aware of the layers of the meaning of the word “concentration camp” before she used it to describe a detention center, [people should realize that] words have history and some words have history that is more fraught than most, and “ghetto” is definitely among them.