One of the infamous uses of the word “hymie” dates back to Reverend Jesse Jackson's run for the White House. In a January 1984 interview with Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman, Jackson referred to Jewish people as “Hymies” and New York City as “Hymietown.” A firestorm soon erupted around Jackson prompting him to apologize in an emotional speech at a New Hampshire synagogue the following month.
What is most ironic about the emotional response to the use of the word Hymie is its origin. According to experts, Hymie actually comes from a historically common name used by persons of Jewish descent.
“Hyman means man from the homeland … so I’m guessing Hymie amongst Jewish people means someone is your blood, your brother and so forth,” says Dennis Preston, professor of linguistics and languages at Michigan State University. “But it is very common to see names that are typical of an ethnicity get taken and used in insulting ways by outsiders.”
Jewess is another term that raises eyebrows when used in reference to Jewish women.
“It was an attempt to create a term of dignity. However, because of it exclusionary quality and peculiar formality, it became seen as a word that had an intonation of discrimination. It is associated with other sorts of stereotypes like the ‘proud Jewess,’” says Laurie Zoloth, professor of Medical Ethics and Religion at Northwestern University. “It’s that distinctive mark that’s not meant to be derogatory, but has a valence of difference or oddity; as if this is a woman that’s different in some way. It is in the same vein as using the term Negress as opposed to simply saying woman. Ironically, there is no corresponding term for a Caucasian woman.”
The word Jewess is meant to differentiate between women, implying superiority of one group over the other. Linguists say the term is offensive to all women because of its undertones.
“Jewess has a bad connotation for feminists because they don’t like words with ‘ess’ at the end. They don’t like actress, they don’t like stewardess, and, of course, they do not like Jewess either,” Preston says. “So it’s double whammy; it insults Jews and women. It may also be that since people knew what a Jewish princess was, the term got a bad taste from that association because it has Jew in the first part of the expression and the feminine ‘ess’, which could be seen as coming from the word princess.”
Although words like Hymie and Jewess, heard much less today, than in the past, experts say it is important to understand the level of impact of words that strike similar chords.
“I think in society there is less of a willingness to tolerate out-and-out racism and anti-Semitism,” says Ken Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It takes on more subtle forms, which people think is more acceptable, but deep down it is really not. I think there is an element of progress we have made in this country, and I would say you would see less use of these words overall, at least in public. It shows itself when people use words they think are more acceptable, but in reality, can be just as harmful.”