When used as an adjective, it is the urban equivalent of being white trash, tacky, or otherwise without class and/or wealth.

I once overheard a conversation which I'll cite here as an example of this usage:

  • Person A: How do you get your eyebrows to look like that? Note: they looked hard, carefully shaped, and glossy. Like when a person uses too much hair gel and it hardens up.
  • Person B: I use tire glue.
  • Person A: Oh my gawd, that is so ghetto!
  • Person B: It's bicycle tire glue, in fact.
  • Person A: Wow! You know you're really ghetto when not only do you use tire glue for your eyebrows, but you can't even afford regular tire glue!

Lit. Venetian: "iron foundry".

The involuntary ghetto

A small confined area of the city designated for the Jews residence where Jew citizens were forced to move, in order to segregate them from the rest of the Christian / Muslim city.

The ghettos were first practiced in Muslim Morocco in 1280, and then by Christians all across Europe from the 14th and up to the 19th century. They were usually set in a poverty-striken city street (or even a quarter, depending on the Jewish population), surrounded by walls and kept locked at nights and during Christian festivals. Outside the ghetto, the Jews were forced to wear identifying signs, such as a yellow badge.

The reasons for the isolation could be many; religious affairs, or simply local merchants trying to avoid competition.

Surprisingly, the Jewish ghettos sprung back for a short while in the 20th century, when the German National Socialist party took it upon itself to kill the Jews.

The voluntary ghetto

Reading the above, wouldn't it be surprising anyone would subject to this voluntarily?

Turns out some happily would. Ethnic groups, usually recent immigrants, are likely to collaborate into a 'ghetto' when arriving together in a large quantity. They will usually find "absorption" much harder than trying to recreate their familiar culture in the new place. Along with their fellow immigrants, they will create an infrastructure necessary for wholesome living. Learning the place's language, habits and cultural herritage isn't worth the effort, given they can live just as they always did -- after all, they can speak their own language with the groccer.

Our American friends would be familiar with the phenomena from the Russian, Jewish, Hispanic, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, and of course, Black ghettos.

We, in Israel, have a rather large Russian ghetto, a result of the massive escape from the collapsing Soviet Union in the 1990s. Unlike the Russian immigrants of the 1970s, many of the newcomers didn't integrate, since they managed to form the critical mass which makes it very comfortable to remain in a ghetto. Their ghetto is not necessarily defined by physical (neighborhood or city) location; it's a state of mind.

  • Watching Russian TV on the cables.
  • Renting latest movies dubbed to Russian. Recently, some Israeli movie theatres have even introduced Russian subtitles in addition to the Hebrew ones, in an attempt to grab some of this unexploited market.
  • Reading Israeli-Russian press and Russian books. Russian language Israeli publications include multiple newspapers, news web sites, magazines and even tabloids.
  • Shopping for familiar products in Russian shops. Those shops sell products well-known from the former life in the USSR, as well as non-Kosher meats etc.
  • Having a Russian-speaking employee they know in all institutions they need (work place, the bank etc.)
... they couldn't care less for what the rest of the country is doing.

The ghetto is appealing at first, but its dwellers would at some point realize they cannot succeed in a country-wide scale without knowing the language, and their kids are growing up in a bad social environment.

In those cases, the eldery and most of the adults are a "lost battle". Those who still might detach from the ghettos are the youngsters.

It's hypothesized that the origin of "ghetto" is Italian around 1516. The term comes from an area of Venice that was near a foundry. It was one of the few places Jews in Venice were allowed to live since no one else wanted to live near a foundry. The first found occurrence of the word ghetto meaning a place where Jews live comes from a travel book written in 1611 by Thomas Coryat. His book Coryat's Crudities covers a stop over in Venice. A passage reads "the place where the whole fraternity of the Jews dwelleth together, which is called the Ghetto."

Although "ghetto" means a pretty horrible place today, Jewish ghettos in Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries were not the worst possible places for Jews to live. Unlike the forced ghettoization under Nazism, Jews found ghettos a respite, a place to maintain their culture and practice their beliefs openly.

Jews were being driven out of many European nations and Italy took many in. The Italian ghettos were not intended to persecute Jews but to provide Jews a safe, cloistered harbor in a strict Catholic country. Venice, being a locus for global trade, featured other "ghettos" where foreign merchants from other nations were also required to live. For example, there was in Venice a German ghetto and a Turkish ghetto. In fact, it's more likely the case Jews lived in walled ghettos for their own protection. Venice Jews paid guards to watch the gate to the ghetto at night.

It was only when America learned of Nazi atrocities against the Jews did "ghetto" come to mean a hellacious area to live.

Ghet"to (?), n. [It.]

The Jews'quarter in an Italian town or city.

I went to the Ghetto, where the Jews dwell.


© Webster 1913

Ghet"to (?), n.

A quarter of a city where Jews live in greatest numbers.


© Webster 1913

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