Saturday, 8 March 2008

Only one choice, really

What does the word ‘ethnic’ mean? Choose the sentence that conveys its meaning accurately:

1) I bought this lovely Kenyan bracelet in an ethnic shop in Camden Town.

2) This delicious French jam comes from an ethnic grocer’s in South Kensington.

OED definition of ‘ethnic’:
a. Pertaining to race; peculiar to a race or nation; ethnological. Also, pertaining to or having common racial, cultural, religious, or linguistic characteristics, esp. designating a racial or other group within a larger system; hence (U.S. colloq.), foreign, exotic.

b. ethnic minority (group), a group of people differentiated from the rest of the community by racial origins or cultural background, and usu. claiming or enjoying official recognition of their group identity.

To my US readers: although the OED mentions ‘foreign’ as a possible meaning for ‘ethnic’, you have to use your common sense here and understand it is ‘foreign’ as in ‘exotic’. European products/goods are not ‘exotic’ – at least to people of other Western countries, who share the same ‘culture’. The word does not apply to them. If you do use it in that way, you end up with preposterous sentences like 2).

What does the word ‘antisemitic’ mean?

1) Mr Abdul Hussein claimed he had been the victim of an antisemitic attack.

2) Three youths subjected Mr Solomon Isaacs to a torrent of antisemitic abuse.

OED definition of ‘antisemitic’:
Hostility to or prejudice against Jews.

Forget the etymology, which includes all Semitic groups: ‘antisemitic’ is used exclusively to mean hostility towards Jews. I believe anyone who insists that the word should be used in its larger meaning (as I’ve read on a blog recently) is, in fact, harbouring antisemitic views.


Oh, hold on, Happy International Women’s Day!


  1. To Monique R.: this is your chance to comment and say something relevant and preferably witty, instead of sending me stupid and abusive messages.

  2. Speaking as a professional editor...

    Huh?!!! But of course ethnic means ‘from a culture very different from your own’. It really, if you think about it, almost always means from a less developed and more traditional society, too, doesn’t it - wooden jewellery from Africa, colourful hats from Guatemala, Afghan rugs, Roma music, Mexican enamel, Maori paintings. A recent edition of the London Evening Standard says: ‘Culture Minister Margaret Hodge’s complaint that the Proms are not accessible to ethnic minorities has prompted this rebuke from Asian Tory Euro MP Nirj Deva: "It is outrageous to suggest that a British Asian, a British West Indian, a British African cannot appreciate and enjoy and derive the same pleasures from the Proms..." ' The Euro MP doesn't mention French people or German people as an ethnic minority in relation to the arts, does she? Because the point is cultural unfamiliarity, and the French and the Germans share the culture of classical music in the Western tradition.

    You're talking to your US readers, though - maybe their argument expresses the extreme parochialism of *some* (certainly not all!!!) Americans, where Europe seems impossibly unfamiliar and culturally apart and they even regard it as being a bit backward? LOL.

    Re the anti-semitism, it wouldn’t make sense anyway to have one word to be used for racism against Jews and other Semitic races, because usually those two forms of racism come from different directions and take a different form. And from one another too. By saying anti-semitism only relates to prejudice against Jews, you’re presumably not arguing that there is no racism against Arabs in the world, nor that racism per se isn’t bad whenever it happens, just that there happens to be this specific word for this specific kind of prejudice and pretending it doesn’t mean specifically that is like when people point out that Gypsies and homosexuals and political prisoners also suffered and died in the camps - yes, they did, and on a human level each life was equally important, but the camps were designed primarily to rid the world of a race. It’s as if people always want to widen out this specific thing (of anti-semitism) and by doing so hope to kind of water it down, which can be a way of trying to deny or negate it.

  3. It's all a bit confusing - both Jews and Arabs are Semitic people but antisemitism is universally recognised as applying to Jews. There's the modern Islamaphobia which probably means racism against Muslims, but then there are Arabs who aren't Muslims. It's all very confusing.
    The one thing that is certain is that the rise in overt antisemitism is marked. For a while some people were very careful just to confine themselves to rabid hatred of Israel but nowadays they often don't bother even to make the pretence that their virulent loathing doesn't extend to Jews in general.

  4. What an interesting post!
    I have to say that Lulu has a point about "ethnic" being often used in relevance to "a culture of a less developped society", now that I think about it: at least this is how I have seen it used too many times to count. Although I do not use it like that myself (to me it means "exotic", and certainly not "minority"). Like in "ethnic music" for instance. But what is "less developped" really? In economic terms? In terms of industrialisation? How does our perception of "development" shape itself? Hmmm...

    Now how Americans see European it with reverence, admiration, a little bit of envy/a little bit of arrogance and all that rolled into ignorance? I believe so, in some cases. There are just so many cliches about Europeans, anyway.

    "Antisemitic" is standard for hostility against Jews, to my knowledge, and I hadn't ~ever~ come across any other meaning, so it made an impression that you mention it in connection with other people: I gather you have actually read it like this, so people do use it presumably.

    Of course technically those are Semitic people as well, but years of use have shaped the word to mean a very specific thing. And since it is a nuance that includes a specific group (Jews) of a greater notion (semites), it doesn't seems "false" to me, like it would if it excluded a certain group of the whole (the reverse, that is). Am I making sense? I am trying to logicalize this.

    And historically, since the word is mainly applied to actions and behaviours of Europeans and Americans who had intergrated Jewish populations towards whom they showed hostility and discrimination, the application of the word "antisemetic" was in regard to Jews. I don't believe there were large Arab populations in Europe and America in the past*: this is a rather recent phenomenon, giving itself to another prejudice and discrimination!

    *{with the exception of the Arabic conquest of Spain in the Middle Ages, in which however Arabs were the domineering party, therefore there would be no derogatory discrimination that would necessitate a word for it}.


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