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The word kike was born on Ellis Island when there were Jewish migrants who were also illiterate (or could not use Latin alphabet letters). When asked to sign the entry-forms with the customary "X," the Jewish immigrants would refuse, because they associated an X with the cross of Christianity. Instead, they drew a circle as the signature on the entry-forms. The Yiddish word for "circle" is kikel (pronounced KY-kul), and for "little circle," kikeleh (pronounced KY-kul-uh). Before long the immigration inspectors were calling anyone who signed with an "O" in place of an "X" a kikel or kikeleh or kikee or, finally and succinctly, kike.
According to Rosten, U.S. Jews continued to sign with an 'O' in place of an 'X' for several decades, resulting in the nickname kike spreading wherever they went.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it may be an alteration of the endings –ki or –ky common in the personal names of Jews in eastern Europe who immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century.
A variation or expansion of this theory published in Our Crowd, by Stephen Birmingham, postulates that the term "kike" was coined as a put-down by the assimilated U.S. Jews from Germany to identify eastern European and Russian Jews: "Because many Russian [Jewish] names ended in 'ki', they were called 'kikes'—a German Jewish contribution to the American vernacular. The name then proceeded to be co-opted by non-Jews as it gained prominence in its usage in society, and was later used as a general derogatory slur."
One more theory traces the origin of the term much earlier in time, to the 16th century Pope Clement VIII, noted for his anti-Jewish stance. Among other things, he issued a prohibition on the study of the Talmud, in which he made reference to the "blind (Latin: caeca) obstinacy" of the Jews. According to this theory, "caeca" developed eventually into "kike".
In a travel report from 1937 for the German-Jewish publication Der Morgen, Joachim Prinz, writing of the situation of Jewish immigrants in the USA, mentions the word as being used by Jews to refer contemptuously to other (Eastern) Jews:
Es ist nicht erhebend zu sehen, wie verworren die Vorstellungen sind, wie wenig die Einwanderer gelernt haben, wie glücklich sie teilweise sind, dem Juden-schicksal entsprungen zu sein, und wie überheblich sie oft sind. Es macht traurig, daß sie in manchen Kreisen sehr unbeliebt sind, und man wundert sich über die Dummheit derer, die die Ostjuden (von denen sie ja doch gestüzt werden!) verächtlich „Kikes‟ nennen […]
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- Encyclopedia of Swearing: Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English Speaking World/ Geoffrey Hughes. Armonk, N.Y. : M.E. Sharpe, c2006
- Leo Rosten: The Joys of Yiddish, cited in Kim Pearson's Rhetoric of Race by Eric Wolarsky. The College of New Jersey.
- "Welcome to the new OED Online : Oxford English Dictionary". Dictionary.oed.com. Retrieved 2012-05-24.
- S. Wendehorst, "Katholische Kirche und Juden in der Frühen Neuzeit" 1.3 "Zensur des Talmud", following Willchad Paul Eckert, "Catholizmus zwischen 1580 und 1848" in Karl Heinrich Rengstorf and Siegfried Kortzfleisch, eds. Kirche und Sinagoge II (Stuttgart, 1970) p. 232.
- New Dictionary of American Slang/ edited by Robert L. Chapman. New York: Harper & Crow. c1986
- The Empire of the Ghetto, by Adolphe Danziger, "Copyrighted by the Author, 1900" in Notes: A Monthly Literary Magazine and Review of New Books, Volume 6, No. 1 (1901), p. 213
- Kim Pearson's Rhetoric of Race by Eric Wolarsky. The College of New Jersey.
- The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang/ compiled by John Ayto, John Simpson. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, c2005.
- Joachim Prinz: “Amerika — hast Du es besser?”, pg. 110