Spike Lee's Gentrification Rant Sends People to the Dictionary

A Blog About Language
March 3 2014 10:06 AM

Spike Lee's Gentrification Rant Sends People to the Dictionary

Director Spike Lee.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Lookups of the word gentrification spiked in late February after film director Spike Lee, in honor of Black History Month, gave a talk at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. Lee denounced the economic and cultural consequences of more and more white people moving into predominantly black neighborhoods, such as Harlem and Fort Greene, and later received the following comment from an audience member:

You mentioned gentrification with some slightly negative connotations and I wondered if you ever looked at it from the other side.

Lee, who cut off the questioner, began his response by taking issue with a recent New York Times article about, as he put it, "the good of gentrification" and then went on to raise several basic questions: "Why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why's the garbage getting picked up more regularly?" Here's a representative sample of the full, expletive-filled seven minutes:

Gentrification was coined in 1964 by German-Jewish sociologist and town planner Ruth Glass, who immigrated to England in the mid-1930s. In London: Aspects of Change, she wrote:

Once the process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.

Gentrification is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents." It derives from gentry, meaning "aristocracy," and ultimately from the Old French word for "noble" or "high-born."

See what else is spiking at Merriam-Webster.com.

Peter Sokolowski is Editor-at-Large at Merriam-Webster.


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