What in Merriam-Webster’s name is going on in New Jersey?
First, on Sept. 5, Trenton City Council President Kathy McBride made the wildly anti-Semitic remark that a city attorney was “able to wait her out and Jew her down” for a more favorable settlement. Then last week, one of McBride’s Council colleagues jumped to her defense with a grammatical invocation: “We really need to get a more acute meaning and understanding of ‘anti-Semitic,’ ” Councilwoman Robin Vaughn wrote in a Facebook post. “I believe her comment ‘jew down’ was more in reference to negotiating not ‘I hate jews.’ Inappropriate in today’s PC culture absolutely, but to Jew someone down is a verb and is not anti-anything or indicative of hating Jewish people.”
Now I’m all worked up, just when I was getting excited for next week’s National Punctuation Day celebrations. (Sept. 24! What present did you get me?)
As WHYY pointed out, McBride was the third New Jersey official who used anti-Semitic speech in a month: Paterson Councilman Michael Jackson used the same “Jew us down” slur at a public meeting. And Jeffrey Dye, who worked in Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration and leads Passaic’s NAACP chapter, was fired by the administration after his anti-Semitic Facebook posts surfaced. That doesn’t even count Vaughn and Trenton Councilman George Muschal, who also jumped to McBride’s defense, saying to the New Jersey Globe: “It’s nothing vicious. The expression has been said millions of times.” In that same interview, Muschal both repeated the slur and asked the reporter if his name was a Jewish one.
Let’s start with the obvious: Jew down is unequivocally anti-Semitic. It amplifies hateful historical tropes of Jews as money-grubbing, self-dealing, unscrupulous cheaters who can’t be trusted. This shouldn’t need to be said out loud, but it’s 2019, Donald Trump lives in the White House, and that’s apparently the world we live in now.
But it’s especially interesting how just changing the word’s part of speech turned it into something offensive. Plenty of words are offensive in any part of speech — start with the N-word and work your way down. But to become offensive by changing parts of speech? By my count, Jew is one of only two words that acts like this.
By itself, Jew is a standard noun. But when changed to a verb, it’s laden with millennia of offensive stereotypes.
These seem to be the only two nouns that are used as slurs when they’re changed to another part of speech. Even other religions are immune. You don’t hear anyone say, “Hey, Arlo, wanna go out Christianing this weekend?” Thank God.
In order not to discriminate against lesser-used (but not lesser) parts of speech, it’s worth noting: This rule excludes interjections. Anyone exclaiming “Muslim!” as an interjection is probably not doing so benevolently.
Then again: If they were? That’d be just about the best National Punctuation Day present a grammarian could ask for.