You won’t hear the word ‘yid’ sung at most Tottenham Hotspur matches. You’ll hear it sung at all of them. If you know which tunes to listen for, you’ll hear it whenever Spurs are on TV. The club has been Jewish-owned since 1982, and its Jewish associations go back to the 1920s. Most Spurs fans aren’t Jewish, but the story goes that when rivals began to target the Jewish minority with ‘yid’ songs in the 1960s, the rest ‘reclaimed’ the word on their behalf. Since then, every Spurs fan, and player, has been ‘a yid’. (I support Spurs and I’m not Jewish, although my father is.)

Last week, the World Jewish Congress condemned football fans for using ‘yid’, ‘either as a self-designated nickname or as a slogan against rivals’, because it carries ‘a distinctly pejorative and anti-Semitic message’. It doesn’t always carry it, obviously. The WJC statement itself uses the word seven times.

The best case against Spurs’ fans use of the word was put forward in 2011 by the comedian and writer David Baddiel, a Jewish Chelsea fan, who with his brother Ivor heard and tolerated the chanting of ‘yid’ against Spurs for many years. It was ‘banter you put up with’, he thought. Then one day a man behind him started shouting ‘Fuck the Yids! Fuck the Jews!’, which would give anybody pause for thought.

The brothers made a film about the Y-word. ‘I don’t want to sanitise football,’ Baddiel said. ‘Football has to involve aggression.’ He didn’t demand mass arrests in the stands. He asked only that fans, including Spurs fans, think carefully about the consequences of their chanting. In his view, ironic ‘yid’ chants make abusive ones more likely.

In autumn 2013, the Metropolitan Police changed its policy on ‘yid’, and began warning Spurs fans not to sing it. They did anyway, and chanted ‘We’ll sing what we want!’ as well. Three were arrested. But the following March, the Crown Prosecution Service declined to prosecute because ‘although the same words used in other contexts could in theory satisfy the criteria for “threatening, abusive or insulting”, it is unlikely that a court would find that they were in the context of the three particular cases in question.’

Shortly afterwards, the club released the findings of a survey, which showed that a large majority of its Jewish (73 per cent) and non-Jewish (74 per cent) fans thought that ‘yid’ songs should be allowed. Just 6 per cent and 4 per cent said the songs made them feel uncomfortable. In short, the songs are legal and offend hardly anybody. The same cannot be said for Chelsea’s, which continue, bringing us back to where Baddiel came in.

Some Chelsea fans, I think, have begun to use ‘yid’ to mean ‘Spurs fan’, an insult certainly, but nothing to do with anyone’s religion or ethnicity. How could it be, when most of the people they shout it at aren’t Jewish? For others, it still means ‘Jew’, so they don’t shout it at all, unless they intend to be anti-Semitic. In practice it is hard to know, let alone to prove, which people are which. The hardcore anti-Semites have to make it painfully obvious, like the Chelsea fans who took a flag with an SS symbol to a recent match in Budapest.

‘I think context is the key thing,’ said one respondent to the Spurs survey, ‘which determines if any word is offensive, or not.’ If the targets of a racial slur use it as a symbol of belonging, then that’s what it becomes. Meanings can shift the other way, too. Hissing is an innocuous imprecation, fit for pantomimes, until you find out that rival fans do it at Spurs games to evoke the gas chambers. Throwing a banana skin at a black player – as a Spurs fan did to Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in December – is different from throwing an apple core. (‘The racial element was there,’ a magistrate said, handing down a fine and a banning order.)

If you think you can tell anti-Semitism from ‘banter you put up with’, I recommend watching a clip of Chelsea fans singing ‘Who’s that team we call the Chelsea’, which culminates in the line ‘Tottenham are a load of yids’. Do these people really hate Jews? Maybe. They certainly don’t seem to care what any passing Jew might think. On the other hand, how literally should we take the words of any football song? For years, Spurs fans sang that Arsène Wenger was a paedophile, without ever thinking that he was. Swear words all have meanings, but that isn’t really what they mean.

Another problem with the Baddiel argument is that it seems to imply the targets of anti-Semitic abuse are to blame for inciting their abusers. Philip Spencer, a professor of Holocaust studies and a Spurs season ticket holder, is comfortable with Tottenham’s ‘yid’ songs, and will have none of this. ‘Nobody is enabled by what Jews do, or what supporters of Jews do,’ he told a Tottenham podcast. Indeed, in its demand for action against the word, the WJC finds itself praising the efforts of Chelsea, whose fans chant anti-Semitic abuse, and condemning Spurs, where they don’t.