When I speak about the impact of language and its sensitivities, and I frequently do, participants are surprised when I ask them to make the following pledge:
“I do solemnly swear never to use the g word again - singular or plural [goy, goyim] - or any of its derivatives [goyishe] and to banish from my vocabulary shagetz and shiksa as well. Furthermore, I promise to stop and correct anyone who does so in my presence.”
While it is true that goy and goyim had their start as neutral terms and remain neutral in some liturgy - and I have no qualms about their inclusion in these contexts - no one can argue that shagetz and shiksa were ever value-neutral terms. Even the term shabbes goy may have been used with some affection in some places but in most cases it was not. As a result, these terms of derision deserve to be excised from our vocabulary, especially now with so many members of our extended families who are of other religious backgrounds and practices.
I was once again reminded of this challenge when UPN television announced that it will spend an entire episode of “All of Us,” a decidedly African American comedy, focuses on “the N word.”
It asks the same questions we should be asking about the G word. When is it ok to use it? Is it ever ok to use it? Is it different if an African American uses the word? [Translate: is it different if a non-Jewish member of the family uses the G word to refer to him/herself?] The writers of “All of Us” even suggest that there is a big difference between the N word when it ends with “a” rather than “er” and used by an African American. I wondered whether there was analogy for that one with the G word. You get the point. With so much of popular American culture grappling with the implications of interfaith marriage, perhaps it is time to take up this issue as well.
We at JOI believe that it is indeed a critical issue. Words can be powerful weapons or friends depending on how we use them. So please use them wisely.