The Word Ghetto

A word’s meaning can usually be traced back for hundreds of years. Over such long periods of time, words become manipulated, many times to the point where the meaning changes entirely. This is the case with the word “ghetto. ” The word ghetto can be traced all the way back into the 1500’s. This word has infiltrated itself into today’s society and culture seamlessly. However the current definition of the word is far from what the original definition was. Perhaps due to the connection that the word ghetto has with urban culture, the word has evolved over time to have a more positive, less intolerant meaning.
The word ghetto, which would come to be used throughout Europe to describe communities of isolated minority groups, originated in Venice in the 1500’s. According to the Oxford English Dictionary a ghetto was “The quarter in a city, chiefly in Italy, to which the Jews were restricted” (OED). In 16th century Italy, Pope Paul IV established ghettos in Venice as a place of confinement for Jews. His main goal was to gain maximum economic advantage from the Jews’ presence while ensuring minimal social contact with Jewish people.
In 1516, seven hundred Jews were forced to move to one small part of Venice, then an abandoned site of a 14th-century foundry that produced cannons. This area known as the “Geto” was an old Venetian dialect for “foundry” from the Italian verb gettare which means to pour or to cast, while the island across from it on which waste products had been dumped became known as “Il terrneo del Ghetto. ” The word ghetto in its new usage did not remain long confined to the city of Venice. Generalization of the term helped the word to include all enclosed quarters of Jews in Europe.

By the Pope’s edict, Jews remained enclosed in ghettos for two centuries until 1797, when Napoleon and the French army invaded Italy. At that time the ghettos were disbanded and the Jewish people who lived in them were allowed to go wherever they pleased (holocaustresearchproject). Having immigrated to new countries, Jews tended to congregate in particular areas of a town or a city even when no longer forced to do so as did many minority groups living in a foreign country. This was a matter of choice. The Nazi’s eliminated the choice. “Ghettoisation” appeared in the countries occupied by Germany during World War II.
After their 1939 invasion of Poland, Germans tried to control the sizable Jewish population by forcing Jews, and also Gypsies, to reside in marked-off sections of towns and cities the Nazis called “ghettos. ” Altogether the Germans created at least 1000 ghettos. The largest was in Warsaw, Poland, which was the location from where the Nazis transported more than 300,000 prisoners to death camps. The Warsaw Ghetto was also the site of the largest and most significant Jewish uprising, and the first urban uprising in German occupied Europe (holocaustresearchproject).
The Germans usually marked off the oldest and most run down areas of a city for a ghetto site. Thus the word “Ghetto” came to be associated with cramped dilapidated housing, appalling sanitary conditions, inadequate and poor food quality, absence of medical supplies and facilities that were all common aspects of ghetto living. Inhabitants often died of starvation, disease and exhaustion within the ghetto. These connotations remained attached to the word ghetto even up until modern times. In America, the word changed and evolved.
Today, the term ghetto applies primarily to blacks in Northern U. S. cities. While all major immigrant groups coming into the U. S. establish their own residential areas, blacks ended up more segregated then most. Scholars have argued over whether or not poverty created ghettos in America or whether the ghettos created poverty. In any event, the connotation of the word ghetto in America became associated with large-scale housing projects and inner city neighborhoods inhabited by black people who suffer from harsh living conditions.
Because of such harsh living conditions, these areas have become notorious for crime, drugs, and violence. Thus the connotation of the word ghetto in America has stayed true to its original usage. It is used to this day to describe places of racial segregation (bos. frb. org). While the word ghetto still is associated with impoverished living environments, perhaps because of gentrification the word ghetto has come to have positive slang connotations as well.
For example, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the expression “ghetto fabulous” or “ghetto fab” as “an ostentatious or flamboyant lifestyle or manner of dress, associated with the hip-hop subculture and characterized as a marker of status in economically disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. ” This is a perfect example of how the way we use the word ghetto has changed dramatically over time. The word became part of hip-hop culture in the 1990’s. It was used in a good way for the first time.
To describe someone who wanted to be part of that way of life as “ghetto” or “ghetto fab” was a complement. It was something that the world had never seen before. The creation of slang words and expressions is one of the ways that language changes over time. A group will use a certain word and after time, it may become widely used. Then it can become a part of most people’s vocabulary. Instead of being a noun with the most negative connotations of poverty disease and even death, the word ghetto is currently used as an adjective to label certain clothing, style, and even attitudes.
There are certain brands of clothes that in many cases are described as ghetto. This could be because of the way they look (baggy, brightly colored) or because of the fact that the people who wear them frequently live in urban areas. The word ghetto is used for many reasons. Due to our culture and our society many times the word gains negative meaning. Generalizations may cause people to believe that people from the ghetto have less moral values than someone from out of the ghetto. However, the true definition of the word says nothing about morality.
Although the word has a myriad of meanings, it is still understood in a variety of conversations (123helpme). Did the word ghetto really go from being such a negative term to such a positive one while somehow still maintaining part of its original meaning? That’s exactly what the word has done. The bridge between the two polar opposite meanings can probably be attributed to the fact that each has something to do with the city or urban areas. This is just about the most ameliorated a word could ever get.
After a few centuries of word evolution, the word ghetto has become part of our culture in a positive way, rather than a negative one. The word has been through an incredible amount of semantic change. Through the process of broadening, the word has gained many new meanings. It no longer describes a quarter of an Italian city in which Jews were forced to stay in. It no longer has to describe a run down, over populated city such as Brooklyn, New York. The word ghetto can be used as an adjective now. It can be used to positively describe someone or something.
Semantic changes such as broadening and generalization have brought about countless new usages and meanings to what was once a very specialized word (COHA) The word has been altered over time to become much more of a slang term. Many would argue that this term has become slang because of the way it is used by the younger generations. While it shouldn’t be considered a totally different word, the word ghetto represents entirely different meaning then it used to. The word has been used in and seen in such a wide variety of ways that it rarely gets used to describe what it was nitially meant to. The real meaning of the word ghetto does not mean much anymore because there is no longer a place where Jews are forced to live or for that matter a place where any group or minority is forced to live. The word now depicts a disadvantaged section of a city or town. The word ghetto was used in America most frequently in the 1970’s. Before that it was probably used a lot more internationally due to the fact that most ghettos in America did not exist until around the 1950’s. In the 1970’s the word is used with certain words very frequently.
For example the words “black,” “boxed-in,” and “community. ” However over time and into the 21st century the word is used less and less. While the usage decreases, the meaning changes. Today, we see the word ghetto used with words and phrases such as “fabulous,” “pimp,” “track-suit,” and “gangsta” (COHA). Its evident that as time goes on, the meaning of the word ghetto is being altered tremendously. The word ghetto is a word that has an important place in not only today’s world, but also in the past. The word contains tremendous meaning for certain groups of people throughout history.
For most of these people the word isn’t something they consider a noble word or a cheerful word at all. The people who know best what this word means are the people who experienced the Ghetto, the people who were confined, and people who were restricted. These people couldn’t experience the outside world. They were stuck in what is now defined by the OED as “the part of the city, especially a slum area, occupied by a minority group or groups. ” The term was originally used in Venice, Italy to describe the place where the Jews were meant to live.
Eventually the term became widespread. Now used not just for areas where minorities live, but also for poorer areas in general. The word went through the semantic change of broadening. Ultimately, more than just Europeans in the old world used the word. In later years, the Venetian origin of the word “ghetto” came to be forgotten, as it was used exclusively in its secondary meaning as referring to compulsory, segregated and enclosed Jewish quarters, and then in a looser sense, to refer to any area densely populated by Jews.
Eventually “ghetto became the general designation for areas densely inhabited by minority groups, almost always for socioeconomic reasons, rather than legal ones as had been the case with the initial Jewish ghetto. Interestingly enough, the word “ghetto” can be described as a colloquialism, but can just as easily be used as slang. The fact is no one changed the meaning of the word on purpose. This is what happens to words over time. They change meaning time and time again. The word ghetto is no different. The word is a perfect example of language and how it is ever changing.

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