Thursday, 21 July 2016 14:00

Derogatory, Abusive Labels

Our Linguistic Self-Defence Guide Against Antisemitism teaches people how to spot and resist manipulation when they come across antisemitic speech. We use real-life examples, detected by Get the Trolls Out monitors, and reveal the subtle rhetorical tricks that are typically employed to brainwash the public into hating and discriminating against Jewish people.

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By Anna Szilagyi

The way we identify others has important implications. In antisemitic speech, references are made to Jewish people in a derogatory and abusive fashion. The list of discriminatory labelling is almost endless. In this article we introduce the most common, but rhetorically tricky labelling strategies.

Inappropriately informal terms

Speakers can offend others by referring to them in inappropriately casual terms. In December 2015, for instance, on a radio programme in the UK, a phone-in caller referred to orthodox Jews as “those guys with the hats and the curly hair.” On this occasion, instead of identifying orthodox Jews in proper religious terms, the speaker used an inappropriate, informal term (“guys”) and referred to the way he perceived them, thus reducing them to one particular oversimplified appearance. The informal language use served the purpose of desecration. It represented orthodox Jews and the religion of Judaism in a disrespectful, belittling and stereotyped manner.   


Another example comes still from the UK. In February 2016, the co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club, Alex Chalmers, resigned from his position after claiming that antisemitism is widespread among members of the club. In a Facebook post, Chalmers gave examples of antisemitic behaviour he witnessed in the club. This included “throwing around the term 'Zio' (a term for Jews usually confined to websites run by the Ku Klux Klan) with casual abandon.” 

The label “Zio” is the short form of “Zionist”. In antisemitic speech both “Zionist” and “Zio” function as metonymies. When speakers use this rhetorical trope, they can refer to entities by the name of another entity that is closely related to it. In the news, for example, references are frequently made to the “White House” for the American President or to “Beijing” for the Chinese government. In everyday speech, the term “Zionist” refers to a person who supports the development of an independent Jewish state in Israel. Yet, in antisemitic discourses, the phrases “Zionist” and “Zio” covertly identify Jews and make it possible for speakers to present their anti-Jewish hatred as a legitimate criticism of Zionism. 


The short form “Zio” has specific derogatory connotations as well. In everyday language, abbreviations can express casualty and informality. However, in antisemitic and other forms of racist speech the informal character of short forms is routinely misused. As in the case of the term “Zio”, in discriminatory discourses, short forms indicate disrespect. Here, the intention of the speakers is to demolish the dignity of the referred people. 


As a recent incident in Greece demonstrates, metonymies are not the only tropes that can be used for derogatory and abusive labelling. In January 2016, a Greek political analyst falsely claimed in a blog post that Jewish people are fleeing from the United States and Europe to move to Israel after creating national conflicts and supporting terrorism. Evoking the antisemitic clichés of Jewish world conspiracy, cynicism and cowardice the author of the piece said: “Those rats are deserting the sinking ship.” In this case, the blog writer used a metaphor to refer to Jewish people. The rhetorical trope of metaphor allows speakers to describe one particular entity in terms of another. Although metaphors are inherent elements of communication, in some cases, the usage of this trope has dangerous implications. By referring to Jewish people as “rats”, the writer suggested that Jews are not humans and aimed to evoke physical disgust with them in the readers. The Nazis and other genocidal regimes frequently labelled their victims as animals that are associated with dirt, disease, and food distraction. Through such metaphors these regimes called for mass killing, presenting the horror of genocide in rational terms, as a necessary “pesticide”. 

Stay alert and be careful when someone speaks about Jewish or other people by referring to them in different terms. Distorted references can hurt the feelings of the people they identify as well as foster discrimination and physical abuse against them.

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Linguistic Self-Defence Guide Against Antisemitism

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