Editors at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the prestigious repository of English language usage that’s updated each year to reflect current vocabulary trends, insist that their influential dictionary is nothing more than a snapshot of the way people speak in any given year. “We reflect, rather than dictate, how language is used,” the editors recently explained. That means they also “include words which may be considered sensitive and derogatory” when those words become popular and widely used.

If the OED is right about being an accurate reflection of the way people are speaking, then their recently announced update for 2020 is downright terrifying. Among the many new words and expressions the OED included this year are several slurs that insult Jews.

Take “Yiddo”: It is sometimes used as an affectionate term by Tottenham fans, but it’s also a term of abuse regularly hurled at fans of the Tottenham Hostpur Football team in London, which has a large Jewish fanbase. When the football team conducted a survey of over 20,000 fans in 2019, it found that virtually all agreed that “Yiddo” could have anti-Semitic connotations. The OED now includes “yiddo” as an official word, defined “A Jewish person." And can also refer to "a supporter of or player for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club (traditionally associated with the Jewish community in north and east London)’.”

Flying the Israeli flag at a Tottenham Hotspur game

Another offensive new OED entry occurs twice in the dictionary: Bagel. Not the traditional Jewish delicacy; the OED’s latest definitions of “bagel” refer to anti-Jewish slurs, both in the US and in South Africa. In the United States the OED defines “bagel” as “...derogatory and offensive. A Jewish person.” For South Africa, the OED notes that the word has even more insulting connotations: “A type of wealthy young Jewish man characterized as being spoilt and materialistic…”

One new OED entry looks like it might have originated as a typo: “anti-Semiticism”. The dictionary defines it as “prejudice, hostility, or discrimination towards Jewish people on religious, cultural, or ethnic grounds; = anti-Semitism”. Yet this term is now used frequently enough to merit its inclusion.

The term “Jew-hating” gets two new entries, both as a noun (“Hatred of Jewish people or culture”) and as an adjective (“That hates Jewish people or culture”).

“Jewish mother” is now defined offensively, as “the type of person who is overprotective, overbearing, or interfering…”

Towns or cities with large Jewish populations also have new, anti-Jewish nicknames: the OED includes the terms “Jew town” (“a name for an area inhabited predominately by Jewish people…”), “Jew York” (“New York”) and “Jew-free” (“characterized by the absence of Jewish people”).

Slandering Jews must be a common activity these days. The OED includes a new definition for “Jew Joke” (“a joke making fun of Jewish people”), “Jewish Question” (yes, the same term used by the Nazis - defined now in the OED as “a question or debate about the appropriate status, rights, and treatment of Jewish people within a nation state or in society…”).

These insulting terms are coming amid record-high levels of anti-Semitism the world over. In the United States, anti-Jewish acts recently reached “near-historic levels’ according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). 2018, the last year for which records have been calculated, saw the third-highest levels of anti-Jewish attacks and other incidents since the ADL began keeping track. The FBI reported that over half of all hate crimes motivated by religious bias were directed against Jews in 2018, despite the fact that Jews make up only about 2% of the population.

In Britain, attacks against Jews have reached record levels in recent years. In South Africa, anti-Jewish feelings are among the highest in the world. One 2019 study found that 60% of South Africans said they agree with the statement that Jews are disloyal, 41% agreed that “Jewish want to weaken our national culture” by bringing immigrants to the country, and over a third of South Africans agreed with calls to isolate Israel through by imposing boycotts and other sanctions on the Jewish state.

The spike in anti-Jewish words and phrases, reflected in the Oxford English Dictionary’s newest entries, is part of this trend. Words matter, and when offensive language becomes normal, it can increase hate and make physical violence more likely.

“Frequent and repetitive exposure to hate speech leads to desensitization to this form of verbal violence and subsequently to lower evaluations of the victims and greater distancing, thus increasing outgroup prejudice.” That was the conclusion of University of Delaware Professor Michal Bilewicz and his colleagues, after conducting a series of experiments measuring the effects of hate speech on people who were exposed to negative slurs about others.

Hearing negative words applied to other people makes us feel less sympathetic and increases hostility. Calling a Jew “Yiddo” or “bagel” can have real effects, increasing antipathy and paving the way for ever greater levels of Jew-hatred.

We must call out people who use the offensive anti-Jewish (and other racist) terms identified in the OED and elsewhere. The OED’s newest definitions have held up a mirror, showing us the offensive way our discourse is evolving. It’s incumbent on all of us to do what we can to send the message that offensive terms for Jews and other groups are always wrong and should never be used.