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Should I Say "Jew" or "Jewish"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The proper term to use when referring to someone of Jewish ancestry or a member of the Jewish faith is “Jewish,” although “Jew” is technically correct. However, “Jew” has become laden with negative connotations which have led most people to conclude that it should not be utilized in polite conversation, for fear of being viewed as an insult. The plural form, “Jews,” along with “Jewry” to refer collectively to Jewish people around the world, is appropriate for use in most regions, although individual people may express personal preferences which should be respected.

Unfortunately, antisemitic attitudes about Jewish people have persisted worldwide for centuries. As a result, these attitudes have shifted the way in which people view the word “Jew.” Technically, however, it is just a proper noun used to describe a person of this ancestry or faith without awkward circumlocutions.

The issue is that “Jew” is often used as a pejorative. Antisemitic rhetoric refers to “dirty Jews” and uses “Jew” as though it is an insult, rather than an adjective, and as a result, it sounds jarring to hear someone referred to as “a Jew,” rather than “Jewish.” Furthermore, the word has also historically been used to describe being cheated out of something, as in “I got Jewed on that deal,” referencing a widely-held stereotype that Jews are greedy swindlers.

In most cases, words which describe racial or national origin can be used both as nouns and adjectives. For example, one could say “she is Turkish,” or “I am drinking a Turkish coffee,” and both would be appropriate. “Jew” and “Jewish” are the rare exception to this rule. “Jew” should never be used as an adjective, and its acceptability as a noun is debatable. Using these words appropriately is not just a matter of being politically correct: it's a recognition that there are complex linguistic undercurrents involved.

Adjectival uses of “Jew” like “she's a Jew lawyer” sound jarring to the ear in a way that “she's a Jewish lawyer” does not, thanks to cultural perceptions about the word “Jew.” The history of the use of “Jew” as an epithet, rather than a simple noun or adjective, has made it a loaded term to use. While describing someone as “a Jew” may be accurate in the literal sense, in that someone of the Jewish faith or descent is indeed a Jew, it is generally frowned upon, and should be avoided, if possible.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By jessiwan — On Apr 10, 2018

Having read through the comment section, where there are apparently quite a few Jewish posters, I am a bit confused. Do they prefer that people say, " So-and-so is Jewish", or "so-and-so is a Jew"?

Personally, I hear them say, "I am Jewish" most often. I have not heard of them say, "I am a Jew". Or at least very infrequently. I have always considered a non-Jew referring to a Jewish person as a "Jew" to be a form of aggression. Unless one wants to refer to the entire population of Jewish people as a collective, in which case "Jews" are perhaps fine although the word "Jewry" seems better.

By anon994644 — On Feb 25, 2016

I understand some people find find "Jew" offensive, and I have even been told off for using (would you believe this?) the "hard J" instead of "Jewish", but I refuse to compromise.

Why on earth should the Jews have to suffer the indignity of the proper noun denoting their people being freely handed over for exclusive use by bigots?

And if you, regardless of intent, decline to use the word Jew, then you are perpetuating its reinvention as a pejorative term.

By anon969541 — On Sep 11, 2014

I'm Irish and I was telling a friend how surprised I was at how many Jews there were in Toronto airport (to NYC, and I was surprised because I had never seen so many, we have a very small Jewish population in Ireland) and she kept correcting me when I said 'Jew'. I was googling it now because I wanted to know what was politically correct.

Of course, the conversation led to how surprised I was at how many blacks there were in New York, because in the media they're so under-represented, which also made her roll her eyes.

Clearly I'm an idiot, but I see nothing wrong with being literal when describing people.

By anon944975 — On Apr 10, 2014

"In most cases, words which describe racial or national origin can be used both as nouns and adjectives. For example, one could say “she is Turkish,” or “I am drinking a Turkish coffee,” and both would be appropriate. "

Actually, "Turkish" is an adjectival form, and is in fact functioning as an adjective in both of those sentences. The noun form is "Turk," as in "She is a Turk." Note the article "a" preceding the noun.

By anon353216 — On Oct 29, 2013

As a Jew who lives in Israel, I have noticed that British Jews seem more likely to find the term "Jew" jarring than American Jews are - that is, British Jews are more likely to say "I am Jewish" than "I am a Jew", while American Jews seem to have far less issues with the noun "Jew". I assume this is for historical and social reasons: Americans are less likely to have heard "Jew!" hurled as an insult that Europeans are.

As an illuminating observation, on a recent trip through Germany, I discovered that the description "Jude" (German for "Jew") is politically totally incorrect (of course German history is infinitely more laden than any other country's). Instead, the currently-favored term is "jüdischer Mitbürger" ("Jewish fellow-citizen"). This left me in a bind: I am undeniably a Jew, but I am definitely not a "fellow-citizen" of Germans. I simply described myself as "ein Jude" ("a Jew"), and blithely ignored people's uncomfortable reactions.

On one occasion when a well-meaning German told me that he and other Germans find the term discomforting, I (somewhat cynically, I admit) changed my self-description to "jüdischer Mitmenschen" ("Jewish fellow-human"). The moral? The more that Jews have been persecuted for being Jews, the more sensitive they and the surrounding populations are likely to be to these nuances.

By anon340364 — On Jul 02, 2013

The use of a noun as a modifier is generally considered insulting in English when a correct adjective form is available. The article misses this important linguistic point.

Some examples of insulting noun-noun forms:

democrat policy vs. democratic policy

turk coffee vs. turkish coffee

jew temple vs. jewish temple

arab language vs. arabic language

This is a subtlety of English, largely because English can use nouns as modifiers. The insult can be either deliberate and systematic (as with "democrat" or "jew") or accidental if used by non-native speakers.

By anon330174 — On Apr 14, 2013

I like "he is of the hebraic persuasion". Can't go wrong with that.

By davids2844 — On Nov 16, 2012

The fact that this is even a question is insane. I am “a Jew,” and I am “Jewish.” This is ridiculous. The fact that you would even question this is more offensive than anybody ever calling me a Jew could be; that would never offend me.

“‘Jew’ should never be used as an adjective, and its acceptability as a noun is debatable.” What? No, this is false. It is the only noun to use, and to even consider otherwise perpetuates the precise views the author means, with good intentions, to counter.

This is not O.K. All of you folks who think it is considerate, or less offensive need to think for a second. The only people -- the only ones --who use “Jew” as an insult are bigots. Why would you pander to them? Jews don’t think it’s offensive. It’s what we are.

Furthermore, the words are different. You wouldn’t say “he’s a Jew lawyer,” not because it’s offensive, but because that’s the wrong word to use. It’s like “democrat” and “democratic.” I am a democratic voter. I am a democrat. I am Jewish. I am a Jew. That is a Jewish song. It is sung by Jews.

Also, how could “Jewish” be offensive? It’s not a euphemism, it’s not “Jew-ish.” It’s a form of the word, and it’s who I am. I realize that you’re all trying to be considerate and respectful but, with all due respect, you’re not. These words mean specific, different things. Please stop giving them meaning they don’t have. Using “Jew” as a verb is, of course, pejorative, but that’s not at issue here.

The bottom line is that every time you twist the words, or avoid one because you think it’s insulting, you empower the very people you aim to defeat with your intended tact. It’s more hurtful to be reminded of all the bigotry and hatred that isolated groups of people have then it would ever be to simply be called something that I’m proud of being.

By anon242233 — On Jan 22, 2012

I am a Jew. When I hear a non-Jew say something like "Josh is of the Jewish faith," I cringe. In effect, saying that someone "is Jewish" or worse "is of the Jewish faith" is an admission that the speaker considers it insulting to call someone a Jew or Jewish.

A century ago, The first major Jewish organization in the US was called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Back then, the word Jew was so highly charged that the UAHC opted to avoid it. Times have changed, and to a remarkable extent, the word Jew has been reclaimed. Nowadays, I cringe when I hear such circumlocution.

By anon133890 — On Dec 12, 2010

This is no help. here I am trying to translate a text in which a Jewish woman from Austria appears. Apparently, I cannot write "X married Y, an Austrian Jew." So I have to resort to the roundabout: "...an Austrian woman of Jewish extraction," or something of the sort. This is as strange as saying, "... a Jewish woman from Austria." All in all, if the use of the noun "Jew" has become offensive through derogatory usage, then the solution would be to keep using "Jew" in a positive sense, with pride, and turn the tide.

By anon130792 — On Nov 29, 2010

The word "Jewish" refers to the traits of being a Jew. That in itself is offensive. How can someone act or look "Jewish?" Mark my words, this euphemism will one day be as offensive as "Colored People."

Time to step up and embrace the correct term "Jew" and stop being so sensitive- which is why people are sheepish about the term in the first place!

By anon129814 — On Nov 25, 2010

Using the word "Jew" by someone not Jewish has an extremely negative connotation. I've heard "Can't Jew 'em down." It angers me so much. Such hatred from those who call themselves Christian. I prefer using the word Jewish to describe me and mine.

By anon80023 — On Apr 25, 2010

I am a Jew. I have practiced being Jewish for so long that I am now experienced. I am not tainted by my Jewishness. I am proud. I am a Jew. No one of another religion uses the ish designation Catholicism, Budish, etc).

By anon69821 — On Mar 10, 2010

The article is bang on. True, Jews often refer to themselves as Jews, but when they do, the use is not laden with at the least ambiguity and at the most, anti-semitism.

However, Jews do not use the term when writing for or speaking to a larger audience. The term is too loaded, and as the article states, simply doesn't sound right as it's tinged with offensiveness. The article summed up the nuances of use perfectly and is not simply an attempt to be politically correct.

By anon56637 — On Dec 16, 2009

This is absurd. Jews call ourselves Jews because that's what we are. This article was undoubtedly written by a non-Jew.

By stare31 — On Oct 23, 2009

I completely agree about not using some form of the word "Jew" as an adjective. Simply, it should not be done.

Using "Jew" to describe a person, however, is increasingly less abrasive. Still, given the years of persecution that Jews have suffered during which the persecutors used "Jew" derogatorily, it is only considerate, especially for non-Jews, to stick with "Jewish" over "Jew."

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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