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'Another Backwards Step': Oxford Dictionary Expands Definition Of 'Yid'


Recently the Oxford English Dictionary released its first update for 2020, and the updated definition of one particular word has reignited a long-simmering debate in Britain. But before we go any further, a warning that we will be discussing a specific offensive anti-Semitic epithet here. And for the purpose of this conversation, we will say that word to help listeners understand the controversy around it. Now, the Oxford Dictionary has decided to expand the meaning of the word Yid, typically a derogatory term to refer to Jewish people, to now include, quote, "a player or supporter of Tottenham Hotspur," the London soccer club.

Over the years, the word has been appropriated by some fans of the team, which has historic ties to London's Jewish community. But the decision to update the word's definition was met with criticism from Jewish organizations in the U.K. and even from the Tottenham club itself. Oxford University Press, the dictionary's publisher, is standing by the update, saying in a statement, quote, "we reflect, rather than dictate how language is used, which means we include words which may be considered sensitive and derogatory. These are always labelled as such, end quote."

Ivor Baddiel is a British writer and activist who has been campaigning for years to end the use of the slur Yid in English Premier League soccer. He joins us now from London. Welcome.

IVOR BADDIEL: Hello. Thank you for having me on.

FADEL: So how is the term used by the Tottenham fans, but also, how are fans of the opposing team using it?

BADDIEL: Well, this is where it gets very complicated, really, or confusing. So they call themselves - and I'll use the term in this context - they call themselves Yids or Yid Army or Yiddo. They will say they use that term as a badge of honor. Spurs fans have called themselves that for many, many years. The effect it's had is terrible, really. Fans of other teams will chant it back at them in a very menacing, aggressive way. But far worse than that, it's led to some absolutely horrendous anti-Semitic chants from other fans. And I'm - you know, I don't really want to - obviously don't want to offend anybody. But for example, one of the chants, it goes, Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz. Hitler's going to gas them again.

It's absolutely astonishing. I mean, what they often say is they've reclaimed the word. And this is also a very complicated issue as well. But by and large, the reason for reclaiming a word is to take its power away from the people who use it negatively. So if that is the aim of Tottenham fan with the Y-word, it clearly hasn't worked because it hasn't made other football fans stop saying it. It's made them say it sort of more aggressively, and it's made them say all these other chants. So their reason for adopting the term has failed. So that's one of the reasons why you need to stop saying it.

FADEL: It's interesting because the Tottenham Hotspur club itself hasn't embraced the nickname officially, like you said, but it's also in the midst of this rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and North America.

BADDIEL: I've been campaigning on this for - it may well be about 10 years now. I made a film about - a short film about it maybe almost as much as 10 years ago and then another one a couple of years ago. And certainly with the first film, the officials at Tottenham were fairly resistant to getting involved in the debate. The first film was very much about raising consciousness, raising the issue because it was one of these things that had just been going on in English soccer for many, many years, and nobody had really challenged it. And Tottenham didn't really officially really engage in the debate at all, which I found very disappointing.

However, last summer, the club itself did this very, very large consultation with their fans - and I believe 23,000 fans. And the results were very, very positive. I think something like 94% of the people acknowledged that the word is a racist word for Jews. There was quite a big generational split, 50/50, I think, with the younger generation very much saying they'd rather not use the word. So that was very positive, and it felt like finally the tide might be turning a bit, whereas now this OED definition feels a little bit like another backwards step.

FADEL: You - I noticed, you know, your films were called "The Y-Word." I notice you don't say the word yourself. And I just hoped you could explain a little bit more for people who might not be familiar with this term just what it feels like when you hear it as a Jewish person.

BADDIEL: Well, it's shock, really. I've been going to football for a long time now. And I remember the first time I was at a game and I heard this chant. I didn't know what it was. And I just heard this massive crowd of people going something like (unintelligible), like this. And I asked somebody next to me, what are they chanting? And when they told me, I was really shocked and felt very uncomfortable. And then for many, many years then, it almost became normalized. And this is the problem with the OED definition. I think it normalizes it again because - this is - as I say, what I'm talking about was in the mid-'70s. That's 40 years or so there where it just was something that went on at football.

FADEL: Ivor Baddiel is a television writer and activist based in London. Thank you so much for joining us.

BADDIEL: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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