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The Etymology of "Ghetto": New Evidence from Rome

Sandra Debenedetti-Stow
Jewish History
Vol. 6, No. 1/2, The Frank Talmage Memorial Volume (1992), pp. 79-85
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20101121
Page Count: 7
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The Etymology of "Ghetto": New Evidence from Rome
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Abstract

Historians and linguists have long debated the etymology of the term "ghetto," on the basis of historical, social or linguistical evidence. This paper rests on the evidence of notarial acts, drawn up by Jewish notaries in the Roman ghetto between 1536 and 1640. These documents, found in the Fondo Notai Ebrei of the Archivio Storico Capitolino, provide insights into the way the Jews of Rome perceived the word. In May 1589, the word "ghetto" replaced the terms "serraglio" and "claustro," and it appears in a variety of spellings: "ghet," "gete," "gette," "ghetto," "getto." This evidence may help to resolve the controversy surrounding the occurrence of the two phonetical forms -- the palatal sound "ge" and the guttural "ghe" (upon which some proposed etymologies rest), as it seems that the notaries employed "ge" or "ghe" indiscriminately. One of the forms in which the term appears, "gette," is, in addition, identical with the transliteration of the Hebrew word ‮ט‬‮נ‬, divorce. These homonyms suggest that for the Jews of the Roman ghetto, the word referred not only to their place of residence, but also to the Hebrew "get," a bill of divorce, the image of which it conjured up. /// [Abstract in Hebrew].

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