Foreigner: goy, gajo, gaijin

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Annie Gottlieb asks:

Here's a question for you:
These words all have the same meaning—
goy, goyim (Yiddish)
gajo (Roma)
gaijin (Japanese)
Is there any relationship or is this a coincidence?


Borrowed from Yiddish גוי(goy, gentile), from Hebrew גּוֹי(goi, nation).

Compare Exodus 19:6: ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש (mamlekhet kohanim wegoy qadosh, [] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation) (referring to the Jewish people). The word goy technically refers not to non-Jews, but rather to a nation per se; the Jews are said to constitute a “goy”. But through common usage – namely referring to "the [other non-Jewish] nations" – the word came to colloquially refer to non-Jews.


Semitic root gwy

Central Semitic noun *gāy-, tribe.

goy, from Hebrew gôy, nation people (usually, and later exclusively, of non-Israelite, and then non-Jewish, people).

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition (2016)



From gajão, from Caló gachó (man), from Romani gadjo (non-Romani).


Cf. gaucho:

Of unknown origin, probably from a South American indigenous language, such as Mapudungun cauchu (vagrant, wanderer), kauču (friend), or Quechua wahcha (vagabond, poor person).




From Japanese 外人 (gaijin, foreigner), from Middle Chinese 外人 (ngwàj-nyin). Compare Mandarin 外人 (wàirén), from Old Chinese 外人 (*ŋʷˁat-s ning, foreigner, outsider” < “non-relative), from (outside, outer) + (person).



Here I'll add a few other look-alikes meaning "foreigner; stranger; alien":


HUAJ (Albanian)

From Proto-Albanian *ksōn(w)ja akin to Ancient Greek ξένος (xénos, foreign), which according to Beekes is Pre-Greek, although the existence of an Avestan cognate renders this untenable.



MGENI (Swahili)

From Proto-Bantu *mʊ̀gènì, or by surface analysis, from m- +‎ -geni (foreign, strange).

Gujarati: મગેની (magenī)



Selected readings


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 4, 2020 @ 5:03 pm

    I would just like to point out that in Genesis 12:2, God tells Abraham, v-'e`eskha l-goy gadol," which does not mean "and I will make you into a big Gentile."

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 4, 2020 @ 5:04 pm

    I would also like to remember the closing italic tag.

  3. martin schwartz said,

    August 4, 2020 @ 6:45 pm

    I was intrigued by the remarks on the etymology Alb. huaj.
    Indeed, the late Beekes' seeing xénos as Pre-Greek is rendered untenable by the existence of a cognate in Avestan, however Wiktionary
    gives no further info on this. It was I who provided that Avestan cognate (the articles may be found on the internet), first in 1982 ("The Indo-European Vocabulary of Exchange, Hospitality, and Intimacy",
    Proceedings of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 8), and, among other
    publications, in 2003, "Gathic Compositional History, Yasna 29, and Bovine Symbolism", pp. 213-214, in which I reconstructed PIE *ksen-w-,
    this time with initial velar as against my earlier suggestion of a labio-velar, based on wrong comparison with Hittite kussan-. A further,
    very detailed account of the etymology and its role in Gathic poetics
    is (too dang long–that's not a Chinese curse) awaiting publication in
    a Viennese festschrift. A takeaway is that the original meaning of the
    word, as evidenced clearly in Homer, is that xénos/xeînos was not
    'stranger, foreigner', but someone who, as per the archaic gift-exchange
    institution, was one of two parties who were mutually tied by an ongoing
    relationship of hospitality etc. ; in Avestan the cognate verb referred to
    reciprocity and provision of hospitality and further (like the archaic Greek) cultic relationship. For many years Calvert Watkins contested my etymology of the Greek word, himself favoring a connection a connection with PIE *ghosti-, another term of reciprocity, but he finally conceded in public that my etymology was to be accepted for phonological reasons.
    I have been aware of Alb. huaj and its possible connection to the Greek, but the assumption of a parallel semantic evolution 'to stranger, foreigner', and the inscrutabilities (for me) of Alb. historical phonology have made me omit discussion of huaj.
    Martin Schwartz

    Martin Schwartz

  4. marin schwartz said,

    August 4, 2020 @ 7:14 pm

    As for goy, goyim: An interesting deveopment is Georgian goimi,
    which seems to mean 'an old fashioned, unstylish out-of -it person, a boor or yokel', as I have learned from a Tbilisi native speaker. The word originated from 'gentile' among Georgian Jews, who apparently (like speakers of Judeo-Iranian languages) use the pl. form a a singular.
    It is noted online, inter alia in an entry "!11 Georgian slang words to help you speak like a local" [and not like a yokel, M.S.]. The latter article also
    gives baiti for 'living space', which ultimately comes from Hebrew bayit
    (as the article indicates); I'm reminded of Viennese beisl 'bistro, tavern,
    restaurant', from the Ashkenazic pronunciation of the Heb. word, bayis.
    Martin Schwartz

  5. Bloix said,

    August 4, 2020 @ 7:29 pm

    Goy is a Hebrew word adopted into Yiddish. In Hebrew it means nation, as in Isaiah's prophesy, Lo yisa goy el goy herev, lo yilmedu od milchamah, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, they shall study war no more.

    Goyim (plural of goy) took on the meaning of 'the nations,' that is, peoples other than Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. In Yiddish, the meaning became extended to any person who is one of those "nations."

  6. Bloix said,

    August 4, 2020 @ 7:31 pm

    Oh dear. Next time I will finish reading the post before commenting.

  7. Dan Milton said,

    August 5, 2020 @ 8:11 am

    A South American source for “gajo” might be plausible if it were strictly Iberian. However, it’s common Romany throughout Europe.
    Wikipedia (Gadjo) says source unknown but offers possibilities.

  8. Chris Button said,

    August 5, 2020 @ 9:49 am

    Another unrelated lookalike is Cantonese "gweilo" 鬼佬

  9. Stephen Hart said,

    August 5, 2020 @ 12:34 pm

    Wikipedia (Gadjo):

  10. stephen said,

    August 5, 2020 @ 3:10 pm

    I looked up Wikipedia's article on the actress Gal Gadot. It quotes a magazine article…

    "In Hebrew, her first name means "wave" and her surname means "riverbanks".

    I wondered if she wanted to appear in that Tom Stoppard play, Waiting for Godot.

  11. GH said,

    August 5, 2020 @ 4:11 pm

    *Samuel Beckett

  12. CuConnacht said,

    August 5, 2020 @ 6:08 pm

    The last I heard, Samuel Beckett's literary executors would not allow a production of Godot with a female cast.

  13. Misha Schutt said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 1:11 am

    Aside from the fact that Godot does not appear either.

  14. Vanya said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 6:22 am

    Another unrelated lookalike is Cantonese "gweilo" 鬼佬

    And Welsh "gwlad" means "nation, country".

  15. JJM said,

    August 6, 2020 @ 2:55 pm

    Regarding "gweilo", a good friend of mine (he is Caucasian) from military days is married to woman whose family was originally from Hong Kong. Over the years, he has become a rather competent colloquial Cantonese speaker by osmosis.

    His wife often sends him to the big Chinese specialty supermarket near here to pick up groceries. He's frequently amused by the determined elderly Chinese ladies who push their shopping carts aggressively through the produce section, muttering "gweilo" and other epithets in his direction should he cross their path, secure in the knowledge that he couldn't possibly understand what they're saying!

  16. Shannon said,

    August 8, 2020 @ 9:27 pm

    "The word goy technically refers not to non-Jews, but rather to a nation per se; the Jews are said to constitute a “goy”. But through common usage – namely referring to "the [other non-Jewish] nations" – the word came to colloquially refer to non-Jews."

    Seems to me there is a phenomenon where words describing categories that apply to everyone in principle become narrowed to apply to all those except the one that the speaker is in. Maybe it's related to markedness and unmarkedness?

    The same happened to the word "ethnic" or "ethnicity" right, (historically used for all groups, at some points used as a descriptor for non-Judeo-Christian, then in more modern times, encouraged to apply to all groups equally again), which you get the sense of occasionally in phrases like "ethnic food" meaning food of the non-dominant culture. Or maybe, one relevant to linguistics, use of the word "accent" to mean "non-standard accent", as in situations when someone describes someone as having no accent.

    You often see pushback against this by saying "everyone has a(n) X", where X is an ethnicity, an accent etc. when people exclude themselves or their own group from being categorized into having X.

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