Jew (word)

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This article is about the English word Jew. For the Jewish people, see Jews.

The term Jew passed into the English language from the Greek Ioudaios and Latin Iudaeus, from which the Old French giu was derived after dropping the letter "d", and later after a variety of forms found in early English (from about the year 1000) such as: Iudea, Gyu, Giu, Iuu, Iuw, Iew developed into the English word “Jew.” It thus ultimately originates in the Biblical Hebrew word Yehudi meaning "from the Tribe of Judah", "from the Kingdom of Judah", or "Jew".


Hasmonean coin of John Hyrcanus (134 to 104 BCE) with the inscription "Hayehudim" (of the Jews).
Obv: Double cornucopia.
Rev: Five lines of ancient Hebrew script; reading "Yehochanan Kohen Gadol, Chever Hayehudim" (Yehochanan the High Priest, Council of the Jews.

The Jewish ethnonym in Hebrew is יהודים Yehudim (plural of יהודי Yehudi) which is the origin of the English word Jew. The Hebrew name is derived from the region name Judah (Yehudah יהודה).

Originally the name referred to the territory allotted to the tribe descended from Judah the fourth son of the patriarch Jacob (Numbers). According to the Hebrew Bible Judah was one of the twelve sons of Jacob and one of the Twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis). Genesis 29:35 [1] relates that Judah's mother — the matriarch Leah — named him Yehudah (i.e. "Judah") because she wanted to "praise God" for giving birth to so many sons: "She said, 'This time let me praise (odeh אודה) God (יהוה),' and named the child Judah (Yehudah יהודה)", thus combining "praise" and "God" into one new name.[citation needed] In Hebrew, the name "Judah" (י ה ו [ד] ה) contains the four letters of the Tetragrammaton — the special, holy, and ineffable name of the Jewish God. The very holiness of the name of Judah attests to its importance as an alternate name for "Israelites" that it ultimately replaces.[citation needed]

Yehudi in the Hebrew Bible[edit]

The term Yehudi occurs 74 times in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. The plural, Yehudim, debuts in 2 Kings 16:6,[2] and in 2 Chronicles 32:18. In Jeremiah 34:9 we find the earliest singular usage of the word Yehudi, "Jew" being used, though The name appears in the Bible in a verb form, in Esther 8:17 [3][unreliable source?] which states, "Many of the people of the land mityahadim (became Yehudim/Judeans/Jews) because the fear of the Yehudim fell on them." Also in Esther 2:5-6, we find that the name "Jew" is given to a man from the tribe of Benjamin:[4][unreliable source?] "There was a man a Yehudi (Judean/Jewish man) in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite; who had been exiled from Jerusalem with the exile that was exiled with Jeconiah, king of Judah, which Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had exiled."

Development in European languages[edit]

Main article: Ioudaios

The Middle English word Jew derives from Old English where the word is attested as early as 1000 in various forms, such as Iudeas, Gyu, Giu, Iuu, Iuw, Iew. These terms derive from Old French giu, earlier juieu, which had elided (dropped) the letter "d" from the Medieval Latin Iudaeus, which, like the New Testament Greek term Ioudaios, meant both Jews and Judeans / "of Judea".

However, most other European languages retained the letter "d" in the word for Jew, and in a number of languages, including modern Hebrew and modern standard Arabic, the same word is still used to mean both Jews and Judeans / "of Judea".

Ancient terminology[edit]


Further information: Judea
The kingdom of Judah appears in red in this map of ancient Israel around 900 BCE (The text is in Catalan).
Reverse of a Roman denarius of Aulus Plautius from about 55 BCE with inscription "Bacchius Judaeus", pertaining to Aristobulus II in the Hasmonean era

After the splitting of the united Kingdom of Israel and Judah, the name Yehudi was used for the southern kingdom of Judah, containing not only the land of the tribe of Judah but also that of Benjamin and Simeon, along with some of the cities of the Levites.

With the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of Judah became the sole Jewish state and the term y'hudi (יהודי) was applied to all Israelites. When the word makes its first appearance in writing (in the book of Esther) its meaning has already expanded to include converts to the Jewish religion as well as descendants of Israelites.

Late Antiquity[edit]

In the Septuagint and other Greek documents the word "Jew" (ioudaois) occurs frequently.

In some places in the Talmud the word Israel(ite) refers to somebody who is Jewish but does not necessarily practice Judaism as a religion: "An Israel(ite) even though he has sinned is still an Israel(ite)" (Tractate Sanhedrin 44a). More commonly the Talmud uses the term Bnei Yisrael, i.e. "Children of Israel", ("Israel" being the name of the third patriarch Jacob, father of the sons that would form the twelve tribes of Israel, which he was given and took after wrestling with an angel, see Genesis 32:28-29 [5]) to refer to Jews. According to the Talmud then, there is no distinction between "religious Jews" and "secular Jews."

Modern use[edit]

Further information: Who is a Jew?
Obverse of a Jewish silver Yehud coin from the Persian era, with falcon or eagle and Aramaic inscription "יהד" "Yehud" (Judaea)
A page from Elia Levita's Yiddish-Hebrew-Latin-German dictionary (16th century) contains a list of nations, including an entry for Jew: Hebrew: יְהוּדִיYiddish: יוּד German: Jud Latin: Iudaeus

In modern English, the term "Israelite" was used to refer to contemporary Jews as well as to Jews of antiquity until the mid-20th-century. Since the foundation of the State of Israel, it has become less common to use "Israelite" of Jews in general. Instead, citizens of the state of Israel are called "Israeli", while "Jew" is used as an ethno-religious designation.


The word Jew has been used often enough in a disparaging manner by antisemites that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was frequently avoided altogether, and the term Hebrew was substituted instead (e.g. Young Men's Hebrew Association). Even today some people are wary of its use, and prefer to use "Jewish". Indeed, when used as an adjective (e.g. "Jew lawyer") or verb (e.g. "to jew someone"),[6] the term Jew is purely pejorative. However, when used as a noun, "Jew" is preferred,[by whom?] as other circumlocutions (e.g. "Jewish person") give the impression that the term "Jew" is offensive in all contexts.

In much the same manner, the Yiddish term for Jew (איד,ייִד) Yid, (singular), ייִדן Yidn (plural)) — originally a benign term — was once used as an ethnic slur, but now is often used by Jews in praise, to describe an upstanding religiously observant Jew (e.g., "He's such a Yid, giving up his time like that") or to distinguish upstanding religiously observant Jews from non-observant, with the implication that the latter would be better people if they were stricter in their observance (e.g., "Yidn wouldn't do such a thing").[citation needed]

See also[edit]