The Word "Ghetto"

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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...
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