January 20, 2012

"Strikingly dark": A euphemism for "Jewish?"

I discovered an interesting euphemism for "Jew" (Jew-phemism?), "strikingly dark," in Six Crises, Richard Nixon's 1962 book (Nixon Lib. ed. 1991) about episodes from his political career.

Some background as to why anyone needed a euphemism for "Jew": In the twentieth century (in its first half, certainly) some people shied away from referring to Jews as "Jews." Instead they would use one of the words more properly denoting the people of the Bible, "Hebrews" or "Israelites."  Think of the Young Men's Hebrew Association, a parallel to the YMC--(Christian)--A.   H.L. Mencken discusses euphemisms for "Jew" in the second edition (1921) of The American Language.  He thinks the  sensitivity stems from the opprobrious use of the "Jew" as a noun generically to mean "money-lender"; and as a verb meaning "to drive a hard bargain."  Supplement One (1945, p. 613) to Mencken's fourth edition makes the same observation, although noting that by 1945 "Jew" and "Jewish" were used much less warily by those whom the words properly denoted. When used as an adjective, as in "Jew boy" or in "Jew-usurer" (from Jane Eyre), the word is definitely opprobrious.1  Use of the word "Jew" as an attack is not necessarily gone today--read Google's statement about the use of the word "Jew," primarily by anti-Semitic websites, available here.    Finally, I suppose someone predisposed against Jewish people would as soon sneer "Jew" as speak it.   

For "strikingly dark":Chapter One of Six Crises discusses Richard Nixon's career-making investigation of Alger Hiss, an accused Communist and accused spy for the Soviets.  Hiss tells Nixon about Esther, the wife of his main accuser Whittaker Chambers, during a Congressional hearing.

[Hiss:] "She was a rather strikingly dark person.  Very strikingly dark."
. . . I [Nixon] had seen Esther Chambers and she was indeed strikingly dark.  (p. 28)

It seems Esther must be Jewish--her given name is an indicator, and because of the obviously Jewish name of her Brooklynite nephew, Nathan Levine (p. 50).  Wikipedia says her maiden name was "Shemitz."  And it seems Hiss and Nixon intend to identify her by a salient characteristic, looking Jewish.  But they describe her not as a Jew, but by the poetic euphemism of being "strikingly dark."

I've never heard "strikingly dark" used in this way, and can't find anything on the interwebs other than the Hiss testimony that uses it to mean "Jewish." (The locution seems common enough in other contexts.)  Any thoughts?

1. See also R.W. Burchfield, Fowler's Modern English Usage (3d ed. 1996), s.v. "Jew." 

No comments:

Post a Comment