Word Of The Day: Ghetto

Alright kind readers of St. Louis, I'm continuing my spiel on words.  Words that are misunderstood or words that are unjustifiably viewed as inflammatory or unecessarily provocative or words that no longer represent what they were originally intended to.  Our words and how we use them.

These words will of course have an urban connection or at least a St. Louis connection, as this is

St. Louis

City Talk...right?  I took a stab at understanding the history and current context of the word


back in June, 2012.  And now I will explore the word ghetto...a word I hear almost daily when talking to people about STL issues.  This word is commonly used and excepted universally...yet to some it's inflammatory.  Those who would rather bury their heads in the sand on issues of race would rather not talk about this stuff and I've been criticized for using the word in blog posts.  I was taken aback by the inflammatory nature of this word to a small elitist minority who don't like this word, and truly don't understand why this word would be taboo in any circle when it's so darn descriptive and used by nearly everyone regardless of race or class.  While I try to be responsible in my writing and thoughtful of the words I choose, I loathe censorship and the demonization of some very useful modern English words.  Ghetto is one of these words.

Certainly, language evolves to meet the needs of the present day.  As an example, think of what images the word gangster brings up.  The gangster of 1920 is nothing like the present day gangster.  Google it if you don't believe me.  1920's:

Now think of what gangster means to the general population since right around the time when NWA broke in the 1980's and still exists today and is self proliferated by black people across the country, who re-coined the term as the more modern 'gangsta':

The word carries the same definition, but the times define the image or the description as a very different one based on the needs of the current times.  It's still a great word that should never be taboo.  It evolved quite well to meet the society of the day. 

Furthermore, think of other recently validated words such as "ginormous" which was recently added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.  Enormous or gigantic just wasn't big enough, eh?  Ginormous burrito...it just rolls off the 21st century tongue so well.  Popular culture and technology usually drive new words into the language. 

Doh and phat were recently added

to the Oxford English Dictionary, which is widely considered the leading authority on the English language.  You may not like these words, but they are not taboo either...they should not be censored or forbidden.

But back to ghetto.  Some think this word should not be used in it's modern context.  Some in the politically correct set in STL think it's racially charged and should never be uttered by a white person.  I'm of the opinion after living in St. Louis for 18 years that not talking about issues of race and ignoring our problems are the worst thing you can do.  Get over yourselves St. Louisans...the city is split nearly 50:50 between white and black people.  We are equal in numbers so quit being so damn offended and thin skinned.  We are what we are and we need to talk about it and get along under honest terms.

Now let's take a quick run through the history of the word ghetto.

According to

Meriam-Webster, it's an Italian word whose first known use was back in 1611.  It's from Venetian dialect ghèto island where Jews were forced to live, literally, foundry (located on the island).  Other sources will tell you ghetto was originally used in Venice derived from the word Borghetto, meaning Little Borgo, a cluster of homes and buildings often outside Italian city walls, to describe the area where Jews, tradespeople or agricultural workers were compelled to live. In rural Italy, Borghetto is not necessarily a pejorative term.

So although the Italians are known for the origin, it is steeped in Jewish history and connotation.

And here's the



1: a quarter of a city in which Jews were formerly required to live

2: a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure

3a : an isolated group

b : a situation that resembles a ghetto especially in conferring inferior status or limiting opportunity

So there you have it.  It's a word dating back to 1611 coined by the Italians with a strong connection to forced isolation/persecution of Jews.

But let's break down the 3 definitions cited.  The primary definition is the historical one, the secondary definition is the more current one and the third one is getting much closer to the modern day use of the word.

I think many in St. Louis know how the word is used today in the context of our fair city.  It's got nothing to do with people of the Jewish faith...nothing.   If someone asks you if you shop at the ghetto Schnucks, you know they don't mean the one with the killer latkes and matzo ball soup.

Ghetto isn't really used to describe an ethnic enclave either.  Few probably refer to 

the Hill

as a ghetto (Italian-American heritage).  Nor, 

Bevo Mill

as a ghetto (Bosnian/Croat/Roma immigrants).  Nobody thinks of the 3 neighborhoods of Dogtown as a ghetto (Irish-American heritage).  Few probably refer to

North Pointe

as a ghetto (more owner- occupied, middle class African-American neighborhood).

The modern use of the word ghetto is no longer really referring to a physical settlement or enclave or even a place at all; it might not even be a noun, rather more of an adjective to describe a run down, crime ridden, violent, low-dignity, hopeless kind of place.

Ghetto is not a bad word, at least I don't think it is.  It's a fact that today ghetto describes a particular behavior/mindset and scenario.  I've heard all races use it casually.  Google it and click on images.  You'll see both the historical and modern context illustrated for you quite clearly if you don't know what I mean.

It's an extremely descriptive word.  "Do you shop at the ghetto Schnucks or the one on the Hill?"  "Are the state streets ghetto by you?"  "I heard that alley is pretty ghetto." "Is your part of the block ghetto?"  "Yadi's tats are so ghetto".  This is how I've heard the word used in St. Louis.

Ghetto also desribes a behavior and a look more than anything.  Trust me, those described as ghetto go to great lengths to let you know they are ghetto.  Black people own this style and mindset...yet some white people emulated it for sure.  From the hair cut to the language to the volume of speak to the dress...it's a honed look that one tries very hard to achieve...being ghetto is not an accident these days, its a learned behavior. It's a look, a style, a lifestyle...not unlike 'hipsters' which I will tackle in a future post.  It's like a hoosier, only another set of people...it's proud ownership of a low-brow lifestyle and vibe.

Will this word continue to evolve?  Will it become a bad word that white parents don't allow their children to say for fear of them being accused as a racist?  Will it be something people say under their breath and pause before saying in mixed company?  Or, will it be a word that is completely shameless and free to use without offense or inflamation of the politically correct set...a word that hones in on a particular situation without confusion or ambiguity?  Where are we headed with this word?

In St. Louis we have no shortage of ghetto behavior and scenes in our neighborhoods.  One could venture to say it's our biggest problem at displacing and frustrating non-ghetto people.  This ghetto image and prevalence in many places of St. Louis displaces many people whether they admit it or not.  Ghetto carries a price.

Look no further than the tony areas such as the East and suburban West Loop, Central West End or Washington Avenue to see how a ghetto element can change things from fun to violent pretty quickly.  This ghetto behavior carries a tremendous additional overhead that businesses and residents have to deal with.  These areas are spending big dollars and resources to install cameras and extra security and police tactics to try and deal with ghetto behavior (or as the current mayoral office says: "knuckleheads" cause they are scared of the word's racial undertones).

Ghetto is a mindset, and it's prevalent in St. Louis.  It's overwhelming in some areas.  It's startling and scary at times.  The worst thing is the utter ignorance and self destructiveness that is passed down very openly to the next generation as ghetto "parents" beget ghetto kids in a self-perpetuating cycle that seems to only get worse in St. Louis.  I think choosing ghetto behavior is simply defined as willful ignorance.

I'm not alone in my fears of ignorance:

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." Martin Luther King, Jr.