Not So Genteel Anymore
In his iconic “I have a dream” speech on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that he dreamt of a day “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last.’” Ironically, two of the words King used in his historic call for racial and religious harmony—“Gentiles” and “Negro”—are now generally considered to be insensitive or even offensive terms and have largely fallen out of popular usage.
King used “gentiles” when the term was in its heyday as a politically neutral way to describe Christians in interfaith dialogues. Gentile is itself a gentile word. It came into the English language by way of the 4th-century Vulgate, the Roman Catholic Church’s authorized Latin translation of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. In the Vulgate, St. Jerome translated the biblical word goi—used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to tribes—and the Greek word ethne into the Latin term gentilis, which means “nations” or “people.” When the Vulgate was translated into English in the 17th-century King James Bible, the first Church-sanctioned English translation of the biblical texts, gentilis was anglicized into gentiles, as in I Corinthians 10:32: “Give none offence, neither to the Israelites, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the Church of God.”
For the next two centuries, “gentile” mainly referred to those who were not of an Abrahamic monotheistic religion—that is, someone who was not a Jew, a Muslim or a Christian. Seventeenth-century English philosopher Francis Bacon, for instance, wrote of gentiles being “infidels” and “heathens.” This began to change after the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent century of religious wars in Europe caused the Christian Church in the West to splinter into innumerable denominations. With widespread disagreement about who should be called a Christian, a neutral umbrella term was needed.“Gentile” filled this void.
From this period until the early 20th century, “gentile” was most often used by Christians, usually in the context of missionizing activities or when writing about Old Testament texts. Jews of this time typically wrote or spoke about non-Jews only to other Jews, and since they were usually speaking Yiddish, they used the word “goy”(from goi) to refer to Christians. “Goy” took on a pejorative connotation during this period, explains Calvin Goldscheider, Brown University professor emeritus of Judaic studies. “Jews were under the thumb of the Christian state,” he says. “They were over-taxed and excluded from many key activities and professions, so as a defense mechanism, they took up derogatory language in which the ‘goy’ became the intensely disliked and often derided Christian Other.”
When Jews and Christians began to live in closer proximity in 20th-century America, meaningful interfaith dialogue became a necessity. “Jews wanted to be able to speak to Christians as their equals; they needed words like ‘gentile’ because ‘goy’ and other older terms had such negative associations,” says historian Lauren Strauss, director of the Foundation for Jewish Studies in Rockville, Maryland. Jews continued to use “goy” when speaking among themselves, but “gentile” became the word of choice in public discourse.
Today, however, using “gentile is no longer genteel,” says Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council. Twenty-first-century American Jews are more integrated into mainstream society than at any other time in history, so when a Jew refers to those outside his community, says Rockoff, “he is talking about his close friends and colleagues or, with the growth of intermarriage, even about his own family.”
Sander Gilman, professor of psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta, says that the negative emotions surrounding the word gentile reflect how we use language in an era of identity politics. “Words which once seemed appropriate to describe collectives take on negative meanings and quickly become undermined,” he says. “Gentile initially was less loaded than goy, but as it was used, it rapidly took on baggage. This was unavoidable because of our discomfort with creating categories to label people.” He compares the transition from goy to gentile to non-Jew to that of the movement from Negro to black to African American and back to black over the last 50 years. Gilman concludes, “None of these words are objectively problematic, but when we try to use simple single words to represent complex identities, problems inevitably arise.”
Ed Case, director and founder of the group InterfaithFamily demonstrates Gilman’s point when he asserts that even the term non-Jew, once seen as an innocuous replacement for gentile, is now seen as hurtful and off-putting. He recalls having recently been at an interfaith conference at which a Jewish convert objected to the term non-Jew, saying, “Would you ever call yourself a non-Christian? Or a non-Muslim? Or a non-anything?” “People,” he says, “want to be recognized and respected for what they are, not what they are not.” Rockoff adds, “No one would ever come up to someone at a party and say, ‘Hi, I’m a gentile.’”
There are, however, still pockets of the United States where “gentile” survives. Historically, Mormons adopted “gentile” to refer to all non-Mormons, including Jews. Colloquially, the term is still used. By Common Cause, a popular Mormon newspaper, annually gives a “Gentile of the Year” award to non-Mormons who have had the greatest impact on the Mormon community. Past nominees include Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee, Protestant Barack Obama, and Jewish comedian Jon Stewart.