Segregated From Its History, How ‘Ghetto’ Lost Its Meaning

Segregated From Its History, How ‘Ghetto’ Lost Its Meaning

This current use of “ghetto” is also curiously mismatched to the history of ghettos. Venice’s ghettos were home to prosperous merchants. Warsaw’s ghettos housed resistance fighters. Harlem was a ghetto when it hosted a transformative literary and cultural movement. Chicago’s Bronzeville was home to the black professional class — ghettos, by removing citizens’ freedom to live where they want, force schoolteachers next to drug dealers, working families next to whorehouses.


But slang references to “ghetto culture” don’t refer to any of those legacies, or to the perseverance it takes to survive under such limitations. (“You surviving in the ghetto,” raps Busta Rhymes, “you can make it anywhere.”) Instead, they reduce ghetto life to poverty and poor behavior. Acting ghetto. Being ghetto. Dressingghetto.


Ghetto, in slang usage, has entirely lost the sense of forced segregation — the meaning it held for centuries. In a rapid about-face, it’s become an indictment of individual choices.


Hmm, I wish they went a little farther with this. But still a good read.

3 thoughts on “Segregated From Its History, How ‘Ghetto’ Lost Its Meaning

  1. Indeed, it is interesting how words throughout history change thier meaning over time. The “N” word in original context was to mean “Fool”, hence used to subject African American Slaves to a status of abjection. However, there are modern African American sub-cultures that use the word as a term of friendship with one another, or in other cases a form of banter. I of course am generalising, Richard Prior in one of his shows explained that after he traveled to Africa he vowed to never use that word, in any context.

    In the movie Coach Carter, Carter played by Samuael Jackson says “If a white man said that word you’d be ready to fight, when you use that word with each other, you’re making him think that it’s ok for him to use it…”.

    Similar history with the term Slut, by today’s standards to mean promiscuous woman. But original context is to mean destitute.

    Extremely interesting how a term with narrow definition over time can evolve to a level of vagueness and ambiguity.

    • I think there’s something to be said for the words, and here I think the article could have really made some interesting points, that accept the burden of modern symbols masquerading as past realities. So what you’ve picked up on, but in a sense inverted. Instead of, say, slut as a destitute individual now meaning something wildly different there are words that are ‘slut’ but now, with a few studied erasures, have always meant slut regardless of their actual etymological roots.

      I take as an example faggot. Once used to mean any piece of wood, then slowly came to mean a homosexual before becoming, for whatever reason, the name that a neither-here-nor-there England, or Scotland or somewhere used to denote a homosexual about to be burned. Of course a bit of etymological nonsense, whatever Britain called homosexuals when they burned them was not faggot, but interesting etymological nonsense. The modern world application implies (applies?) retroactive meaning. Ghetto today means poor, or poverty, though the Jewish ghettos were not uniformly poor. In many areas of Europe and North Africa quite the opposite. Yet they have ‘become’ poor because today ghettos are poor and so ghettos should always have been poor. What does that say about us? Who knows, but I believe it is a question worth asking.

      They are the ‘slut’ words that now never meant destitute and I find it interesting just as much if not more so than the changing meaning of words. Words always change. But what is it about the words whose history, as well as their meaning, have changed?

      • Thanks amyclay, this post I find really interesting, because yes I’m aware of the f*gg*t historical context, but had no idea about ghetto, bring some kind of apartheid status.

        Interesting the question you raise on the evolved, or I guess devolved interpretation of ghetto. Those claiming x is poor, x is from a ghetto, therefore ghetto is for poor people. Is a logic fallacy if “post hoc ergo propter hoc”,a misunderstanding of correlation and causation, which could be an additional explanation to the definitionof ghetto has completely lost its meaning.

        thank you for an extremely high thought provoking post 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s