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The OED 1989 edition glossed yid as "A (usu. offensive) name for a Jew."

The 2019 edition has

1. A Jewish person. In non-Jewish usage offensive and chiefly derogatory.

2. British. In extended use: a supporter of or player for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club (traditionally associated with the Jewish community in north and east London). Originally and frequently derogatory and offensive, though also often as a self-designation.

Lynne Murphy, "The point of dictionaries is to describe how language is used, not to police it", The Guardian 2/17/2020:

Tottenham Hotspur has shown the yellow card to the Oxford English Dictionary for its new definitions of the words “yid” and “yiddo”. While the dictionary records both words as usually offensive terms for Jewish people, it now also describes them as nicknames for Spurs supporters, noting that the fan-directed usage is “originally and frequently derogatory and offensive, though also often as a self-designation”. The club has issued a statement saying that it has “never accommodated” use of the “Y-word”, and considers the definition “misleading”.

Apparently, attempts to invert the word's associated valence have not been entirely successful. "Tottenham blast ‘misleading’ Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘yiddo’ and ‘yid’", TalkSport 2/13/2020:

Tottenham have condemned the Oxford English Dictionary’s expanded definition of the words ‘yid’ and ‘yiddo’ after they were linked to the club. […]

The use of the word has caused controversy in recent years with sections of Tottenham supporters using the terms themselves in an attempt to reclaim them.

Chants of ‘Yid Army’ are frequently heard at the club’s home matches even though Spurs’ fan base is made up of both Jews and gentiles.

A survey conducted by Spurs in December confirmed that almost half the 23,000 supporters who voted want the Y-word chanted less or banned completely.

Myself, I wouldn't mind seeing the word reclaimed from the haters.

In the fall of 1960 I entered the Groton School as a third-former (= ninth grader), at the age of 13. At that time, Groton was for boys only. On my first day, I had joined up with three or four classmates to explore the school grounds during a brief period of freedom, and we were running past the Schoolhouse building, just inside the corner of the white fence in the picture below:

Several Senior Prefects were lounging against the building wall, and one of them stuck his leg out and tripped me. As I sprawled on the stone patio, he stepped forward and put his foot on my neck. Bending over, he said "Listen, Yid, we don't need your kind around here. Am I clear?"

Having read Tom Brown's School Days, Stalky and Company, etc., I expected prefects to be assholes. I grew up in a gentile environment, in which one of my first-grade classmates pelted me with rocks because "Father Paul told us that the Jews killed Christ", so the idea that some people disliked Jews was not news. And in my generation, kids didn't report other students' misdeeds, so I never told anyone in authority about this event.

I learned much later that I had been a diversity recruit. Someone in a position to know explained that they were looking for a student who was "Jewish, but not too Jewish". The sixth-former who tripped me came from a southern mill-owning family deeply involved in right-wing national politics, and apparently represented a (minority) faction that was not in favor of diversity.

At chapel the next morning, I learned why diversity might matter to (some of) the people who run such institutions. Chapel attendance — Episcopalian services once a day and twice on Sundays — was obligatory, but participation was not. So I stood when everybody else stood, and spoke the responses in the Book of Common Prayer, because why not, but I didn't kneel in the parts that called for kneeling. The boy next to me, who came from a well-to-do midwestern family, took me aside afterwards and asked me why I hadn't knelt. When I told him it was because I was Jewish, he refused to believe me. I might as well have claimed to be a space alien. He had never knowingly met a Jew, and held the opinion that Jews couldn't possibly be found in places like Groton. After half an hour of explanations, I finally persuaded him, and he then questioned me at length, as if I was some sort of mythical creature that he had heard about but never thought he would encounter in real life. I imagine that five years later, he was better prepared to go out into a world where Jews — and even more exotic species — could be found all over the place.



  1. mg said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 12:20 pm

    I grew up in NYC, where being Jewish was "normal" (though we still had problems with local parochial school kids until a few years after Vatican II), so it was a shock when I had my first experiences out in the real world. Fortunately, none involved the physical bullying you met with, but one friend at a summer program woke up to find his roommate checking his head for horns.

    I'd be happy to see "yid" stop being a curse word, but I don't see it ever being acceptable for non-Jews to use it (just like other words that are being reclaimed by groups that have had them used against them).

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 12:38 pm

    Passing over the primary topic of the post, on which — as someone who is not Jewish — I do not feel qualified to comment, I would like to challenge Lynne Murphy's view that "the point of dictionaries is to describe how language is used, not to police it". Whilst I can see some merit in describing how language is currently (and was formerly) used, I still cling to the belief that the primary purpose of a dictionary is to clarify how language should be used. If I use a word, and then realise that I am not sure that I have used it correctly (or perhaps not even sure that I have used the right word), then I need an authority to which to turn. Dictionaries and grammars are that authority, or should be. Indeed, the OED itself makes no mention of "describing how language is used"; rather, it defines a dictionary as "[a] book which explains or translates, usually in alphabetical order, the words of a language or languages (or of a particular category of vocabulary), giving for each word its typical spelling, an explanation of its meaning or meanings, and often other information, such as pronunciation, etymology, synonyms, equivalents in other languages, and illustrative examples. Cf. lexicon …". It could be (and I am sure is) argued that "typical spelling" and "illustrative examples" must by definition draw on "how language is used", but should a dictionary (for example) include entries such as "'Could of': increasingly common spelling of 'could have'" ? If there are those who would argue "yes, of course", then would they at least agree that such entries should be clearly marked as "catachresis" ?

  3. Scott P. said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 2:23 pm

    Are you American, Philip? Because that concept of dictionaries as essentially prescriptive is particularly rooted in an American context.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 2:35 pm

    No, British, Scott. But I have a feeling that my preference for prescriptivism (and indeed, for proscriptivism) is more a function of my age than of my nationality.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 2:47 pm

    My impressionistic sense (hard to confirm with a quick corpus search, but at least not actively disconfirmed by such a search) is that "yid" as a slur in the mouths of gentiles is notably more prominent in BrEng than in AmEng where (at least among such subsets of AmEng speakers as I have personally overheard and/or seen depicted in writing) it trails far behind "kike." Perhaps there has been substantial regional or generational variation in slur usage in the U.S. which skews my impression. But it would be wryly amusing if the self-conscious Anglophilia of New England prep-school culture meant that 1959-vintage Groton followed BrEng rather than AmEng conventions even for its slurs.

    [(myl) I think you're right about this — in the U.S. I've heard "kike" and "jewboy"and so on plenty of times, but this story is the only encounter with "yid" that I can recall.]

  6. M.P. said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 2:53 pm

    There is another European football club with supporters who have adopted a Jewish inspired name, namely Ajax's ’’Super Jews’. More charming than ’Yid Army’, somehow.


  7. Chris Button said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 3:02 pm

    In northwest London when I was a growing up, the counterpart to "yid" for a Jewish person was "yok" for a non-Jewish person. No idea if it's still used today (sixth entry here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yok )

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 3:23 pm

    Whereas in south-east London (where I was born and raised), "goy" was used as the counterpart to "yid" for a non-Jewish person.

  9. Jon Weinberg said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 3:34 pm

    I'd never heard the word "yok" before, growing up in the eastern US, and indeed, https://jel.jewish-languages.org/words/1355 indicates that it's a British usage. In the US, the standard ungendered Jewish word for non-Jews is "goy."

    Slurs are all about cultural context, and I've got no personal familiarity with the British one, but I agree with mg that they're typically "reclaimed" via use by their targets, not via use by others.

  10. Joe Fineman said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 6:13 pm

    "Yid" is Yiddish for "Jew". It is curious that US goyim should have made an insult out of a word that most immigrant Jews used for themselves at the time of their immigration. But cf. "Russky" for "Russian", which was fairly common in the early Cold War years.

  11. Stephen said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 6:31 pm

    @J.W. Brewer

    Yid is sufficiently embedded in BrE as to be part of Cockney rhyming slang, so 'front wheel' (for front-wheel skid) for yid.

    Like many things, how much this was meant as a slur depended on context. In the late '60s and into the '70s I certainly heard it used as a descriptive term for a Jew. Maybe there was an undertone of 'other' but not of hatred.

    Also 4 by 2 is rhyming slang, which is somewhat confusing as it is a common size of wood, and something like 'hit him with a 4 by 2' is (or was) a relatively common phrase used a lot more figuratively than literally. Probably similar to 'hit him with a baseball bat'.

  12. Marc said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 10:36 pm

    From the Wikipedia page about Tottenham Hotspur:

    Historically, the club had a significant Jewish following from the Jewish communities in east and north London, with around a third of its supporters estimated to be Jewish in the 1930s.[165] Due to this early support, all three chairmen of the club since 1984 have been Jewish businessmen with prior history of supporting the club.[165] The club no longer has a greater Jewish contingent among its fans than other major London clubs (Jewish supporters are estimated to form at most 5% of its fanbase), it is nevertheless still identified as a Jewish club by rival fans.[166]

    I think what bothers me (as a very secular, middle-aged Jewish person) about the idea of reclaiming the term is that the vast majority of fans who want to reclaim it are, very likely, not Jewish. How can they 'reclaim' a term that doesn't apply to them?

    That being said, I cannot fault the OED for reflecting usage. But, I'd ask if there are similar terms for supporters of clubs that are associated with Protestant or Catholic fans, and if the OED has entries for those.

  13. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 18, 2020 @ 11:43 pm

    @Stephen — In my northeastern U.S. experience, the board is a two-by-.four. Is the English reference to dimensions opposite that of the U.S.?

    On slurs —
    “Kike” seemed to be the anti-Jewish slur of choice that I heard growing up in upstate New York. I don’t think I ever heard anyone use “yid.” The rural county I grew up in had very few Jewish or Hispanic people, and there were no blacks in my school district. Slurs for people who were Polish or Italian came up more often in conversation and jokes. Slurs for blacks and Hispanics came up when there were blacks or Hispanics around to talk about. Protestants spoke disparagingly of Catholics, although my recollection is that it was more a matter of intonation and criticism than the use of slurs. There were slurs for French Canadians, but I don’t remember what they were. Sometimes crews came down from Quebec to work on construction projects, and that was when the muttering about them would start.

    The slur I more frequently heard was the one used about commercial transactions, where someone who had gotten the better of a bargain would crow about having “jewed” someone down to a lower price. My recollection is that it came up most often in regard to real estate and automobile sales, where negotiation was standard.

    On dictionaries —
    It can be very helpful to have guidance about whether a word is thought to be insulting by some people. Once I got to college, I encountered a lot more diversity, and back in the 1970s, that meant I also encountered more slurs I was unfamiliar with. Before the Internet, the dictionary saved me from acute embarrassment a couple of times.

    As a practical matter, I think it is helpful to have the dictionary document how words are used, but also provide prescriptive information where needed. I grew up when there was a raging debate about the inclusion of “ain’t” in the dictionary, but I never deluded myself that “ain’t” should become part of my working vocabulary as a result of a dictionary entry.

  14. Adrian Bailey said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 12:56 am

    "I think what bothers me (as a very secular, middle-aged Jewish person) about the idea of reclaiming the term is that the vast majority of fans who want to reclaim it are, very likely, not Jewish. How can they 'reclaim' a term that doesn't apply to them?" Yes, but it can be viewed positively that a mixed group of fans want to unite under the banner of the "Yid Army" as a sign of their love for the Jewish heritage of the club. Having said that, I'm a non-Jewish Spurs fan and I feel uncomfortable with using the Y-word, about the aggressiveness of the term "Yid Army" and about the new dictionary entry.

    "I still cling to the belief that the primary purpose of a dictionary is to clarify how language should be used." Well, I disagree with this, but dictionaries could/should be more helpful in explaining, for example, the reasons for, and the frequency of, different spellings. People who use a dictionary or spellchecker often choose a spelling at random from those available, and this seems to be creating more confusion and entropy than need be.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 3:59 am

    Although I was vaguely aware that "kike" in <Am.E> was an intentionally pejorative term for "Jew", I was unfamiliar with its etymology until — as a result of this thread — I visited for the first time the Racial Slur Database. It would seem that "kike" originates from the word 'keikl', in Yiddish, which means 'circle', the reason being that the first Jewish immigrants in America, who were unable to sign their names, signed with a circle instead of a cross.

    I would note in passing that while the Racial Slur Database would appear at first sight to be a work of genuine scholarship [1], I found the number of references to the appalling treatment of Jews (and others) in the WW II concentration camps almost beyond belief. How someone can deliberately coin a term of abuse that derives (for example) from the ovens of Auschwitz is just beyond my comprehension …

    [1] One entry in particular causes me to doubt this: [Referring to "Jew"] "Short for Jewish. Not really a slur but could be if you say it the right way". The right way ?

  16. ajay said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 5:32 am

    If I use a word, and then realise that I am not sure that I have used it correctly (or perhaps not even sure that I have used the right word), then I need an authority to which to turn. Dictionaries and grammars are that authority, or should be.

    And they are!
    If I talk about a sanction pump rather than a suction pump, for example, and I then go to a dictionary to check, it will tell me that I was wrong – because there's no entry for "sanction pump" but there is one for "suction pump". And I was wrong, in the only way that matters – no one else will have understood what I was talking about.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 6:40 am

    And yet, Alex, if I write "comprised of", and am then uncertain as to whether I should instead have written "composed of", I get no useful guidance at all — I am simply told "†c. intransitive with of. Obsolete.
    1481 W. Caxton tr. Myrrour of Worlde i. v. 20 Witte & raison for to serche and compryse of thinges of therthe". No mention whatsover that this is a common and egregious error which careful writers should avoid like the plague.

  18. Rodger C said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 7:38 am

    "Yok" ?= "yog," reversal of "goy"?

    "K*ke" (I can't comfortably write it) I would have thought to be a hypocoristic form of "Isaac," cf. "Ike."

  19. EMH said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 7:59 am

    “Yes, but it can be viewed positively that a mixed group of fans want to unite under the banner of the ’Yid Army’ as a sign of their love for the Jewish heritage of the club.”

    Whether it is viewed positively or not is going to depend a lot on the particular fan who’s standing in front of you, and as a Jew, I start from a position of skepticism.

    As a whole, if it’s so important, they should find another way to signal their love for the Jewish heritage of the club. The word isn’t theirs and it’s at least sometimes derogatory in gentiles’ mouths, so they should let it go and move on.

    The group of people whose peers or previous generations who used (and continue to use) the word derogatorily do not get to decide that an offensive word is suddenly no longer offensive. That determination belongs solely to the group at whom the word is aimed, and in many cases, reclamation by that group still only allows use by the in-group.

  20. Adrian Bailey said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 8:03 am

    The etymology for kike suggested above is unlikely; the OED doesn't believe it.

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 8:17 am

    Fair point, Adrian. For the benefit of those without immediate access to the OED, the relevant extract reads :

    L. Rosten ( Joys of Yiddish (1968) 180, at cited word) suggests that the term arose as a back-formation < Yiddish kaykl , keykl ‘circle’ (ultimately < ancient Greek κύκλος : see cycle n.1); Jewish immigrants to the U.S. would supposedly have been so called because, if illiterate, they drew a circle as a signature instead of an X (which was too close to the Christian sign of the cross for them to use in good conscience). However, the usual Yiddish word for ‘circle’ is not kaykl , keykl , but krays ( < German Kreis : see Wiener Kreis n.).

    Perhaps compare also earlier ikey n. and its etymons Ike, Ikey, pet forms of Isaac, a common Jewish male forename.

  22. Rose Eneri said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 9:30 am

    My husband is a New York City Jew and he does not take offense at any of the terms talked about here. He feels use of these terms reflections solely on the speaker.

    I am a NE Philly Catholic school educated gal (SKS grade school & RYAN HS). We were never taught anything negative about Jews. We were taught that Jesus was a Jew and the Last Supper was a Seder. So, if Jesus was an observant Jew, how could we have a negative opinion about Jews? It makes no sense.

    In addition, the Romans were in charge. They are the ones responsible for the crucifixion, which was part of God's plan. So, Judas and the Romans were advancing God's plan. If not for the crucifixion and resurrection, there would be no Christianity.

    Therefore, any Jew hating, self-professed Christian does not know anything about Christian doctrine.

  23. Peter B. Golden said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 9:36 am

    I never imagined that the Internet would host a Racial Slur Database – naïveté on my part. What group/people has the largest number of slurs?

  24. Rose Eneri said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 9:36 am

    Not to belabor my previous comments, but early Christianity was a sect within Judaism. So, all the earliest followers of Christ were Jews.

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 9:43 am

    Sigh. This is likely to take us seriously off-topic, but I really cannot believe that any god worthy of the name, worthy of our respect, and worthy of our praise, would deliberately plan for his only begotten son to be crucified.

    And no, of course I don't blame the Jewish people for Christ's crucifixion, although I am aware that some people (for example, some of those interviewed in Claude Lanzmann's Shoah) do blame the Jewish people for this, some even going so far as to believe that this justifies the Holocaust.

  26. Breffni said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 9:51 am

    Philip, you've cited the wrong definition of "comprise" (subsense c of sense 3, which covers obsolete cognitive senses like "perceive" and "comprehend"). The relevant one is 8c: "passive. To be composed of, to consist of", first quote 1874.

    There's no warning here either, but not as a result of OED policy, since there are usage warnings elsewhere; more likely the editors just didn't consider "comprised of" to be an error.

    "Comprised of" previously on LL.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 10:02 am

    There are various sorts of reference books about language that might be useful, and a "dictionary" in the strict sense need not be a one-stop-shopping combination of all of them. Nonetheless, some dictionaries (esp. in this online era where pages-per-volume is less of a constraint) do include notes about usage issues and/or controversies, e.g. the online Merriam-Webster noting the empirical existence of people with Philip Taylor's opinion of "comprised of" without actually endorsing that opinion. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/comprise#usage-1 I suppose it's not unlike a note that a word (like the one this post is about) is "usu. offensive," but of course it's harder to do these things with conclusory labels when you have a word, or a sense of a word, or a construction using the word, where the warning ought to be "just fine for many native speakers but viewed negatively by a significant number of others."

    Stepping back, however, I find the OED entry for "yid" a bit odd just because I would not expect the definition of e.g. "tiger" to include specific senses for "major league baseball player representing Detroit" or "college football player representing LSU" or any of the myriad other uses of "tiger" to name a particular team in some sport. I guess this gets back to the definitional quandary of "dictionary," in that we do not usually expect a dictionary to include comprehensive ("encyclopedic," you might say) coverage of proper names, as confirmed by e.g. reference books I remember from my childhood that had a "gazeteer" as a separate thing appended to the end of a dictionary with an alphabetical list of toponyms that didn't make the cut to be included in the dictionary proper.


  28. Robert Coren said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 10:20 am

    "Yid" may be rare in the US these days, or in the youths of most of the posters here, but I can offer a single data point suggesting that it was current here at one time. In Ring Lardner's story "Alibi Ike" (written, and taking place, in the 1920s, if memory serves), the title character (a professional baseball player) is given this nickname by his teammates because he makes excuses for everything he does, good or bad; except that, to avoid offending him, they drop the
    "Alibi" portion when addressing him. He is nonetheless puzzled: "Why do you guys call me 'Ike'? I ain't no Yid."

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 10:29 am

    Thank you for that, Breffni — I had completely failed to spot that sub-entry, which as you correctly point out, is the most relevant one to the point that I was seeking to make. The LL link that you cite also makes interesting reading (I had read it previously, but have just read it again) but in my heart-of-hearts I continue to believe that just because "[t]his usage continues to be widespread in well-edited writing by well-regarded writers" does not of itself make it right. Even well-regarded writers and highly competent editors can inadvertently adopt or allow through usages to which they have become inured by repeated exposure, even when such usages have been condemned by no less authorities than H W Fowler and Sir Ernest Gowers:

    This lamentable common use of comprise as a synonym of compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.

  30. Breffni said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 11:06 am

    But the practice of "well-edited writing by well-regarded writers" eventually becomes unexceptionable convention, leaving the precepts of the Fowlers and Gowerses looking as relevant as advice on how to address the scullery maid. My favourite example (I think I've posted it before) is that abomination isolated. An OED quote from 1800: "The affected, frenchified, and unnecessary word isolated is not English, and we trust never will be. [ Todd 1818 adds: ‘I fully agree with the writer in considering it a most affected word’.]"

    Presumably others shared this view at the time, and presumably nobody at all does today. Is English the weaker for that? Is an eyesore still an eyesore even when nobody notices it any more?

  31. Philip Taylor said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 11:19 am

    "If a tree falls in a forest, and there is no-one there to hear it, does it make any sound ?".

  32. Philip Taylor said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 11:22 am

    But as regards the OED quotation from 1800: "The Oxford English Dictionary was originally published in fascicles between 1884 and 1928". So perhaps another dictionary, or perhaps even apocryphal …

  33. Breffni said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 11:35 am

    Philip, I meant it was one of the quotations provided by the OED in the entry for isolated. The source is here.

    I avoid "comprised of" myself, but I'm sure complaints about it will look like curious antiques within a generation, and the vocabulary of English will not be appreciably weaker for it.

  34. Philip Taylor said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 11:42 am

    Hmmm, long-S and ct-ligatures : typographically beautiful, but even I (conservative though I am) would not normally regard guidance from that era as being totally relevant today !

  35. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 11:50 am

    I have often wondered if there is some German influence behind the pejorative use of 'Yid,' since the word itself comes from the German Jüde, a variant of Jude that was in common use until the 18th century, and was the only form used by Luther. (It may be a back-formation from jüdisch or Jüdin.)
    It came to be a pejorative in southern Germany; I remember being called a Jüd by some Bavarian bullies in the late 1940s.
    In central and northern Germany, however, there are still streets called Jüdengasse or such, and I would guess that such names would have been changed if the local Jewish communities (pre-Hitler) had found them offensive.

  36. BZ said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 12:57 pm

    I find it troubling when a word referring to Jews (irrespective of its offensiveness on its own) gets used to refer to a group of people (some of) whom are non-Jewish. It reeks of stereotyping to me.

  37. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 19, 2020 @ 2:52 pm

    To BZ's point, ethnically-derived sports teams names are not unknown in the U.S., and AFAIK no one finds it odd that the Boston Celtics or Notre Dame Fighting Irish field players who are manifestly not of the referenced ethnicity. See also at the Division III level of college athletics the likes of the Union College Dutchmen or for that matter the Yeshiva University Maccabees, although I don't know how ethnically diverse the last-mentioned's athletes are in practice.

    Most recent controversies over the use of Indian-tribe names for college athletic teams in the U.S. (felt by many to have unfortunate overtones that Gaelic-themed names are apparently not as widely perceived to present) have been resolved with the principle "it's okay if the relevant tribe is okay with it, but otherwise not." Sometimes that gets tricky (multiple tribal governments claimed to have a say in whether or not the University of North Dakota should continue to field the Fighting Sioux, and they did not all have the same view), and it gets trickier in at least a U.S. context for other ethnic groups that do not have official governmental authorities that can (rightly or wrongly) be taken to speak authoritatively on behalf of the group in such matters. Things may be otherwise elsewhere, but I doubt that British Jewry these days is an Ottoman-style millet where the Chief Rabbi's yea or nay might suffice to resolve the issue authoritatively as far as the gentile authorities are concerned.

  38. Stephen said,

    February 20, 2020 @ 9:20 am

    @Barbara Phillips Long

    "In my northeastern U.S. experience, the board is a two-by-.four. Is the English reference to dimensions opposite that of the U.S.?"

    When buying wood you would be much more likely to say 2 by 4, albeit that it will be marketed with metric dimensions.

    When using it then context will affect the usage. Vertical bracing at the corner of a small cupboard (where you see the narrow dimension) would be 2 by 4; battens on a wall that plasterboard will be attached (where you see the wider dimension) would be 4 by 2.

    So 2 by 4 is more common but both are in use.

    All just my impression as a homeowner who does DIY, not as a specialist.

  39. Bloix said,

    February 20, 2020 @ 11:30 am

    Thank you for the Groton memory.

    Yid is the Yiddish (literally "Jewish") word for Jew. Pronounced Yeed or Eed depending on the dialect, and not pejorative at all. A 1920 play by Sholem Aleichem, which premiered in New York in 1920, was titled S'iz shver tsu zayn a Yid (It's Hard to be a Jew). A 1936 film, about a girl who disguises herself as a boy and starring Molly Picon, was titled Yidl mitn Fidl (The little Jew with a Fiddle).

    So, no reason for it to be insulting except from people who think that any reference to Jews is insulting.

    Article about Yid and the Spurs here;:

  40. BZ said,

    February 20, 2020 @ 11:46 am

    And "zhid" is Polish for Jew, but is extremely offensive in any other language. Similarly (though not to the same degree) "negro" is Spanish for "black".

  41. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 20, 2020 @ 8:37 pm

    @Stephen— I wonder if a batten or other board used as paneling is different than structural pieces of wood. I am speculating because the dimensions of softwood I hear about in the U.S. all lead with the narrow dimension (and are based on unplaned dimensions called “nominal dimensions”), so the buyer would be looking for a 2×6 or a 1×3, for instance. Hardwood, more often used for trim, has other dimensional descriptions. See:


    The site talks about “North American” lumber sizes. My guess is that Canada uses the same dimensions and that most of the softwoods sold in the U.S. and Canada come from the U.S. and Canada. I don’t know where hardwoods used for trim are sourced for North America, and I am totally clueless about where lumber sold in Great Britain and Europe comes from. There’s more background about U.S. standards here:


  42. Philip Taylor said,

    February 21, 2020 @ 4:04 am

    We don't have "lumber" over here, Barbara — we have "timber" ☺ And for me, it is always a (these days metric) length of 4×2 at the point of purchase, regardless of the intended final orientation.

  43. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 22, 2020 @ 3:20 am

    Thanks, Philip. “Timber” is used somewhat differently in the U.S.:

    “ The words "lumber" and "timber" are often used interchangeably to refer to wood used in construction work, but there has been considerable debate as to which term should apply in a given scenario. Pieces of wood that are smaller than 5 inches wide by 5 inches thick (regardless of length) are generally referred to as lumber. These pieces are machine-planed and sawn to fit certain dimensional specifications (e.g., 2×4", 2×8", etc.) and are primarily used in residential construction. Pieces of wood over 5 inches wide by 5 inches thick (regardless of length) are referred to as timber, and any timber pieces that exceed 8" wide by 8" thick are referred to as beams. As timber pieces are larger in dimension, they are often used to construct the frames of large structures such as buildings and bridges. Timber is also commonly utilized in large quantities for railroad ties, mine shaft supports and crossbeams on utility poles. ”


    In the U.S., wood is often sold at lumberyards; I have only read “timber merchant” in texts relating to Great Britain. I hear or read “timber” more often in connection with “timber construction” or with timbers in wooden ship construction, or in connection with logging yields (timber harvest, timber extraction).

  44. Philip Taylor said,

    February 23, 2020 @ 6:16 am

    Barbara — although I knew of the American "wood" meaning of "lumber" (as in "I'm a lumberjack and I'm all right"), I knew it in British usage only in the phrase "lumber room" (= "junk room") and phrases such as "don't lumber me with …". The Wikipedia article on "lumber room" states that "[t]he OED mentions in the verb 'lumbering' that it first meant to obstruct with pieces of wood …" but I have just searched the online edition and can find no such mention; the closest I can find being "to cover, fill up, or obstruct with lumber"; however, the corresponding entry for "lumber" as substantive gives the primary meaning as "junk" (paraphrase), restricting the "wood" meaning solely to American usage. I therefore cannot help but feel that the Wikipedia article may be a little confused.

    Surprisingly, the OED definition of "lumber" in the American sense is somewhat at variance with yours, in that the OED states that lumber is "[t]imber sawn into rough planks or otherwise roughly prepared for the market" : "rough planks" / "roughly prepared" rather than "machine-planed".

  45. Earl Crane said,

    February 23, 2020 @ 11:52 am

    Straying from the original topic…To me, it has been that lumber is what is in the forest standing until it gets to the lumber mill. What comes out of the lumber mill is lumber.

  46. Robert Coren said,

    February 24, 2020 @ 10:09 am

    @Earl Crane: I presume that that first "lumber" was supposed to be "timber".

  47. Not a fan « Venn Librarian said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 3:40 am

    […] it to find etymologies of words (or alternate spellings).  So imagine my shock when I read this on LanguageLog, that the "Y-word" has been repurposed and […]

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