The Controversy Over the Origins of the Word "Ghetto"

For a word that is, in terms of its linguistic history, a relatively recent one, ghetto’s origins have been an unusual source of contention and uncertainty.

A watercolor rendering of the Roman ghetto in 1885 by Ettore Franz. DeAgostini/Getty Images.

A watercolor rendering of the Roman ghetto in 1885 by Ettore Franz. DeAgostini/Getty Images.

Observation
Jan. 8 2020
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at philologos@mosaicmagazine.com.

In his newly published Ghetto: The History of a Word, Daniel B. Schwartz, a professor of history at George Washington University, starts his chronicle with the word’s origins as a term for the small island on the northern edge of Venice to which Jewish residence was confined by a municipal edict in 1516. He then traces its evolution, first, to refer to other, similar Jewish enclosures in Italian cities; next, to denote all heavily or exclusively Jewish neighborhoods, whether imposed by law, custom, or Jewish preference, anywhere in the world; then to designate the sealed quarters into which Jews were herded by the Nazis before their deportation to the death camps during World War II; then to signify any urban area lived in by an underprivileged ethnic group, as when one speaks of black ghettos in the United States; and, finally, to describe a narrowly circumscribed collective mindset, a “mental ghetto” inhabited by this or that population.

Ghetto is an interesting and informative study of a word’s travels through centuries of historical, political, and sociological developments that kept affecting and changing its meaning. But let’s put these centuries aside and go back to Venice and Italy in the 1500s. Where did the Italian word ghetto come from, and why was it used as it was?

For a word that is, in terms of its linguistic history, a relatively recent one, ghetto’s origins have been an unusual source of contention and uncertainty, as can be seen by looking at some dictionaries.

On the one hand, the compendious Oxford English Dictionary, whose joint “F” and “G” volume appeared in 1900, states that “of the many guesses as to the ultimate etymology [of ghetto], perhaps the most plausible is that it is an abbreviation of borghetto, diminutive of borgo, borough.” The 1966 Random House Dictionary of the English Language goes along with this by commenting: “perhaps an abbreviation of borghetto, diminutive of borgo, settlement outside the city wall.”

On the other hand, my 1947 American College Dictionary ignores borghetto in favor of two other possibilities, “Hebrew ghet, separation” and “Italian get(t)o, foundry,” while my 1999 Encarta English World Dictionary gives us: “of uncertain origin, possibly an alteration of getto, foundry.”

And throwing one more candidate into the ring, the contemporary Online Etymology Dictionary says of ghetto that “various theories trace it to: Yiddish get, deed of separation; a special use of Venetian getto, foundry (there was one near the site of that city’s ghetto in 1516); a clipped form of Egitto, Egypt, from Latin Aegyptus (presumably in memory of the exile); or Italian borghetto, small section of a town.”

 

One needn’t be an etymologist to realize that Egitto (what Jewish exile, by the way, ever took place in Egypt?) is a fairly desperate suggestion—and an unnecessary one, since the whole question had seemingly been laid to rest as far back as 1934 by the Anglo-Jewish historian Cecil Roth in an article entitled “The Origin of Ghetto, A Final Word.”

After listing no fewer than nine proposed derivations, among them Italian Giudecca, Jewish quarter, Greek geitonia, neighborhood, and Gothic gatvo, street, Roth pointed out that the same island on which the Venetian ghetto was established had previously been home to a metal-casting plant known as il geto nuovo, “the new foundry.” (It was called that to distinguish it from an older plant that existed nearby.)

What, then, could be more obvious than that geto, an archaic noun deriving from the still extant verb gettare (one of whose meanings is to cast metal), must be the source of the ghetto to which Venice confined its Jews?

Roth’s conclusion was eminently sensible and is endorsed by Schwartz, who in his book provides a wealth of detail to support it. There is, however, as Schwartz admits, one problem with it—namely, that “g” before a front vowel like the “e” of geto is pronounced by Italians like the soft “g” of English “gem,” whereas the “gh” of ghetto is pronounced like the hard “g” of English “get.” And although hard “g”’s often turn into soft ones in the histories of languages by a process of palatalization (that is, the sound gradually goes from a hard “g” to a palatalized ”gy” to a soft “g”), the reverse rarely happens.

How, then, did geto become ghetto?

An answer to this question was proposed by the Italian Jewish-Israeli historian Joseph Baruch Sermoneta in a 1966 article in the Hebrew journal Tarbitz. While perusing a posthumously published 1536 volume of rabbinic responsa by David Hacohen (born c. 1465), a noted rabbinic jurist who lived in Corfu, Sermoneta came across a Hebrew query addressed to the rabbi with regard to the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain and dating to that time. It reads:

There was a case of Jews heading eastward [from Spain] on a Genoese ship whose captain died by an act of God . . . so that its sailors put them ashore outside the city [of Genoa] on the getto [ג’טו]. Every day they [the sailors] came and snatched some of their sons and daughters, among them a girl who was forced to convert [to Christianity] against her will.

In the course of time, a Jew, a kohen, visited Genoa . . . and when the girl saw him, she recognized that he was a Jew and related what had happened to her and begged him to rescue her from the Christians. . . . This he went to great pains to do, and he escaped with her from Christian lands to the Turks and married her. . . . He claims that she was a virgin when he did, and now she is pregnant with his child and about to give birth. Pray instruct us what to do.

Since a kohen is not allowed by biblical law to marry a non-virgin, the question asked was whether the man’s claim that his wife had not been violated while in Christian captivity should be believed, and Hacohen’s answer was that it should be. But what was the getto on which the fleeing Jews were put ashore? Although the word does not exist in modern Italian, a getto in old Genoese dialect meant what its English cognate “jetty” still does: a pier or wharf at which ships dock. The exiles, it seems, were forced to camp out on this wharf for long weeks under harsh conditions because Genoa’s laws did not allow Jews to enter the city; and there they remained, cut off from the world, until another ship could take them to the refuge of the Ottoman empire.

This story, Sermoneta shows from still other sources, circulated widely among Italian Jews, so that it could have been a wharf in Genoa rather than a foundry in Venice that first gave Italian the word getto in its sense of a place of Jewish segregation. And if it was, Sermoneta argues further, it could explain the hardening of the word’s initial “g.” This is so, he reasons, because in Spanish the front-voweled “g” is pronounced as a guttural “kh,” so that the exiles would have said khetto—and since Italian, in turn, did not have a kh-sound, Italian Jews hearing them say khetto would have reproduced it as ghetto with a hard “g,” the closest phoneme to “kh” that they had.

 

It’s a neat theory. But it doesn’t hold water, mainly because Sermoneta—surprisingly. for a Jewish historian of his stature—seems not to have been aware that the Spanish front-voweled “g” only became a “kh” in the course of the 16th century. Not only was it still retained in the Spanish of the 1492 exiles, it continued to exist in the Ladino or Judeo-Spanish spoken by their descendants in Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans well into the 20th century, and it is one of Ladino’s distinguishing marks when compared with contemporary Spanish. Whereas, for instance, the Spanish word gente, “people,” is pronounced “khente” in Spain and Hispano-America, it is pronounced “jente” in Ladino with a sound like that of the “z” in “azure.” The exiles stranded on the wharf in Genoa would thus have said zhetto very much as the Genoese did.

This does not, not of course, account for the rather remarkable coincidence of getto-as-foundry and getto-as-wharf coming independently to refer in the same historical period to a place where Jews were kept apart. Yet strange coincidences sometimes do occur, and all other things being equal, the getto-as-foundry theory of the origins of ghetto is far stronger than the getto-as-wharf one. Moreover, there are better ways than Sermoneta’s to account for the hard “g” of ghetto.

This I learned from still another article, Sandra Debenedetti-Stow’s “The Etymology of ‘Ghetto’: New Evidence from Rome,” published in 1992. In it, the author convincingly makes two main points. One is that the association of ghetto with Hebrew get, writ of divorce or separation, is not as far-fetched as it may sound, because Rome’s Jews commonly referred to their own ghetto, which was established by a papal order in 1555, as the get and even came to think of the Hebrew term as the original source of the word, i.e., as denoting Christian society’s forcing them to live apart.

Debenedetti-Stow’s second point, however, is that in the 16th and 17th centuries, the letter “g” before a front vowel was often used in Italian itself to indicate the hard “g” of “gh” as well as the soft “g” that it stands for exclusively today.

This second point is more germane to our discussion. Why? Because it raises the possibility that geto was pronounced with a hard “g” to begin with, and that there is no need to explain how it came to have one. True, gettare (which, as I mentioned earlier, can mean to cast metal) has a soft “g,” but Debenedetti-Stow cites a 1972 article in which the Italian Jewish scholar Ariel Toaff contends that getto, foundry, derives not from gettare but from ghetta, lead protoxide, a substance used in refining metal. If so, the whole problem is solved.

In the end, Cecil Roth was almost certainly right in his getto-as-foundry conclusion—as is Daniel Schwartz in agreeing with him. Just because something is the obvious solution doesn’t mean it’s the wrong one.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at philologos@mosaicmagazine.com.

Get unlimited access to Mosaic: Subscribe now

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories FREE.

Register Now

Get unlimited access to Mosaic: Subscribe now

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories FREE.

Register Now

More about: Ghetto, History & Ideas, Italian Jewry