the alien corn
Thomas M. Paikeday
t.paikeday at SYMPATICO.CA
Fri Jan 24 18:16:40 UTC 2003
Several of the ADS teaching fraternity who listened to my Jan. 2 talk "Jew"
v. "Gentile" at the Atlanta annual meeting suggested the proposition that
"Gentile" is an exclusionary term as used by Jews be voted on by students in
classrooms. I agreed, although the outcome seems a foregone conclusion (as
stressed in capitals in my paper below) if the question is about perceptions
rather than the meaning of the term. In case you have nothing better to read
on the weekend, here's the complete paper including comments from Mark
Mandel and his family representing the opposition.
"Jew" v. "gentile" (ADS meeting, Atlanta Hilton, Jan. 2/03)
First, contrary to what is said in the abstract, I have had second thoughts
about the secret ballot; such a vote may serve no useful purpose. But I
leave it up to the Chair or, if the Chair allows it, to any member of the
audience to call for a show of hands on the question whether "gentile" is
exclusionary or not when used in reference to non-Jews, especially in their
Secondly, my thanks to Mark A. Mandel (the Jewish linguist referred to in
my abstract) and his family for reviewing this paper and offering useful
comments as from the opposition.
"Exclusionary" is used as defined in the New Shorter Oxford, 2002: "having
the effect of excluding." Examples of exclusionary terms are "foreigner,"
"heathen," "infidel," "outsider," and "stranger" (all with negative
connotations) and "brahmin," "the elect," "native speaker," etc. (positive).
Derogatory terms like "goy" are not even considered here.
There are four citations in the full-text OED, as in the 1992 CD-ROM,
dating from 1817. This shows how old the usage is. My own private database
of current English (about 100 million words of text from circa 1990, drawn
mainly from U.S. publications, which was used in The User's® Webster, 2000)
has nearly 90 citations. This shows how widespread the use of the word is.
The "exclusionary rule" (legal term referring to illegally obtained
evidence) is the best-known of current usages. "Exclusionary zoning"
(another legal term) comes closer to the discussion of "gentile." Black's
Law Dictionary, 1990, defines it as "any form of zoning ordinance which
tends to exclude specific classes of persons or businesses from a particular
district or area."
Here are three citations from general English texts:
(1) "Mary GiaQuinta said such a trade grouping could become exclusionary or
discriminatory to countries that aren't part of the [GATT] agreement" (Jim
Ostroff, Daily News Record, Dec. 27, 1990, p. 11).
(2) "African-American women had to battle derogatory white images of their
worth and status, and they had to demolish exclusionary barriers that were
often erected by white women" (Vanessa N. Gamble, The Nation, Apr. 16, 1990,
(3) "Dan Quayle was not reacting to the exclusionary practices of Pine
Valley [country club]" (Tom Callahan, U.S. News and World Report, Aug. 20,
1990, p. 60).
This should clarify the distinction between "exclusionary" and the more
common, innocuous, and neutral "exclusive," the latter as in: an exclusive
neighborhood (with only people of one social group or income bracket); an
exclusive news story (that no other media may carry); an exclusive feature
(that no other product has); an exclusive economic zone claimed by countries
beyond their coastal waters to protect fishing and mineral rights. (These
are not citations but idiomatic examples of common usage, culled from The
Incidentally, I happen to believe that concrete idiomatic examples define a
word or usage better than abstract definitions. I will not, therefore,
belabour the point by quoting the Oxford definitions of "exclusive" which
come grouped under six numbers or the Merriam-Webster Collegiate which has a
total of nine definitions. I like to call that atomization of meaning;
quoting such definitions will only cloud the issue instead of clarifying it.
Sorry if I sound unnecessarily provocative.
Briefly, therefore, for the sake of comparison or contrast, whereas
"exclusionary" means "tending to exclude" (Shorter Oxford), "exclusive"
means "limited to only one person or group of people," as succinctly defined
by Cambridge International Dictionary, 1995, a dictionary after my own
lexicographical heart (which, incidentally, was bared at length in a
five-page Preface to my Penguin Canadian Dictionary, 1990).
The opposite of "exclusionary" is "inclusionary," as in the following
citation: "To get some idea of the eclectic range of Men's Life [magazine],
look at the logo: Men's Life - Adventure, Career, Women, Kids, Sports,
Ideas, Humor, Stuff. That will include health, grooming, money, 'sensible'
fashion, cooking, travel, and some investigative journalism. Men's Life,
says [publisher] Scullin, won't be hip, trendy, downtown or uptown; it will
be inclusionary, not exclusionary" (Michael Garry & Henry Eng, Marketing and
Media Decisions, Sept. 1990, p. 38).
However, "inclusive" is more common in general use than "inclusionary,"
(which, unlike "exclusionary" vis-a-vis "exclusive," seems a more formal
term for "inclusive") as in the expressions "inclusive language" such as
'humanity' for 'mankind'; 'partner' instead of 'wife, husband, boyfriend,
girlfriend,' etc.; "inclusive education for students with disabilities";
"racially inclusive"; "inclusive and tolerant," etc. Google.ca (the Canadian
version) has 4,770,000 hits for "inclusive," but only 20,700 for
"inclusionary," regardless of meanings and other factors that make the
Google database not very useful for lexicographical purposes.
As to whether the use of "inclusionary" or "inclusive" terms is mere
political correctness, that seems an idle question to me.
Mark Mandel responds:
[~MAM 1: <<Your "intuitivist" approach makes it difficult for me to answer
your question, "Is 'gentile' exclusionary?". The examples with positive as
well as negative connotations only tell me that my initial intuition of your
intention is wrong, without giving me a sense of being guided to what you do
intend. It seems to me that "gentile", defined as 'non-Jew', can *only* be
interpreted in a set-theoretical sense, 'outside the class of people defined
as Jews', and thus exclusionary by the definition of the latter
About the Jewish and Mormon usage of "gentile," I first became aware of it
when I landed in America (in Boston actually) in 1962. A Jewish shopkeeper,
in reference to this customer (I don't recall the context) was telling
someone "He's a gentile." I was taken aback. I thought, Hey, if anything, I
am a Christian. In fact, my people (called "Christians of St. Thomas," a
Britannica article) are supposed to have been Christians since A.D. 52 when
the Apostle reputedly landed on our shores in S.W. India, converted 72
Brahmin families, established many churches, and was martyred and buried in
Madras on the other coast, the coromandel coast, if you will.
"Gentile" called forth the historical uses of the word derived from the
Latin "gentilis" adj. and "gentes" and "gentiles" n.pl. (as in Thomas
Aquinas's Summa Contra Gentiles), all from the noun "gens, gentis" meaning
"tribe or clan." "Gentile" was opposed to "Roman" and meant "foreigner"
(Lewis & Short, s.v. gens, II, 2, b). This meaning appears in Late Middle
The first meaning of "gentile," adj. in the OED is "Of or pertaining to any
or all of the nations other than the Jewish" supported by citations from
1400 (Apol. Loll. 6) on.
A few of the more interesting citations: (1) 1649 Jeremy Taylor, Gt. Exemp.
xvii, par. 6: "The primitive Christians when they had washed off the
accrescenses of Gentile superstition...." (2) 1774 J. Bryant Mythol. II.118:
"There had been a true notion of the Deity transmitted by Zoroaster .. when
the gentile world was in darkness." (3) 1888 Amy Levy Reuben Sachs xi, 156:
"A goodly contingent of Gentile dancing men .. and a smaller band of Gentile
ladies." [sounds like pre-Columbian strippers] (4) A fourth citation, based
on classical Latin usage, is under the meaning II, 4: "Of or pertaining to a
gens or to gentes": 1846 Grote Greece (1854) I. 465: "There were in every
gens or family special gentile deities."
Notable among the noun senses is def. I, 1. "One of any nation other than
Jewish." Citations: (#1) c.1380 Wyclif Sel. Wks. III. 345: He [Petre] wolde
not deal with Gentiles for tendirnesse of the Jewis. [The Middle English
Dictionary should be checked for the construction "tendirnesse of," but I
believe the noun alone means "compassion" or "considerateness" as in OED,
def. 2] (citation #2) 1490 Caxton How to Dye 4: Paynyms [i.e. pagans] &
gentylis as were Jobe, Raab, Ruth, Achior & other semblable [i.e. other
such]. (#3) Tindale Matt. X. 5: Goo not into the wayes thatt lead to the
gentyls. [This is surprising since Matthew is sometimes cited as
anti-Semitic]. (#4) 1878 J. P. Hopps Jesus iii, 15: He [i.e. Jesus] would go
and tell them that not only Jews but Gentiles were His children. (#5) 1892
Westcott Gospel of Life 182: Zarathustra is not wholly unworthy to be placed
as a Gentile by the side of Abraham.
[~MAM 2: <<Regardless of its associations in history and for you, "gentile"
has for many years meant "non-Jew" to Jews, and especially "Christian" as
the dominant religion in English-speaking communities.>>]
All those noun usages, just like the definition, should sound very
exclusionary to most of us.
[~MAM 3: If you mean 'defining by exclusion', how else should they sound?
(See my note #1.) If not, it is fair to ask how exclusionary they sounded
Noun def. "2. A heathen, a pagan (Now rare)" has this citation: 1732
Berkeley Alciphr. i. §6: One is a Christian, another a Jew, a third a
Mahometan, a fourth an idolatrous Gentile.
The Shorter Oxford, 2002, has better definitions of "gentile" (which I am
sure are in the OED online, something I don't have access to), the n. def.
(I, 1) introduced by the restrictive phrase "Among the Jews." The adj. def.
(I, 2) starts thus: "from a Jewish standpoint; non-Jewish."
A more satisfactory way of determining the claimed meanings of "gentile"
would have been: (a) to collect a respectable sample of citations and show
that most of them are exclusionary in meaning rather than inclusionary; (b)
show that they are from the writings of Jews rather than non-Jews; (c) show
whether they were perceived as exclusionary at the time, as Mark Mandel
Since the writings are published pieces, I suppose they were meant for
general consumption rather than for Jewish audiences.
My citations were selected to show that there is evidence of a negative
feeling about the Gentiles, that they were considered foreigners, idolators,
and the non-elect of God (I feel bad about Ruth standing in tears amid the
alien corn), and certainly not Christians. Hence my being taken aback when I
first heard the usage back in 1962.
HOWEVER, I SUPPOSE THE AVERAGE AMERICAN USER OF ENGLISH WHO HAS NOT READ
ANY LATIN OR MIDDLE ENGLISH LITERATURE OR EVEN MEDIEVAL HISTORY COULDN'T
CARE LESS ABOUT BEING REFERRED TO AS A GENTILE WITHIN HIS HEARING.
Coming now to current English, here are a few selected citations
illustrating the exclusionary nature of "gentile":
(1) "Harry has this gentile prejudice that Jews do everything a little
better than other people, something about all those generations crouched
over the Talmud and watch-repair tables, they aren't as distracted as other
persuasions, they don't expect to have as much fun." It must be a great
religion, he thinks, "once you get past the circumcision" (Hermione Lee's
review of John Updike's Rabbit at Rest, in The New Republic, Dec. 24, 1990,
(2) "From California to Florida, the need to find a minority member became
urgent. At Crystal Downs in Michigan, where the 'Gentiles Only' sign came
down years ago (though no Jews have noticed), one member issued this hopeful
report to the Associated Press": 'We have a female doctor of Chinese descent
who plays [golf] frequently, but I believe her husband is the [minority]
member'" (Tom Callahan, U.S. News and World Report, Aug. 20, 1990, p. 60).
(3) "A Czech writer of Jewish origin, who asked to remain anonymous, said
'there is aggression' in the attitude of the gentiles towards the country's
estimated 15,000 Jews" (John Bierman, Maclean's [magazine], April 16, 1990,
To conclude, if this kind of selective citation gathering seems
unsatisfactory, let me offer you a test of the putative popular reaction to
"gentile" by non-Jews in a purely fictitious situation.
Our friendly neighbourhood B'nai B'rith is holding an open house for a
neutral celebration like Canada Day (July 1). A sign at their door says (not
the exact words): OPEN HOUSE / FREE COFFEE & DONUTS / JEWS AND GENTILES
WELCOME. I wonder how many gentiles would be induced to step inside.
[~MAM 4: But this is the *last* place to use a term defined by difference.
My wife commented, "I'd expect something like ALL ARE WELCOME". You don't
make all feel welcome by highlighting differences.
Mrs. Mandel's suggestion may make for good public relations, but it misses
the point of the exercise which is to illustrate the meaning of "gentile,"
namely "non-Jew," using a test sentence with minimal interference from other
My daughter said, "'Gentile' can be offensive when used by one Jew to
another in the presence of the person referred to". Your own encounter,
which she wasn't aware of when she said this, seems to fit this
"third-person invisible" usage. But, she adds, it may not be offensive when
the non-Jew is included in the conversation.
I find Susanna's observation very perspicacious indeed!
[Consider these two events:
(1) My son reminded me of a time when I prefaced a song that hinged on some
intricacies of Jewish dietary law with some words of explanation
"for the gentiles in the room".
(2) This very afternoon I was telling some gentile neighbors of the
experiences of my late father-in-law, a Polish Jew, in World War II. I
said, "He jumped off a death train and was found and saved by a gentile
In neither case, I believe, did anyone find the word offensive. Yes, it
excludes, as a statement in set algebra: a gentile is not a Jew. And in
these contexts that's all it does. You might consider the possibility that
negative connotation arises not from the meaning of the word, but from how
it is used.]
I beg to differ. We are not talking connotations here. The meaning of an
expression illustrated by idiomatic usages is objectively more significant
than the bare denotative meaning based on genus and differentia. If one says
"I am a gentile," "You are a gentile," or "He's a gentile," what does each
utterance mean to the generality of English users? In my view, the referent
is more important here than the reference, like Venus being more important
than "evening star" and "morning star."
My own reaction to the sign mentioned above may be to go in and see what's
going on, especially if it could be changed to read, instead of "free coffee
& donuts," say, "free wine & cheese." Thank you.
Mark Mandel has the last word:
POSTNOTE ON "GENTILE"
My wife Rene just said that you should check out Terry (-i? -ie?) Gross's
interview on the NPR program "Fresh Air" with KISS performer Gene Simmons,
ne Chaim Weitz. It was first aired earlier this year but
was replayed yesterday (or Sunday?), and should probably still be available
on their website. This interview was apparently responsiblefor Simmons's
being labeled "biggest disappointment of the year" by one publication and
"weirdest" by another.
In the first few minutes Simmons corrected Gross's pronunciation of his
birth name, saying that the reason she couldn't pronounce it right was that
she wasn't Jewish, a point on which Ms. Gross disabused him. Rene doesn't
remember if he used the word "gentile" or not, but she characterizes his
manner as definitely exclusionary.
Coming back to that word, ISTM that the definition you're focusing on
includes something like this: "intended to highlight in-group vs. out-group
identification; making the referred-to group feel that they
are the outsiders, and the others, by default, insiders". That is, I think
that connotation, or affect, is essential to your point. Is so?
More comments welcome. - Thomas Paikeday (www.paikeday.net)
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