Written to the song: Madiba Riddim — Drake

Be sure to taste your words before you spit them out.”― Auliq Ice

Majdanek Concentration Camp, Poland.

As a Residence Advisor (RA/Don), there are always issues that need to be addressed, whether it is gossip or housing drama. Today, I had to address racism. I decided to create a poster about being mindful of language (below), which inspired me to write this article.

Definitely should have spent more time gluing each page.

The idea of this poster was to bring awareness to my residents about the impact that words can have. Moreover, the idea of not assuming one’s circumstances and experiences in life, words can hurt. The examples I provided were “that exam RAPED me” — would you say that if you KNEW I am a Survivor of sexual assault? “That’s RETARDED” — would you say that if you KNEW my brother had Down Syndrome? “That’s so GHETTO” — would you say that if you KNEW I grew up in poverty. It makes you think…why are we diluting the meaning of these words and hurting the people around us?

Venice Ghetto

Today, the word “ghetto” has two main meanings. The first, a noun meaning “an impoverished, neglected, or otherwise disadvantaged residential area of a city, usually troubled by a disproportionately large amount of crime” (Urban Dictionary, 2001). Another definition refers to the adjective meaning something that is “jury-rigged, improvised, or home-made (usually with extremely cheap or sub-standard components), yet still deserving of an odd sense of respect from ghetto dwellers and non-ghetto dwellers alike”. What is the original meaning of the word “ghetto”?

The Venice Ghetto.

Unlike having the freedom to pick your neighbourhood based on the location, schools and surrounding opportunities, the Venetian Jews were forced into a ghetto in 1516 (Gilad, 2016). The living conditions were cramped, and Jews were forced to wear a yellow badge and had to abide by a curfew (Gransard, 2016). At one point there were 6000 Jews cramped in the Venice ghetto promoting conflict, argument and disease. Although this ghetto may have hosted one nation, it did not lack diversity — European Jews and Sephardic Jews who were exiled from Spain lived and celebrated together, even creating two synagogues in these close corners.

The word ghetto is said to have two different origins. One theory is from the Hebrew word “get” meaning divorce, where the Jews were “divorced” from the separation from the rest of the city. The Italian word getto (pronounced with a hard ‘g’ as in jet) translates to “factory”, potentially representing the use of the area prior to the Jewish neighbourhood. Though we pronounce ghetto with a “soft g” rather than a hard g. Borghetto in Italian translates to “little town”, potentially referring to this “Jewish District”.

Warsaw Ghetto

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, they imitated the Venice Ghetto by using force and uninhabitable living conditions through the creation of Jewish Ghettos. Jewish individuals living in the ghettos were eventually forced and sent to labour and concentration camps.

Based on a Google “interest over time”, one can search any word and view its frequency in use over a period of time. The graph (above) displays the use of “ghetto” in literature from the 1700s-2017. There is a clear spike in frequency in the 1970s. Initially I assumed that this spike is due to the Elvis Presley song “In the Ghetto”, or potentially the modern day definition of ghetto. While analyzing the context of the data, most data comes from books published on the history of the Jewish Ghetto in the late 1930s. Most recently the word ghetto is used in hip hop music, most frequently used in the Bahamas, Zimbabwe and Jamaica. Many words in our vocabulary are often used loosely. Though, certain words have valency and a strength which can easily hurt and dilute people’s experiences. Whether it is using “ghetto” to refer to a poor area similar to the Warsaw Ghetto, or the shape of an object that is clearly damaged, words should not be used to simplify one’s experiences. I believe it is important to understand why using certain words are offensive, and to be mindful of others’ histories. Sensitive words can easily be replaced by a simple thesaurus search. Language has power.


“Ghetto.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., Oct. 2001. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Gilad, Elon. Mar 29, 2016 5:15 PM, Elon. “The Mysterious Origin of the Word ‘ghetto’.”Haaretz.com. N.p., 29 Mar. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Gransard, Marie-José. “500 Years of the Venetian Ghetto: Commemoration and History.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 30 Mar. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Author of “Q & A a Day for Travelers”. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-frenkel/