Removing Negative Language

When is it an appropriate time to eliminate offensive language? We think it’s always the right time, and so does the state of Florida. Governor Charlie Crist recently signed a bill removing the terms “shylock” and “shylocking” from state law. The terms had been on the books since 1969 as a synonym of loan sharking, the practice of offering loans with high interest rates. The term comes from the Shakespeare play “The Merchant of Venice,” and the money lending character of Shylock.

It’s long overdue, but we applaud the state of Florida for finally taking these steps. The bigger picture here is that they recognized the term “Shylock” was indeed offensive, even though it was a commonly used phrase. This relates nicely to our ongoing campaign to have other words with negative connotations – such as goy and shiksa – removed from common usage.

JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and senior program office Liz Marcovitz wrote a piece last year for the JTA urging people to stop “defining those who are different from us by using negative words and stereotypes” because such language has the potential to push people away. One of our methods for lowering the barriers to participation in Jewish life is to use positive, inclusive language. As we have written before, this can mean using words or phrases like “of a different background” instead of “non-Jew.” Although these distinctions might seem inconsequential, they often make the difference between someone feeling welcomed, and someone feeling singled out.

If the state of Florida can recognize the error of using an offensive term, can’t we as a Jewish community also take steps towards removing negative language from our vocabulary?


  1. I agree. Thanks for your insights into this issue of language. Not only is it important for creating a welcoming atmosphere in Jewish communities, it is necessary for teaching children to respect people of all backgrounds that we model this ourselves in our use of language. Everyone has a heritage, background, cultural identity, and spirituality (way of connecting to life, the divine, etc.). When we can recognize and honor this, instead of seeing the world as “us” and “not us” we’ve made an important step. The term non-Jew is like calling someone a non-white person. It defines a person by what they are not. And this becomes the focus — that you are not one of us. It is not only unwelcoming. It is rude.

    Comment by Esther Cohen — April 28, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

  2. Word choice can obscure the unwillingness to change an agenda, compounding the problem by denying it. Changing the way we speak doesn’t necessary change what we think or how we behave.

    Comment by Sara — April 29, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

  3. How are you going to remove ‘goy’? As ‘nation’ it was repeatedly used in the Haggadah we just used during Passover. Are you going to replace ‘gentile’, too. Will the Gentiles replace ‘gentile’ when its in their own scriptures, and the Mormons use it as the term for non-Mormons?

    You want to use ‘people of a different background’ for non-Jew. Replacing a longer term for a shorter term in everyday speech? Hmmm…

    Comment by Dave — May 3, 2009 @ 8:16 am

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    Comment by Article — December 1, 2014 @ 3:36 am

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