The Use And Misuse Of The Y-Word

It’s Arsenal against Spurs this weekend, and there will be some in the crowd on Saturday who are happy to chant what most polite people refer to these days as ‘the Y-word’. Perhaps slightly oddly, there may be as many of them in the Spurs section as the Arsenal parts of the ground.

Before I go on, if you’re the sort of person who thinks it’s clever to use ‘Yid’ as an insult, don’t bother reading any further. Please. Also if you will be offended by discussion of that and similar words in an adult way, also don’t bother carrying on. I don’t think anyone at those opposite ends of the spectrum will add much to the debate.

Back to the point. Spurs fans call themselves the ‘Yid army’; some fans of other clubs call Spurs fans ‘Yids’ in a derogatory way; some quite high profile people want to stamp out both of these, in the same manner that similar terms for other races are now not socially acceptable. Sunday Mirror football writer Anthony Clavane (who is Jewish and a Leeds fan, he tells us) wrote the piece below on this subject for The Times last weekend, and a very similar piece by the same author was posted on the Daily Mirror’s website.

The Society of Black Lawyers have waded in, to the discomfort of some, to attack the Spurs fans for using the word. The SBL has set a ‘deadline’ of 20 November, after which they say they will report Tottenham fans to the police if they continue to use the word, even if only about themselves. Clavane’s point is that while it would be nice to get rid of the word ‘Yid’ from football, should we be starting with the Spurs fans? Aren’t the fans of other clubs who make hissing noises to represent gas chambers and similar disgusting antics the people the Society of Black Lawyers should be going after first? I tend to agree, but there is a bit of a Catch-22 here: leaving aside hissing for a minute, which is just sick, other fans could say, ‘Why should we stop calling them Yids when they call themselves it?’, while the Spurs fans might say, ‘We’re not being racist, it’s a tribal football thing and we have claimed the word in the same way that black people have claimed the word ‘nigger’’. And I think the Spurs fans have a point: by using the word themselves they deflect the insult. Whether Jewish people – particularly those who are not Tottenham supporters – are prepared to accept that distinction is another matter.

Anthony Clavane wants to raise awareness of the origin of the word Yid, and says he’ll start with its etymology – but then doesn’t! Until I looked it up, I was unaware of it myself – though I was aware there is a language called Yiddish, spoken by Jews.

Yiddish is a Germanic language spoken for around 1,000 years by Jews in central Europe, and more recently spread elsewhere. Apparently it “developed as a fusion of Hebrew and Aramaic into German dialects with the infusion of Slavic and traces of Romance languages”. The word Yid itself is from the German ‘Jude’, meaning Jew. So Yid literally means Jew, and is therefore very similar to ‘nigger’ and ‘Paki’ in that it derives from a descriptive word (negro, Pakistani) but was then used to denigrate people and was turned into a racist insult by the implication that the person saying it is better than the person it’s said to (or about). As it happens, some people are nicer than others, but that’s nothing to do with race, religion or colour.

What Clavane does say is that ‘Yid’ came into prominent use as an insult in London in the 1930s, when there was anti-Jewish feeling and British fascists marched in protest at conditions for the poor of the East End, reflecting to a lesser extent what was going on in Germany at the same time. The word entered British popular culture, if that’s the right term, in the 1960s sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, starring Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett, a racist West Ham fan railing about ‘those Spurs Yids’. Amazing as it seems now, this and similar descriptions were perfectly acceptable on British television into the 1970s. Standards are different now. Ironically, Warren Mitchell himself was in real life a Spurs-supporting Jew, which suggests that this sort of insult was just not taken as seriously in those days by at least some of those on the receiving end as well as those using the terms. That is not to say I have ever supported their use if people on the receiving end find them offensive, and as a white person in a predominantly white country I accept that it’s easy for me to talk about the subject without being on the receiving end. Equally, my own situation doesn’t make me wrong about any of this.

So what should be done? Unfortunately it’s difficult to eradicate the use of a word at the best of times, but particularly when two opposing factions won’t stop until the other side does. You can’t change someone’s views just by criminalising their activities, as John Terry has recently proved.

David Baddiel – a Jewish Chelsea fan – has also spoken out about Spurs fans using the Y-word, as he believes it encourages others to carry on using it too. I have nothing against David Baddiel (and I think his series with Rob Newman is one of the great forgotten series of comedy), but I think he’s grabbed the wrong end of the stick with this one. Surely as a Chelsea fan he should be looking at his fellows first? Their behaviour is far worse. Non-Spurs fans can claim they are only using the word to insult Spurs fans, but that ignores the insult to all Jews. Still, if shouting ‘Yids!’ was the worst thing Chelsea fans ever did I suppose we’d actually be making progress.

Is Spurs fans using the word to describe themselves the same as black rappers or comedians using the N-word? Not exactly, because Spurs fans are using a word that doesn’t only insult people like them, but also people who have nothing to do with football, never mind their club. I know that many Jewish Arsenal fans feel insulted hearing Yid being used in a derogatory way by their fellow supporters. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for making fun of Spurs fans – they have chosen that path in life and must accept the consequences of having a much better club as a neighbour – but I’ll do it in a non-racial way. Having said all that, I do think Spurs fans’ use of the Y-word is understandable as a defence mechanism, though I also think their club should do more to discourage it.

But as Anthony Clavane says, the real evil is from anti-Semites who are attacking and taunting Jews, whether they be Tottenham fans, players or anyone else. Shouting ‘Yids’ mindlessly at all Spurs fans might be a bit stupid and against what most people see as common decency in 2012, but it’s not evil if you are aiming it at them simply because they are Spurs fans and that is what they call themselves – not in the way that making gas chamber noises is, or other specifically anti-Semitic behaviour. Even if that behaviour can’t be legislated away, you would hope that clubs would make serious efforts to clamp down on it. It’s not impossible to identify culprits these days. Ultimately, though, it’s a problem for society and it won’t stop being a problem until racism stops. Personally I’d be delighted if Arsenal fans on Saturday confined their insults to football subjects.

Follow me on twitter: @AngryOfN5

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One thought on “The Use And Misuse Of The Y-Word

  1. When it comes to race or religion (though less so when it comes to class), England is probably the most tolerant country on the planet – if not THE most, then certainly ONE of the most. Which doesn’t mean that we have no racists here and amongst all ethnicities, colours and religions. In the days of ‘Till Death… comedy series’, some football grounds were indeed hotbeds of racism and of course Warren MItchell’s character – ‘a working class Tory’, with all kinds of prejudices – was played for laughs. But social conditions – empty bellies, if you like – fuel intolerance, racism, envy – witness Greece, right now. So my view is that here and now, football political correctness might be going a little too far – whether it be over-reaction to perceived racist name-calling in the heat of the game (‘sticks and stones’) or whether it be Spurs adoption of ‘Yid Army’.

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