My first choice, when I rag on religion, is Judaism, just because I know it first-hand.  Of course, there's always more to learn.  Through my current wife, I became aware of what goes on in Jewish enclaves/ghettos (depends on who's herding Jews together, Jews or gentiles) -- the threats, the ostracism, the mind control, the obsession with ritual (these people REALLY observe all the Sabbath and milk/meat separation rules, and it is a major pain in the ass). 

I also became aware of sectarian rivalry -- no, make that contempt -- between the two major Jewish gene pools, the Ashkenazic (Eastern Europe/Poland) and the Sephardic (Spain/Muslim world).   My wife's family includes rabbis from both.  The Sephardic one thinks the Ashkenazic a bunch of dolts who can't read or understand Scripture and commentary properly.  I would assume the disdain is mutual.  At least they don't blow themselves up.

One Sephardic Jew argued with my wife on Facebook that "Sephardic" does not refer to a "sect" (yes, it does; check the dictionary)...but to a philosophy and a method of reading the holy texts.  Oy gevalt, gimme a break.  Religious people have to be SO special!

Needless to say, none of these folks would consider my family, with their four-day-a-year observance and opulent bar/bat mitzvahs, to be real Jews.  The same for everybody to the left of conservative -- Reform Jews, humanists, Reconstructionists, etc.  You don't count.  But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter.  If you say you're Jewish, that's enough.

Superstitious remnant

One bit of Jewishness that seems ubiquitous (I have to believe that the Orthodox, with all their superstition, use it) is what called "the three most important Jewish words."  I couldn't wait to see what they were; Judaism is full of Very Important Words.  Would they be God, Torah, mitzvah (a good deed?).

No. The three most important words were kein ayin hara, pronounced colloquially "kenna hurra."  It is to be uttered right after reporting or remarking on anything positive, e.g., "Your kids are getting so big, kenna hurra."

It's purpose is to ward off the Evil Eye, hard to pin down, but apparently a traditional malevolent force that seeks out good and gleefully balances it with misfortune.

Our language is the product of our history, so it's no surprise that there's so much God-talk.  Each atheist has to adapt his/her own strategy, and this has been a fruitful topic at A/N. Along with other substitutions, I advise not shouting God's name at the moment of orgasm, but rather the name of the person who is giving you said orgasm.

Atheists also have to deal with the remnants of superstitious ignorance that still occur in the language.  It's amazing (to me) that so many liberal Jews use "kenna hurra."  I've even had doctors usher me out of their offices with it.

On the jewniverse site, one article proclaims, with some pride, that the writer and her husband are getting more superstitious, using the phrase more and more (along with the old-country pu-pu-pu spitting gesture).  Yeah, well, the older you get, the more uncertain life looks.  But that's no reason to fall back on religion.  Sorry, but I find it the path of weak people. 

Intent of "kenna hurra"

I can understand the desire that another's circumstances go well (or continue to go well).  I can understand our powerlessness in the face of chance, and I can understand the need to acknowledge it.   And maybe uttering "kenna hurra" says to the listener, "Hey, I'm just as aware as you of the fragility of life." 

But I'm all for dropping the superstition.  I'll try to come up with alternatives, but for now, I replace the "kenna horra" with an expression of approval ("Your kids are getting so big - that's terrific!").

Of course, I have geography working for me.  Here in New Hampshire, nobody says "kenna hurra" to me (so I don't have to be a wiseass and say, "The Evil Eye??? Where???").   And nobody knows what it means. 


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Comment by Frankie Dapper on November 7, 2013 at 1:29pm

What's in a word?

Shit, fuck, piss, snots, 21 assholes tied in a knot.

Expletives are often the go-to expressions of anger, not because the speaker is incapable of more measured and thoughtful utterances, but because in anger nothing soothes like an expletive. 

Body parts, functions and sexual thoughts embodied in swears are taboo among some for religious reasons, and for the same reason are liberally used among others. There is nothing intrinsically bad about swears.

Racial slurs, on the contrary, are intrinsically bad and meant to disparage at best and degrade, vilify and dehumanize at worst. (Admittedly in context racial slurs can be neutral.) 

Comment by Alan Perlman on November 7, 2013 at 11:07am

Thoughtful comments, all.  Thanks for contributing.  I do agree that ethnic slurs are a special class of expressions with a lot of hatred, contempt, and implications of superiority (this is probably the most provocative part, for those on the receiving end). 

Of the many ways in which speakers divide themselves via langauge -- social dialects, local dialects, regional dialects, in-group speech, etc., etc. -- some of the sharpest distinctions are around the use of bodily-function words, from total prohibition at one end (sounds like this is where you are, Joan) to special contexts (if I break something, make a wrong turn, commit any of a dozen errors, "Fuck!" is my preferred expletive), to casual conversation-marker (this one has a wide range of uses, including infixes, e.g., "un-fucklng-believable!").  Individual usage depends on many social, cultural, and religious factors.

Comment by Joan Denoo on November 6, 2013 at 9:11pm
Glen, words alluding to bodily functions exist in a different domain than slurs which are "invidious and loaded"!
Poorly educated individuals use bodily functions, i.e. "I laughed my ass/butt off!" or "Fuck you!" or "Shit!" because they have no language to express themselves with more clarity. What do these phrases mean, truthfully? Can you define the thoughts or feelings they express?
As to racial slurs, they have no place in a civilized society. Hate-mongering implies notions of supremacy, often by those who have little intelligence or have juvenile expressions using language. To reveal ignorance and supremacy by one's choice of words does not reflect on those who hear the words, but on the words from whom they spring.
Yes, I can already hear rebuke from those who disagree with me. I have heard it all before, and I will say again, words have power. Stalemate.
Comment by Alan Perlman on November 6, 2013 at 4:29pm

Judgements ABOUT words are part and parcel of the word's existence.  Linguists oversimplify if they think abouty words only in terms of sound and meaning and ignore social protocols.  So no, they're not just words to most people, and this fact is of great interest to the linguist.

As to word origins, this is the kind of question that an hour (or less) of Internet research would reveal. Explanations abound. The real origins of many slurs and much slang (from "thieves' language") is lost in the mists of preliteracy.  I don't believe most etymologies - implausible; seen too many counter-examples.

My guess is that one variant of "Negro" became the all purpose pejorative.  Lenny Bruce once said that Lyndon Johnson would create unbearabale suspense when he said "nig-" -- because would he finish with "-ger" or "-gra"?  Bruce then instructed the Prez. that the correct pronunciations was KNEE-GROW. 

Never heard "boy niggles," but the amount of racism once tolerated in this country, from lynching to "nigger"-branded products, was incredible by today's standards.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on November 6, 2013 at 4:09pm

Just words, the linguist assures us...

I heard schvartzes among jews but agree that there was not the same condescension and privileged class looking down at the riff raff or proudly maintaining the vilification of the non-whites.

Sometimes race track announcers use the expression that a jockey, formerly known as the boy, niggles to his mount for more effort. Never liked that shit one bit.

Any idea, Allen, the origin of nigger and kike?

Comment by Alan Perlman on November 6, 2013 at 3:27pm

Taboo words acquire their magical power from different sources - in this case, fear of sex and of The Other.  As always, responses are learned and culturally transmitted.  There's a journal -- Maledicta, I think -- devoted to the study of these words.  The scholars are, of course, not offended.

"Nigger" has been called "radioactive": whites, don't go near it.  Very powerful rules governing its use. My parents called them "schvartzes," pronounced "shvahtsas."  Ironic, since my mom's maiden name was Schwartz ( = 'swarthy, dark').  The term, again by convention, held only mild condescension, not the venom of "nigger."

Comment by Frankie Dapper on November 6, 2013 at 5:23am

But isn't it true Joan that those words are describing or alluding to bodily functions whereas slurs are invidious and loaded?

Comment by Joan Denoo on November 6, 2013 at 12:23am
I don't like the seven words of Carlin fame, or other references to bodily parts or fluids. I had to hold my Victorian-nose while reading "Down these mean streets" by Piri Thomas, and hold my tea cup with a pinky in the air in faux feminine protest, even as I learned so much from his method of expressing is pain and anger of being born Black.
One of my boys at the boy's ranch was a raging Black who couldn't open his mouth without a foul expletive exploding over his tongue and through his lips. I asked him if would write about his experiences. They were filthy-brilliant! I took him and his writing to an English professor I had in college and he, too, was blown away with the power and insight this kid had. He didn't have the vocabulary to express himself in any way but his own. He would have been an outstanding writer and successful ... after he left the ranch he was shot and killed when he robbed a grocery store. I still grieve his loss.
Comment by Frankie Dapper on November 5, 2013 at 6:06pm

Hey, nothing magical in and of themselves..

I would not necessarily characterize slurs as taboo.In some settings those words are a badge of honor and indicia of membership in the club. And the very utterance is enough for the observer to know of where the speaker is coming. 

Comment by Alan Perlman on November 5, 2013 at 4:18pm

Ethnic slurs definitely belong in this discussion.  Introspection reveals that fight-or-flight memes have been installed in association with these words. But I have rooted out the meme.  They are, to me, and as Lenny Bruice and George Carlin (and many others) have pointed out, just words.  Taboo and coimplex, but just words.



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