What Does a Ghetto Mean?
The word ghetto is used to describe a blighted urban area where there is a large concentration of members of a minority group. This can be planned, as in government-sponsored housing projects, or it may be an unplanned result of self-segregation.
The origin of the word ghetto is an etymological mystery. The most widely cited explanation is that it comes from the Italian dialect form of gheto, meaning “foundry.” But this etymology has a problem. In the English language, ghetto is pronounced with a soft g (like a goat), while getto is pronounced with a hard g.
Another popular explanation is that it comes from the Hebrew noun get, which means “a bill of divorce.” This etymology is supported by reference books but has no proven linguistic connection to ghetto.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, cities like Venice and Frankfurt forcibly restricted Jewish populations by creating ghettos — areas that were walled off from other parts of the city. The Jews were forced to live within the ghettos and were restricted from leaving by a system of armed guards.
By the late 19th century, the word ghetto had broadened to refer to crowded urban districts where other ethnic or racial groups were confined by poverty or prejudice. This definition took on a more sinister slant under Nazi Germany, when the Germans forcibly established ghettos in many European countries.
In contemporary American usage, ghetto has become a term that is often used to demonize poor African Americans. This has led to the creation of a number of organizations dedicated to fighting racial discrimination and creating a more equitable society.
One of these organizations, the Center for the Study of Ghettos in New York, has taken up the cause of redefining the word. The Center is focusing on the word’s history, meaning and uses, as well as on how it has evolved over time to reflect different cultural identities.
From its beginnings as an etymology for the Jewish community in Italy, to its use as a label to demonize African Americans and other groups in the United States, ghetto has been a part of American history, and it is one that remains a source of controversy. In a recent essay for The Daily Beast, linguist Daniel Schwartz explores the historical evolution of the word ghetto and the role it has played in shaping our cultures.
The first ghetto was created in Venice in 1516, where Jews were confined to a section of the city. While this wasn’t the first time that a city had restricted its population, it was the first to be official and ruled by law.
In addition to their religious observance, Jews also had to deal with a number of practical challenges that occupied their time and energy outside the ghettos. These included the need to travel long distances to find food and rationed goods, and to avoid arrest or prosecution by the authorities.
Despite the obstacles, some Jews managed to survive. They worked, especially in factories. For others, work provided a temporary lifeline, as they could receive extra rations and were less likely to be chosen for deportation lists.