Ghetto Etymology

Dr. John Peter Maher, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, recently shared with me his research into the origins, or etymology, of the term “ghetto.” Since I’ve been sharing information about Venice’s Ghetto here, I thought it’d be pertinent to also post this information, which I never came across in my previous research. Maher sheds new light on the origins of the term, which I had always thought came from the reference to the iron foundries of Venice. It is with Dr. Maher’s permission that I share these excerpts:


“The Venice Ghetto quarter was hardly the first compulsory ethnic abode. Such quarters are well nigh universal in urban ecology. Idris II [791-828], son-in-law of Mohammed, built a wall by his palace to protect Jewish merchants from murder at the hands of mujahedin.”

“In 1904 Emilio Teza debunked the connection of the word ghetto with the foundry on Ghetto Vecchio (Old G). ‘It is not possible to connect the word ghet(t)o with getto … The place was long so known when workers came there who smelted and cast metals.'”

“The etymological question is one of Italian linguistics. A new resource in toponomastics dating from 1967 in America is the Zone Improvement Program, or ZIP code. Which was initiated soon after in Britain as Post Code. In Italy the system is called CAP Codice Avviamento Postale ‘postal delivery code’. This permits an easy search for localities by name. For example, within a radius of 5 miles from Rimini CAP 47900, there are the neighborhoods called Ghetto Casale, Ghetto Masere, Ghetto Mavos, Ghetto Petini, Ghetto Piccinelli, Ghetto Randuzzi, Ghetto Tamagnino, Ghetto Tombanuova. Then there’s two stops by train from Venice 31021 Ghetto di Mogliano Veneto TV (Treviso).”

“Ghetto is simply a clipping of borghetto, little settlement, street. Pope Paul IV wrote in Latin; the ecclesiastical Latin word ‘vicus’ is the translation of ghetto. — In calling their quarter, or street (in Venice perforce an island, Jews of Venice held to the principle sketched by Max Weinreich 2008:177:. ‘Up to the Emancipation the Jews of central and eastern European Jews knew absolutely nothing of the Italian word ghetto, either in its derogatory or factual sense. The accepted name was the Jewish Street (in western Yiddish the Jews’ street) and thus to this day the Yiddish expression on the Jews’ street means ‘among Jews’…”

Encyclopædia Britannica 1911: ‘…the word is an abbreviation of Italian borghetto diminutive of borgo a borough.’ In other words, Venice’s ghetto was simply a term for a little, slummy ‘street.'”


About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
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7 Responses to Ghetto Etymology

  1. Thanks for that!
    Absolutely makes sense now. 🙂

    • Yes, I had never heard this information, even after doing much research myself. I’m grateful to Dr. Maher for sharing his work.

      • I also wanted to mention that I really enjoyed your four minute series on YouTube. It was great to learn about Casanova, and was certainly a talking point for me and my husband while we were over in Venice and the islands just last week. I’ve been to Venice many times over the years, but part of the pleasure is that there is always something new to discover and learn.

      • Wonderful! I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed these. I’m sometimes nervous approaching strangers to film these for me, but it’s also a fun project.

      • Really? You get strangers to film them for you? Brava!! And there was me thinking you had a dedicated camera person. You have my admiration, you do a great job.

  2. Cecelia Pierotti says:

    Thanks for sharing this info!!!!

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