The Y-word: Should Tottenham fans be allowed to use it?

Picture of Tottenham Hotspur flags Tottenham Hotspur Football Club was founded in 1882

Related Stories

The use of the word "Yid" in football chants by Tottenham fans has attracted comment from the FA, the police and even David Cameron, but should its use be stamped out?

Most Spurs fans are not Jewish but the club has an historical association with London's Jewish community and adoption of the Y-word by Tottenham fans is an attempt to deflect anti-Semitic abuse by rival fans, according to the club.

But what are the origins of the word and should its use be considered offensive?

Start Quote

...any Jewish person with any relative that experienced the Holocaust would not easily walk around anywhere shouting "Yid"”

End Quote Dr Helen Beer University College London

The term in itself does not have anti-Semitic connotations explains Helen Beer, a lecturer in Yiddish at University College London and a native Yiddish speaker.

"It's a very straightforwardly Yiddish word," Dr Beer says.

"So you would say 'Der Yid' which among Yiddish speakers simply means 'the Jew'.

"You also have expressions where men might greet each other informally and say 'Gut morgn Reb Yid' which simply means 'Good morning, mister'."

However, Dr Beer warns the word only retains this neutral meaning when it is used by speakers of Yiddish and, in contemporary Britain, only a low percentage of secular Jews can speak the language.

"From my point of view, as a native Yiddish speaker, I find it very odd that somebody that's Jewish suddenly would speak about Yids, rather than Jews, and for a non-Jew that's pretty weird too," she says.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment in which the word gained a negative connotation, Dr Beer says it is very likely it was used pejoratively in the 20th Century, especially around the time of Oswald Mosley and the Black Shirts in the 1930's, when the East End of London would have had a big Jewish and Yiddish-speaking population.

What is Yiddish?

  • Yiddish is a language of Jewish, Central and Eastern European origins which dates back to the 9th or 10th Century
  • It is a mixture of Hebrew and Middle German, peppered with other European languages and Aramaic
  • It uses the Hebrew alphabet
  • The word Yiddish literally means "Jewish"

The Y-word is not alone in its evolution from innocuous to offensive.

Diane Nelson, senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Leeds, explains that certain words in language, in particular words for ethnic, religious minorities and women, tend to "slide" towards negative connotations.

"Most of the derogatory words for women that we have, such as 'hussy' and 'bitch', started out as being non-derogatory and then over time slid downhill," says Dr Nelson.

Some Spurs fans, whether Jewish or not, say they have reclaimed the Y-word, turning it into a badge of honour and sporting it with pride, deflecting the offensive meaning attached to it by some opposing fans.

Dr Nelson explains: "Reclaiming derogatory words by the communities being labelled seems to be a recent phenomenon. In the past, people just moved on to new words."

Examples are the words "queer" for the gay community and the so-called N-word for black communities, she says.

'Interesting phenomenon'

However, Dr Nelson adds that there's something different about "Yid".

"This is an example of a derogatory word that's been reclaimed but not by community itself, but by football supporters who are linked to this population. It's a really interesting phenomenon," she says.

"It means that a lot of the people in the stand chanting this word have never been called this word to their faces."

Dr Nelson points out that this is sort of the reverse of what happened in historical periods of anti-Semitism, when people distanced themselves from the Jewish community.

"Now you have swathes of London identifying themselves with the Jewish community and the Y-word," she says.

Alternatively, Dr Beer thinks the re-appropriation of offensive words only works in theory and that it would be very difficult to differentiate between those using the word maliciously and those who wear it with pride.

"Anybody with some kind of historical memory, any Jewish person with any relative that experienced the Holocaust would not easily walk around anywhere shouting 'Yid'," she says.

Reclaiming words

Screen shot of a previous BBC Magazine piece on the word 'slut'

The word "slut" made headlines in 2011 when women joined "slut walks" all over the world. They were marching in response to a Toronto police officer, who said that women should not dress like "sluts" if they wanted to avoid being raped.

"If anyone is intent on reclaiming anything, reclaim in a different way, find something else that doesn't have any type of difficult history attached to it.

"Delve into your culture, find a completely neutral word and start bandying that about. Let that be your reclamation," adds Dr Beer.

But users of language are very good at establishing context and intentions behind utterances, says Dr Nelson.

"It's part of our special ability as humans. We're very good at mind-reading and we usually know what is meant when words are used in context, especially if they're being shouted at a football match," she says.

So, was the FA right to threaten to press charges against fans? Dr Nelson does not think so.

"This is one of the features of language which is basically impossible to control," she says.

"You can ban or even legislate against the use of particular words, but people will always find a way to use language to insult each other.

"It's very difficult to control and legislate language. At the same time, if there's no intention to cause offense to a particular group in society then it's important to be aware of which words are considered offensive or derogatory by members of that group."

Dr Beer agrees that prosecuting fans would be going to another extreme.

"It's very good to draw attention to all of these issues, but it'd be even better if the debate could be substantiated with a bit more cultural and historical context, and I'm not persuaded that draconian measures are going to clarify anything," she says.

However, she also specifies that if the use of the Y-word is accompanied with "really awful behaviour" a warning to the fans in question would be useful. Dr Beer thinks education is the best compromise.

"I think if anything is taken out of context, from any culture, then it's immediately open to misinterpretation, misunderstanding and distortion," she says.

"To appropriate something from somewhere else without that understanding is a little bit risky. But if we start banning words, where is that taking us and what do we ban next?"

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Programmes

BBC iPlayer
  • Sian WilliamsSunday Morning Live

    Citizen Khan creator and star Adil Ray reveals the man behind the sitcom character

Things To Do

RUN BY THE BBC AND PARTNERS

More Activities >

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.