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Kategorien/Categories:    ›Sprachkultur/Language culture‹  ›EN‹   –  19.02.2012

The original ghetto

The word “ghetto” has been around for a while, changing its meaning somewhat over time. But I never thought about the word’s origin – until I stumbled over the “original” ghetto, which is actually a district in Venice. Who knew?

view of Venice canalEveryone knows about the ghetto, but depending on where you live, the term may evoke different images. Historically, it is a part of a city where members of an ethnic, religious or cultural minority congregate, usually voluntarily. But it also denotes the district of a city where Jews were forced to live, segregated from the rest of society. And then there is the “slum” connotation, invoking an economically depressed urban district predominantly inhabited by members of one ethnic group.

Much to my surprise, I discovered that there actually is an “original” ghetto - a district located in Venice.  The word stems from the Italian term “gheto” or “ghet” meaning slag or waste in Venetian. Don’t jump to conclusions: apparently, this was in reference to a foundry that was located on the same island on which the Jews were forced to live under the Venetian Republic.

As early as 1516, Venice decided it necessary to enact a decree limiting the whereabouts of its Jewish community to a specific area - the Ghetto. In return, the Jews were allowed to practice their religion and were protected in case of war. The ghetto was closed during the night and the surrounding canals were patrolled to prevent any violation. Thus Europe’s first ghetto was born. One of its most famous inhabitants, of course, was Shylock, immortalized by Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice”, written around 1595. It was Napoleon, by the way, who ended the Jewish segregation when he conquered Venice in 1797 and thus ended the great Venetian Republic.

Today, the ghetto is part of the Cannaregio district of Venice and still has quite an active Jewish community.  Curiously, you can encounter bi-lingual street signs there with names written in both Italian and Hebrew. It also is quite a picturesque part of town with surprisingly few tourists and lots of beautiful vistas. But heck, isn’t all of Venice simply breathtaking?! (For more on that, see the earlier post on Venice for Urban Planners).