How Do You Jew?

Get out your pencil. It’s quiz time:

Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?

No, he’s not.

Ulysses S. Grant and his wife are entombed — not buried — in sarcophagi (stone coffins), raised on a platform. They aren’t buried.

Now let me ask you this:

Who was the most anti-Semitic president?

And, who was the most pro-Jewish president (before this century)?

OK, time’s up.

The most anti-Semitic president?

Ulysses S. Grant.

The most pro-Jewish president?

Ulysses S. Grant.

To be more precise, it was General Grant who was the anti-Semite. On December 17, 1862, during the Civil War, Major General U.S. Grant accused Jews of smuggling and issued the infamous General Order No. 11:

“The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the [area] within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.”

However, later as president, Grant repented his order.

“Eager to prove that he was above prejudice, Grant appointed more Jews to public office than had any of his predecessors and, in the name of human rights, he extended unprecedented support to persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania” (When General Grant Expelled the Jews, Jonathan D. Sarna).

You might call it the Achashverosh syndrome. But there’s reason to believe that Grant’s changeover was sincere.

So why am I telling you this? Hang in there.

William Safire quoted, “‘The fact is I think I am a verb,’ wrote the dying Ulysses S. Grant to his doctor, ‘instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.’

“Grant’s self-identification with a verb showed he understood the essence of that part of speech: action. No verb, no plot. You just sit and plan.”

Safire went on to attack the modern trend of bureaucratic verbing — turning nouns like implement or fast track into verbs. “New verbs are being coined every day. Like body snatchers, the alien verbs are investing and seizing the souls of every interesting new noun.”

And what about when verbing a noun turns it into a slur? Safire handled the issue gingerly — resisting the PC police, yet trying not to offend.

“Take the verb to welsh, for example, an old dialect term meaning ‘to refuse to pay a debt.’ This is a clear and unmistakable slur on a nationality — people from Wales — as many of whom pay their debts as thee or me. Same with Jew down, meaning ‘to bargain’; it has a long history in the language, but it is a stereotypical slur. Don’t use either one.”

In September, JTA reported that Kathy McBride, “president of the City Council in Trenton, New Jersey, allegedly used the term ‘Jew her down’ during a closed-door meeting to describe the settlement at a lower rate of a personal injury lawsuit. … City Councilwoman Robin Vaughn defended McBride, saying the term to Jew someone down ‘is a verb.’ Vaughn claimed the term is ‘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.’”

Indicative to whom? I can’t help but wonder what the media reaction would have been had a white councilman used a racial slur. Having said that, I confess I am ambivalent about the definition of the verb “Jew.”

Most current dictionaries put a warning label on the usage:

verb [with object] (jew someone down) offensive bargain with someone in a miserly or petty way” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

The eminent lexicographer Robert Burchfield was editor-in-chief of the Oxford English Dictionary Supplement in the 1970s. He tended to be more descriptive than prescriptive. As Bryan Garner explained (Garner’s Modern English Usage), prescriptivists “issue judgments about linguistic choices,” while descriptivists “mostly disclaim making judgments about linguistic choices.” While Garner wears a prescriptivist badge, he respected Burchfield as a scholar and a friend.

Burchfield took a similar approach to “offensive” language. He viewed it as a dereliction of his duty as a historian of English to ignore words that are inappropriate for polite conversation or formal writing.

In Unlocking the English Language, Burchfield wrote, “The necessity of recording the unpleasantnesses of one’s own age has its own penalties.” Following a lawsuit “challenging [the] right to include unfavourable senses of the word Jew in Oxford dictionaries … I learned that there are sections of the community that would like to sweep the bigotries of some of its fellow citizens under the carpet. And it still chills me to think that at one point … I became perhaps the first lexicographer in history to receive an anonymous death threat.”

Burchfield called the defamatory uses of Jew “deplorable. … But since they appear in print, they must be recorded.” For a scholarly historical dictionary of the scope of OED, I can see his point.

David B. Guralnik, editor-in-chief of Webster’s New World Dictionaries, chose to cut “jew down” and other racial slurs and obscenities from the second college edition of the dictionary. He was right.

How can they both be right?

You’re right, too.

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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