The K-word (discussion of ethnic slur)

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The K-word (discussion of ethnic slur)

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Jun 8, 2007, 3:44 am

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Jun 8, 2007, 3:57 am


I agree that googling the word would have brought up all kinds of offensive trash.

I can't help with homonyms in other languages, but here is the OED entry for "kike." Apparently it is a uniquely American slang word for reasons explained below:

kike Said to be an alteration of -ki (or -ky), a common ending of the personal names of Eastern European Jews who emigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th c.

A vulgarly offensive name for a Jew. Also attrib. or as adj.

Earliest published instance is 1904.

Jun 8, 2007, 9:25 am

-a kike means 'female (adj.)' in Swahili.

Quique is also a nickname for Enrique.

Jun 8, 2007, 2:10 pm

#3: neither of those are likely etymologies for the ethnic slur though, are they?

#2: That's interesting - it puts "kike" in a class with "mick" and "dago" as proper name-derived slurs.

Jun 8, 2007, 3:49 pm

#4, No, but the Swahili word is the likely origin of the cheetah's name.

Jun 8, 2007, 6:37 pm

#5: Right, duh. I lost track of the whole Cheetah thing.

Jun 12, 2007, 3:27 am

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Jun 23, 2007, 10:01 pm

If I understand correctly, the word "kike" as a slur actually originated within the American Jewish community as a denigration of Jews of specific origin.

Jun 25, 2007, 3:39 am

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Jun 25, 2007, 9:21 am

#8 - 9: I'm curious about the source of this, too. It does seem to fit in with my understanding of the strained relationships between (earlier and more affluent) Central and Western European Jewish immigrants and (later and less affluent) Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the U.S.

Jun 25, 2007, 2:45 pm

I'd have to double check. I believe at this point it's a second derivative source. I think I stumbled across the reference in Sweet and Low: a family story, and he listed a footnote saying where he'd originally found it, but I don't have a copy of the book at this point.

Jun 25, 2007, 4:37 pm

Prof. Kim Pearson's website has this:

The etymology of kike is hotly contested, although it is commonly agreed that the word dates back to the late 19th century. Many plausible theories have been advanced:

a) To borrow from Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, "The word kike was born on Ellis Island, when Jewish immigrants who were illiterate (or could not use Roman-English letters), when asked to sign the entry-forms with the customary 'X,' refused -- and instead made a circle. The Yiddish word for 'circle' is kikel (pronounced KY - kel), and for 'little circle,' kikeleh. Before long the immigration inspectors were calling anyone who signed with an 'O' instead of an 'X' a kikel or kikeleh or kikee or, finally and succinctly, kike."

Rosten explains that for the Jewish immigrants, an 'X' was an evil sign, representing both the horrors of crucifixion and the sign of their (Christian) oppressors. Jewish - American merchants continued to sign with an 'O' instead of an 'X' for several decades, spreading the nickname kike wherever they went as a natural result. At that time kike was more of an affectionate term, or used by Jews to describe other Jews, and only developed into a racial slur later on.

b) Due to the commonality of the Jewish forename "Isaac," some have advanced the theory that kike descends from the abbreviation "Ike." This theory lacks the evidence supporting the kikel derivation, but is not preposterous, given that it is well known that the slur Hymie is descended from the Jewish forename "Hyman" (originally "Chaim"). Furthermore, Ikey Mo is a British nickname for Jews that clearly descends from Isaac.

c) Others argue that kike derives from a rhyme off of the last syllable of many Ashkenazi Jews' last name, -sky or -ski. "Ki-ki" would have given way over time to kike, it is supposed. This theory is a bit counter-intuitive, however, since the syllables -sky or -ski are universally pronounced to rhyme with "key," as opposed to "fly." Hence one would assume, were this theory correct, that kike would be pronounced KEEK, which it most certainly is not.

d) Still others believe that kike derives from the German kieken, which means "to peep." P. Tamony, quoted in Cassell's Dictionary, claims that Jewish clothing manufacturers "peeped" at fancy European haute couture, and then made cheap knock-offs.

Although any of these explanations could be truthful, only Rosten's (theory "a") has the weight of strong oral history in its favor. All parties agree that the term was originally used by German Jews who had emigrated to the United States earlier in the 19th century to describe their later-arriving Ashkenazi counterparts. In its origins, kike was used by Jews to describe other Jews who they felt were vulgar, and from there it became appropriated as part of the American vocabulary of slang. Kike is still used to this day by Jews to describe other Jews who they feel are low in character.

Jun 25, 2007, 5:00 pm


Jun 25, 2007, 6:32 pm

#12: Those are interesting theories. One thing seems odd to me about Rosten's explanation: why would immigration inspectors refer to the Jewish immigrants by the Yiddish word for circle? Are the inspectors supposed to have spoken Yiddish?

Jun 26, 2007, 6:20 am

>14 scottja:

I think it only makes sense if there were German Jews among the immigration inspectors.

Jun 26, 2007, 9:53 am

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Jul 14, 2007, 7:16 am

Not having a telly, I've never seen the programme, but I frequently read about it in BBC Wildlife magazine
That's the other reason there was no objection in the UK: the number of people who read BBC Wildlife magazine but don't watch the programmes must be minuscule, and so most people hear the name ("Kee-kay") long before they see it written down.

18June6Bug Primeira Mensagem
Set 28, 2007, 7:54 pm

rosten's theory was the one my professor (a jewish-american woman) explained to my linguistics & literacy class as the origin of the k-word. she said the inspectors told jewish immigrants 'maken un kikel' (can't do IPA in this box) and that kikel was eventually shortened to the racial slur. she said the slur had to do with illiteracy as well as ethnicity.

Out 9, 2007, 11:10 pm

this political correct thingie may be getting out of hand.

all my life i've heard people talking about "chewing a person down."

at the tender age of 26 or so, I was dating a Jewish blonde bombshell and used that and she turned to me and said, with great horror, "what did you say?"

i said to her: "I said I chewed the guy down to almost $100.

You said "Jewed him down," she said.

"No!" I exclaimed. "Why would I do that?"

then she explained that I should listen more closely and that most gerntiles said "Jew him down",not chew him down.

Afterward, when someone used the expression I found she was right. You know, once a person uses nigger, wop, kike, et al, around me, they slide down several notches on my respect tree.

nuff said.

Mar 7, 2008, 3:27 pm

#19 - and don't forget "gypped" - a slur against Gypsies. Most people don't realize that (or don't care).

Maio 14, 2008, 3:04 pm

I never heard "Jewing" someone down until I moved to Tennessee. Imagine having to inform your child's grandmother that saying this is a slur to her grandchild, due to the child's Jewish ancesty. I still don't know if it ever sunk into her head. I confront this whenever I hear it. When I do hear it, I give thought to the speaker's character and whether I want me or mine to be around the person.

I've examined my speech in the past year to evaluate my use of pejoratives toward anyone who's "different" - including blonde-haired people. I'm having to admonish one of my children when she wants to tell blonde jokes. I don't allow them to be told.

Maio 1, 2010, 2:56 pm

When i was in japan, a jewish-american tried to get a japanese dictionary company not to include derrogative meanings for a jew (eg. a cheap person). While I would never use such an expression, a Japanese person reading English books would need to find that usage in the dictionary, so I wrote the newspaper in support of the publisher. The same thing goes with the K word, which I have not ever heard, but only read of.

So long as the dictionary includes an indication of the word being derrogatory, it is a plus and not a minus for we need to realize how much prejudice was and still exists to face it.

Andy Ray, great story!