The Grammarphobia Blog

Ghetto talk

Q: I’ve been looking into a usage issue that will be relevant to a book I’m working on. Perhaps you can help. At what point did the term “ghetto” begin to be used to describe black neighborhoods?

A: The word “ghetto,” which originally referred to the section of an Italian city where Jews had to live, first appeared in English in the early 17th century.

The origin of the word is uncertain, but it may be derived from getto, Italian for foundry, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The first “ghetto” was established in 1516 on the site of a foundry in Venice.)

The OED’s earliest published reference for “ghetto” is in a 1611 book by Thomas Coryat, an English travel writer who visited Venice: “The place where the whole fraternity of the Iews dwelleth together, which is called the Ghetto.”

Venetian Jews were required to live in the ghetto, which was surrounded by canals and linked to the rest of Venice by two bridges that were closed at night.

By the late 19th century, the term was being used in a more general way for any city slum occupied by an isolated or segregated group of people, though most of the OED citations well into the 20th century referred to Jewish sections.

The word “ghetto” began being used for African-American areas of US cities in the first half ot the 20th century.

The first published reference that I can find is from the Chicago Defender, an influential black newspaper. An Oct. 31, 1925, article says, “Baltimore, Dallas, St. Louis, Louisville, and some eight or ten other municipalities enacted ordinances designed to confine Colored people to certain restricted areas in those cities, creating Negro ghettos.”

Within a couple of decades, the term was being used by the mainstream press. An Aug. 8, 1943, article in the New York Times, for example, said Detroit had only one major park “near enough to the Negro ghetto to be of any use to its inhabitants.”

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