Google has retracted a highly offensive definition that its search engine supplied to those looking up the word “Jew.” “Our apologies,” Tweeted Danny Sullivan, a Google employee. “Google licenses definitions from third-party dictionary experts. We only display offensive definitions by default if they are the main meaning of a term….” Google has now blocked it.
For a short period of time this week (22-29. December 2022), the top result for “Jew” was: “to bargain with someone in a miserly or petty way”. The definition belonged to a Google partner named Oxford Languages, which calls itself “the world’s leading dictionary publisher” with over 150 years of experience. “Oxford’s English dictionaries are widely regarded as the world’s most authoritative sources on current English,” its website declares. Oxford Languages did label its definition as “offensive,” yet provided it as the most common use of the word Jew. It even included different tenses, including the words “jewed” and “jewing” as further “examples” of unethical financial behavior.
Modern Ethnic Slur
During the Middle Ages, many European communities radically restricted Jews’ professional opportunities, allowing them to serve as traders and money lenders, an activity that the Catholic Church banned for Christians starting in 1179. Catholic councils and theologians wrote extensively about the supposed evils of extending credit, creating a sense that the Jews who engaged in loaning money for profit were somehow uniquely terrible, even though they served a vital purpose of providing liquidity in European communities.
In England during the Middle Ages, Jews were formally considered “property of the Crown” and expected to lend money to the monarch and nobles. In Poland in the 13th century, King Boleslaw the Pious described his land’s Jews as “slaves of the Treasury” and expected them to serve a similar role. In the 1700s, the historian Howard M. Sachar estimates that “perhaps as many as three-fourths of the Jews in Central and Western Europe were limited to the precarious occupation of retail peddling, hawking, and ‘street-banking,’ that is, moneylending.”
In Western literature, Jews were often depicted as bloodthirsty moneylenders, driven to work in finance by some sort of innate desire to harm other people, especially innocent Christians, rather than by political decree, as was actually the case. In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, a Jewish moneylender is gruesome and cruel, longing to kill his blameless client Antonio, declaring “I hate him for he is a Christian.” In Christopher Marlow’s play The Jew of Malta, the eponymous Jewish moneylender is even worse, lying and killing and, at one point, poisoning an entire convent.
Given this background, it might seem that the term “to jew” someone, referring to unfair or unsavory business practices, might be ancient in origin. In reality, it dates to the modern era. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of “to jew” someone came in 1825. The term caught on and went mainstream. In 1870, a US Representative even used it on the floor of the US Congress, complaining during a debate on military funding that Congress was “ready to Jew down the pay of generals.”
Potent Slur Today
Too many people today continue to use “jew” as an offensive slur referring to unsavory business practices. Even a cursory look through the most popular online dictionaries continues to throw up myriad examples of “jew” being defined as “to haggle or swindle” (Wiktionary), “to hoard money, and even if you have a lot of money, you’re really cheap…” (Urban Dictionary), etc. In 2019, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency noted “‘Jew down’ seems to be making a comeback,” after several politicians used the offensive term in different contexts.
The Anti-Defamation League warns that the persistent use of “jew” as a byword for cheap or stingy harms us all: “The common, mainstream use of antisemitic terms, like Jew down, plays a dangerous role in normalizing antisemitism and reinforcing conspiracy theories in the minds of antisemites,” it notes.
Google has not yet explained how and why Oxford Languages offered the offensive verb “to jew” as its number one definition, but Oxford Languages itself describes its process of assigning definitions as reflective of larger conversational trends. “The evidence we use to create our English dictionaries comes from real-life examples of spoken and written language, gathered through a series of corpora that continuously monitor language development,” the company explains.
It’s possible that the offensive definition of Jew was inserted by an individual in order to insult Jews. It’s also possible that a general rise in offensive talk about Jews led the company’s artificial intelligence systems to recognize the slur “to jew” as a popular use.
The True Meaning of Jew
The true meaning of the word Jew couldn’t be farther from the negative connotations modern dictionaries proclaim. The name Jew – Yehudi in Hebrew – comes from the name of Judah (Yehuda in Hebrew). One of the sons of our patriarch Jacob, his name comes from the Hebrew root “to thank,” and “to admit or to acknowledge.”
Judah was Leah’s fourth son. She knew that Jacob, her husband, was destined to have 12 sons with four wives. The birth of Judah went beyond what she considered would be her fair share, so she named him Judah, which means gratitude.
The essence of being a Jew is to be grateful for all blessings and to give thanks.
In a time of rising antisemitism, it’s imperative that we insist on using the term Jew with pride. Google’s apology is a welcome place to start.
Author: Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
Dr. Alt Miller lives with her family in Chicago, and has lectured internationally on Jewish topics. Her latest book Portraits of Valor: Heroic Jewish Women You Should Know describes the lives of 40 remarkable women who inhabited different eras and lands, giving a sense of the vast diversity of Jewish experience. It’s been praised as inspirational, fascinating, fun and educational.