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This answer from a year ago suggested "Shylock" as a slang term for "debt-collector" and received 4 upvotes. Academics still debate whether Shakespeare's character Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was anti-Semitic, but there's absolutely NO debate about whether it's anti-Semitic for denizens of the 21st century to use Shylock as a synonym for loan shark.

The answer cited this 2014 TIME article, "When Did ‘Shylock’ Become a Slur?", and used quotes from it totally out of context, completely changing its meaning. This is the meaning those passages were actually conveying:

The word “shylock,” which has been used to refer to loan sharks, is an eponym from a Jewish character in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Jewish Americans have publicly challenged the portrayal as an insult to Jews for more than 50 years, even as it remained a fixture of the modern lexicon. Today, “shylock” is considered an anti-Semitic slur [...] [but] the term was, not too long ago, considered by many to be appropriate for public usage.

A quick survey of TIME’s archives reveals 119 articles that use the word. Many of those are articles about The Merchant of Venice and Philip Roth’s book Operation Shylock — but the last time it was used casually, without reference to the character, was in a 1977 story about the mafia”

The article goes on to reference a "slang lexicographer":

Concern about Shylock wasn’t new in the ’60s either. Writing in the journal Engage, slang lexicographer Jonothan Green has noted the word was listed in a 1950s collection of “schoolyard wit and wisdom” as a taunt for Jews. (Green also notes that the word doesn’t start to appear to mean a loan shark until the 19th century.) [...]

In short, “shylock” has long been considered offensive — but that didn’t stop its casual use in conversation and print at least into the 1970s.

What's the best way to handle something like that? I would think it should either be flagged as hate speech/offensive or at a minimum, edited to clarify that it's considered an anti-Semitic slur in modern usage.

  • If someone uses Iago as a synonym for a sinister villain, are they guilty of anti-Italian hate speech? – user94657 Nov 23 '16 at 5:20
  • Editing in the second part of the cited text might be a good option. – Helmar Nov 23 '16 at 6:35
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    @Helmar I think that's going a little too far, since our quotation policy restricts our ability to take excerpts from another source to only that which is relevant to the answer. Since that notes an entirely different circumstance of use, it might be an entirely unrelated sense of the eponym. However, this post violated our attribution policy, which requires inline citation of the source, so I will take the liberty of applying a proper citation. Since race was already mentioned, and the title mentions it became a slur, I think people should be able to infer that this may be a racial slur then. – Tonepoet Nov 23 '16 at 6:59
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    I have cast a rare downvote for utter cluelessness. This is a site about English usage, and that may include usage generally considered offensive. For a word to be a slur, it must first be cast. And if it isn't used as a verbal weapon, then it's inappropriate for you to use flags in an attempt to censor discussion because your sensibilities have been wounded. My understanding is that The Sopranos refers to the term without a Jewish character in sight. Are you planning to write a letter of complaint to HBO? – deadrat Nov 23 '16 at 8:20
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    Why not just propose an edit and add a sentence like "Note that this term can be considered offensive"? – terdon Nov 23 '16 at 9:07
  • @zaq but that is not a stereotypical trait of Italians. We may be passionate, and we have the mafia, we can play the mandoline, and we may eat spaghetti twice a day, every day, but overall Italians tend to have a positive image. Oh, and we make great espresso too. – Mari-Lou A Nov 23 '16 at 9:18
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    The user quoted a piece from an article, those are not his words. The suggestion Shylock was offered as a solution, the community could have upvoted or downvoted the contribution. It has 5 upvotes, but the OP accepted a much better answer. There is no problem. The user was not being not anti-semitic in the slightest, and neither was the author of the article. It even tells us that the use of the term is old fashioned, and on its way out. – Mari-Lou A Nov 23 '16 at 9:31
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    @terdon I don't think it is a good idea to suggest an edit to add some personal opinion to the post. I think the best way would be for the OP to gain 50 reputation and leave a comment. – user140086 Nov 23 '16 at 11:28
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    @Rathony the word is clearly one that can cause offense. See the recent row over Biden's use of it and even the article quoted in the answer under discussion. Adding a disclaimer along the lines of "Careful. This word can be considered offensive" seems like a perfectly valid edit. – terdon Nov 23 '16 at 12:22
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    Tonepoet solved the problem 5 hours ago with his edit. – ab2 Nov 23 '16 at 12:57
  • Anne, given the limitations on your rep, here (ELU Meta) is exactly the place to start. – Mitch Nov 23 '16 at 14:15
  • Wow. Currently at -9/+7. Does that mean the upvoters think it is a slur and down voters don't think it is a slur? Don't people know about the history around Merchant of Venice and prejudices against Jewish people? – Mitch Nov 23 '16 at 20:39
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    @Mitch Does that mean the upvoters think it is a slur and down voters don't think it is a slur? I can only speak for myself as a downvoter, but my vote has nothing to do with the implications of using shylock as a slur and everything to do with the standard reason for voting on Meta -- does the question raise an appropriate question or solution? – deadrat Nov 24 '16 at 5:50
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I would certainly take "Shylock" these days to refer to the unsavoury aspects of loan-sharkiness rather than be anything to do with religion.

I'm aware that British attitudes to language differ slightly from American attitudes. But we also need to bear in mind that this is a site about language. Knowledge is amoral, and it's up to those with the knowledge as to whether they turn it to moral or immoral purposes. That is to say, this site seeks to be academic and there should be no restriction on the academic discussion of language. Once that language is taken out of that academic context, it could certainly be used pejoratively — but that's outside our control and responsibility. Stating that a word exists with the meaning requested does not necessarily license or condone its use. If that were the case, dictionaries would be half the size they are.

That said, there would be no harm in following terdon's suggestion in a comment: Why not just propose an edit and add a sentence like "Note that this term can be considered offensive"? That is almost certainly the best course of action.

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    I don't think it is a good idea to suggest an edit to add some personal opinion to the post. I think the best way would be for the OP to gain 50 reputation and leave a comment. – user140086 Nov 23 '16 at 11:28
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    Commenting is an option, and doesn't require approval to be incorporated on a post. But there's nothing wrong with proposing an edit: the functionality is there to allow it, and "This can be considered offensive" is not personal opinion: it's an objective fact. Whether the edit reviewers feel it's a useful addition or not is up to them. – Andrew Leach Nov 23 '16 at 11:43
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    I actually disagree that it's a harmless option, since all proposed edits should conform to our editing rules. As somebody who has been working the editing queue recently, I'd reject such an edit for either being an "attempt to reply", or for "clearly conflict[ing] with the author's intent". Commenting about the defect, and maybe voting against the answer is a much better option here. I know we can include additional information only found in the comments, but I would only suggest that in the case of a poster who commented with that information instead of editing. – Tonepoet Nov 23 '16 at 15:32
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    @Tonepoet let's take a clearer example. What if I had failed to add a disclaimer to my answer here which mentions the word nigger? An edit mentioning that it's a word likely to cause offense (to put it lightly) would be a very good thing. Do you disagree? The edit I'm proposing doesn't change anything in the OP, it only adds value to it by explaining the usage of a term. In this case, it would explain that the word shylock can be seen as offensive and should be used with care. – terdon Nov 23 '16 at 15:40
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    @Tonepoet also note that this type of edit is explicitly mentioned in the editing guidelines you linked to: "To clarify the meaning of the post (without changing that meaning)". So, editing an answer that says "you can use shylock" to say you can use *shylock (but be careful as the word can cause offense)" falls neatly under the heading of "clarifying without changing the meaning". – terdon Nov 23 '16 at 15:42
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    @terdon Let's say we have a radical feminist who insists that male-oriented words are offensive and should be avoided. How many answers on ELU should be edited with a disclaimer? I think the line is not clear and you can just leave a comment or downvote it if you don't find the answer useful. I don't think such a comment should be deleted and the OP has the right to edit it, not a third party who finds it offensive. Causing offence is subjective, not objective. That's my opinion. – user140086 Nov 23 '16 at 16:33
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    @Rathony when we are discussing a word that is i) mentioned as offensive in at least some dictionaries; ii) has recently been the focus of a mild scandal because it was used by a public figure and iii) is explicitly called offensive in the very text the answer is quoting from, I really don't see how you could argue it's a question of opinion. And I don't even really care whether it is offensive or not. Point is that some people find it so, so a warning would be useful. – terdon Nov 23 '16 at 16:38
  • @terdon I know your point. But what about such words like "goon", or "retarded"? The first answer doesn't have any disclaimer. Does it have to be edited, too? How about "idiots". How about "moron"? – user140086 Nov 23 '16 at 16:47
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    @Rathony I don't know if you're being intentionally dense here or really don't get the difference between suggesting a word in answer to a word-choice question and mentioning a word when asking for its etymology. I am not saying that disclaimers are needed wherever a potentially offensive word is mentioned! I am talking about this specific case where it's a word that people (myself included) might not realize can be offensive and where it is being suggested as an answer. – terdon Nov 23 '16 at 16:48
  • @terdon I will leave it at that. – user140086 Nov 23 '16 at 16:49
  • @Rathony about half the most commonly referenced dictionaries on ELU consider shylock offensive. That makes can be considered offensive a fact, not an opinion. – Helmar Nov 24 '16 at 12:16
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    @Helmar So, when more than half of the most commonly referenced dictionaries on ELU don't consider the word offensive in 3 to 5 year time (when it gets traction after frequently spoken in the shows like Saturday Night Live or by celebrities like Tina Fey) and we re-edit the post saying it is no longer considered offensive? The point is every word has a potential to be considered as offensive. That's very subjective and not objective. Also, their usage and nuance change. That's why I am objecting to editing the post. Comments will do. – user140086 Nov 24 '16 at 12:25
  • @Rathony comments are ephemeral and should not hold such information. Since SE posts and edits are time-stamped there is no reason to worry about changing nuances. – Helmar Nov 24 '16 at 12:36
  • @Helmar The question was read by 13,749 people, I had not read it before it appeared here, and now we edit the post? I wonder how many edits should be made on ELU for potentially offensive words, especially for those who are against anti-Semitism. I am not anti-Semitic, but how big is Jewish people speaking English as a native language?.Don't you think other words suggested in the question could be also offensive or derogatory/pejorative depending on context? – user140086 Nov 24 '16 at 12:46
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It must not have been an “anti-semitic slur” for Joe Biden, and I had never heard of it being considered that either.

That said, it’s still a way to portray someone as a brutal loanshark unrelated to their personal and private religious preferences. I’m not especially keen on that myself.

But aren’t pretty much all the answers on that page mean words? Should they all have disclaimers?

Or should we just stop catering to people who ask for words to use in unkindness against their fellow?

If we did that, we might have no traffic left on the site. :(

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There are two issues here. The linguistic/cognitive nature of the fact and then how this site deal with such things.

There's no doubt it is an anti-semitic pejorative. It has only ever been used to associate the despicableness of a loan shark with all the other prejudicial attributes of Jewishness. It is not well known nowadays (Is Merchant of Venice not taught nowadays because of the taint of possible anti-semitism?), and is very roughly medium on the slur scale: not as hurtful as 'whore' but more than 'slut'. If a journalist (TV commentator, newspaper writer) were to use the word 'shylock' to describe a banker on the news, the journalist would be out of a job (but maybe at the gym they'd just be a jerk).

As to dealing with it here, ELU is a public use website that attempts to let the community set standards. One of the historically agreed upon standards is to uphold the use/mention distinction. That is, mean things should not be used (using mean things bad), but it is entirely fair game to discuss (hopefully rationally) mean things (mentioning/quoting mean things OK). And there's also understanding: titles that mention distasteful words are expected to be asterisked but the contents of questions and answers can quote anything verbatim.

In a good, rational, extensive dictionary, these and much more should be discussed to properly describe its usage. Frequency, cultural context, collocations, etc.

Sometimes people come to ELU for a definitive explanation, like more than better dictionary. Some come to help them with a good comeback when arguing with friends. ELU tries not to cater to the latter. So something should be said in that answer.

Others have suggested that a comment be made on that answer. Since comments are intended to be removable and answers to stand alone, and an essential part of the connotations of that word are missing, I think the answer itself should be edited to note that the term is hurtful to a minority group and that current practice would be to not use it at all in the media and avoided between friends.

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    "There's no doubt..." Actually, there is: see my answer. If it weren't for that paragraph I'd upvote this one. – Andrew Leach Nov 23 '16 at 18:12
  • @AndrewLeach I'm guessing you're not Jewish. – Mitch Nov 23 '16 at 20:29
  • AL is correct, unless you think that in my example of the reference to gentile loan sharks in The Sopranos, the implication is that the gangsters are also evil international bankers who control the world and that they kill Christian babies to get blood to make matzoh. Go ahead: guess whether I'm Jewish. – deadrat Nov 24 '16 at 6:03
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I wish one of the answers mentioned the edit of @Tonepoet (made about 2 hours after the Meta question was posed) and whether that edit solved the problem in this particular case. (I think it did.) Tonepoet added the citation that the OP left out. That citation is When Did 'Shylock' Become a Slur?

This was a lucky edit, in that all Tonepoet did was add the citation. This lucky edit cannot answer the more general question, but would be a guideline as to what people think is needed.

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