Friday, December 28, 2012

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that are misunderstood or words that are unjustifiably viewed as inflammatory or unecessarily provocative or words that no longer represent what they were originally intended to.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 Hoosier 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 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 Merriam-Webster definition:

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'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'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.


  1. There were men that held a different cross; and walked the streets not in vice.

  2. I think the controversy surrounding the word ghetto is because of how differently it can be defined.

    Some people use it to mean a low-income, crime filled and often minority area, and the behavior associated with that - broke, poor grammar, "cheap" appearance, bad manners, etc.

    Other people use it as a synonym for black.

    The former can be objective, when describing a place, and when describing a behavior it can be applied to any race. The latter just seems to be a racial pejorative. It's that inconsistency that keeps many people away from using the word.


  4. I urge you to reconsider your interpretation of "ghetto" behavior as well as your conclusion that it is acceptable to use this word in the contexts described.

    The modern usage of "ghetto" takes a word that previously described a marginalized community "isolated" because of "social, legal or economic pressure" and turns it around to blame members of that community for their circumstances. You highlight the insidious nature of this shift by describing "ghetto behavior" as a choice characterized by willful ignorance.

    The way you describe it, "ghetto behavior" is something predominantly carried out by members of marginalized communities. Do you believe this to be coincidence? Are marginalized people expected to act like empowered people, even though they don't share anything else in common? You say that "ghetto behavior" is one of St. Louis' biggest challenges. I disagree and would instead argue that ghettos are the problem, and these are the result of historical and present-day policies that isolate individuals and communities. Let's focus on addressing these disparities rather than perpetuating attitudes that deny people opportunities.

    Additionally, I don't think you correctly defined the modern usage of ghetto, and the definition you provided is quite offensive to me. "An adjective to describe a run down, crime ridden, violent, low-dignity, hopeless kind of place" might be "tragic," "heartbreaking," or "something that makes me upset with our country's legacies of oppression." Not "ghetto." On the other hand, the way "ghetto" is used nowadays could probably be defined as:

    Ghetto (adj): characteristic of lower class black people

    I have a feeling the reason people say "ghetto" instead of "characteristic of lower class black people" is because they can write the kind of elaborate explanation you've provided to justify saying the former, but never the latter.

  5. I use to live on Henner ave. I was born in '59 and it was so nice there then but by 1972 it got SO bad we had to move.How sad to see such a wonderful place turn to such a violent ghetto! I wish it could come back to what it was.

  6. ^^anonymous January 14, 11:36 pm, thanks for responding. I admire the fact that you spoke up. Usually posts that touch on race/class elicit very little response, so thanks for the challenge. Yet, if this post offends you I'm sorry that you are so easily offended. This is simply talking about a modern word that has already left the station. We can't stop how people use it and whether you and I like it or not, the word ghetto is now as much an adjective as a noun. As for my post, you missed or I failed to clarify one key point. I don't think choosing the ghetto look/lifestyle/behavior/stereotype has anything to do with income level. It has to do with dignity or lack thereof. I live on a block that is nearly 50:50 white/black with one hispanic family. Income levels run the gamut, one of my neighbors is the first black woman to own a house in the entire neighborhood. The vast majority of poor people I come across white or black want the best for their kids, have dignity and are good to great neighbors. There are some who are not and they cause problems for us all by having to make constant calls to the cops for fighting, screaming, binge drinking, selling dope and stealing cars. What do you call video taping your friends in the middle of the street booty shaking? All people on the block, black, white, middle class, poor call the cops on this annoying crap. What adjectives would you use to describe this type of behavior? If not ghetto than what?

  7. I agree with your post Mark. I think your equating it with Hoosier is apt. I use ghetto very interchangeably with Hoosier at times in a deliberate "affectionate" criticism of dumb urban behavior. but there is a reference to black influenced culture with ghetto just as Hoosier implies a connection to white trash. big deal. I especially agree with your desire to decriminalize words that are uniquely expressive. Yes, ghetto is used in many ways. but it is clear from the context what is meant

  8. Wow, I went on this "nice little blog" to see positive light shined on STL. But, after reading this blog, I see the divisiveness of STL has spilled over into this blog post. "Black people own the ghetto style and mind-set" WOW, are you for real??? Your level of ignorance that you displayed on this blog leaves me with one thing to say.... YOU ARE VERY GHETTO!

  9. "Ghettos are the problem, and these are the result of historical and present-day policies that isolate individuals and communities. Let's focus on addressing these disparities rather than perpetuating attitudes that deny people opportunities."
    I agree with this statement but I also believe that Mark's point is to investigate the “perceived” definition of the word. I don’t think the post was meant to foster division.
    If you read his post on what he and others are doing to re-vitalize Fox Park you would see that he is trying to address disparities. The improvement of a neighborhood park that was neglected and frequented by rude teenagers and adults who used the park as their party hangout is probably one of the most important steps that people can take to address disparities.
    In the post he shares how some neighborhood thugs, miscreants, delinquents or whatever term you want to give to them, tore out all of the trees that Mark and his neighbors planted in the park. He provides many more examples of anti-social behavior. There is no way to address disparity until the most mundane and ground level activism is realized. Is there a more direct way to empower persons within a community?
    I don’t think anybody would have called the Fox Park neighborhood a ghetto but it surely has its share of marginalized individuals and families if we define the term “marginalized” as people who are in a powerless social and economic position within the society.
    However, all marginalized individuals cannot be categorized as one group either. The powerless in the larger social and economic spheres are also powerless at the extreme local level because they are terrorized by the miscreants who make it unsafe to bring their kids or granny to the park. So here we have a group within the marginalized community who hold power over others in the same community.
    All marginalized individuals don’t destroy property, get drunk on the swing set, and smoke joints on picnic tables, but some do. This minority of marginalized people and their self-proclaimed ownership of the park and intimidation of park users, serves to marginalize people even more.
    That said I totally understand the way language can contribute to the marginalization of people and the definition provided by anonymous is the way both blacks and whites understand the term. The term has negative connotations and used as an insult by both blacks and whites, yet it is often embraced by some blacks. The embracing of the “n” word, for example, allows the user to “own” the word thus minimizing the harmful negative connotations of the word. This is a form of empowerment.
    There are many layers to the meaning of words and one must be careful when examining these layers because they generally have negative connotations. We must also be careful of generalizations because part of what contributes to a lack of understanding is the lack of an agreed on definition of our perceptions.