Euphemism Creep in Hebrew.

Elon Gilad in Haaretz has a piece called “Why Hebrew Has So Many Words for ‘Penis’” (if that link takes you to a paywall, google the title and use the cached version) that provides some fine, and salacious, language history:

Euphemism creep didn’t start yesterday. The Bible is replete with circumlocutions for penis, to the extent that it isn’t clear what the actual word for penis was in ancient Israel.

Biblical allusions include basar (“flesh”, Exodus 28:42), erva (“nakedness”, Leviticus 18:6), mevoshim (“private parts”, Deuteronomy 25:11), regel (“leg”, 2 Kings 18:27), shofkha (“spout”, Deuteronomy 23:1), yad (“Hand”, Isaiah 57:8), and me’or (“Nakedness”, Habakkuk 2:15).

Later, during the times of the Mishnah and the Talmud (the first six centuries of the Common Era), the rabbis added some more euphemisms to those of eld: panim shel mata (“lower face”, Shabbat 41a), ama (“middle finger”, Shabbat 108b), etzba (“finger”, Pesachim 112b), shamash (“helper”, Nidah 60b), gevia (“corpse”, Negaim 6:7), parmashtaq (probably a Persian word for “penis”, Mo’ed Katan 18a), and evar (“organ”, Bava Mezia 84a).

In the Middle Ages, even though Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language, rabbis kept up the pace. New names of the era included: brit (“covenant” – referring to circumcision), gevura (“manliness”), geed (“tendon”), zakhrut (“maleness”), zanav (“tail”) and kama (“ripe sheaf”).

With such an abundance of suggestions at their disposal, and these lists are not exhaustive, you would think that when Hebrew was reborn as a spoken language starting in the late 19th century, the new Hebrew speakers – preoccupied with finding words for the modern world – would settle for the rich pickings from previous generations of Jews over millennia. Not so. New words had to be found.

An early “modern” word for penis, zereg, was first noticed among giggling children at Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya school in the early 20th century. It may have been a corruption of gezer (“carrot”) or zerek (“hose” – defunct).

Another word springing from the classrooms of early Tel-Aviv is zayin, which is by far the most common used word for penis in contemporary Hebrew, though – you stand warned – it is considered vulgar.

There is discussion of various proposed etymologies for zayin and the Yiddishisms shmock and shtrungool (the latter apparently a Hebrew corruption of strunckel ‘little (tree) trunk’); then we get this delightful passage:

The polite, “official” word for penis is peen, and it comes from an ancient typographical error.

The Mishnah, a treatise on Jewish law written in roughly 200 CE, has a passage that reads “A key of metal with pins of wood is pure” (Kelim 13:6). The word for pins here is khapeen. But sometime over the generations, a scribe made a mistake, replacing the first letter, khet (ח), with the nearly identical looking hei (ה). From “khapeen” – pins, plural, the word was mistakenly rendered as “hapeen,” the pin.

In modern Hebrew too, pin came to be peen. And when Hebrew revivers were looking for a word for penis, they decided peen would do for that too. It was reminiscent of penis and pins sort of look like tiny penises.

This actually caught on. But in the 1950s, the Hebrew Language Academy chose not peen but evar (“organ”) as the official word for penis, or evar meen – “sex organ”.

People did indeed take to saying evar meen, which was used for both male and female naughty parts, but in writing the word remained peen. Then in 2009, the academy caved in to the public and made peen the official word. But although it was the will of the people and it’s official to boot –it’s rarely used when speaking any more. It’s considered too prissy.

Thanks, Kobi!

Comments

  1. Other fairly common euphemisms for penis include katan, which simply means “little,” and bulbul, a children’s word for penis.

    How bulbul could become a word for penis is unclear. There’s a common bird named bulbul, of the Pycnonotidae family (not so weird – think of “cock”). Or maybe the word originated in the name of a stick, weirdly called bulbul, which Israeli kids used when playing doodes (a local version of cricket). Or maybe it came from an Arabic word for “spout,” bulbula.

    Sorry, can’t help pasting this one.

  2. The Historical Thesaurus of the OED has 85 English words for “penis” over the ages, including the ancient “weapon”, “tarse”, “pintle” and “pillicock” (later “pillock”), and the relatively modern “schlong”, “tonk”, “ding-a-ling” and “langer”. “Penis”, btw, only comes in around 1578 by their reckoning, before “dildo” but after “tool” and “prick”. Of all, the weirdest is “rubigo”.

  3. January First-of-May says:

    The talk of Hebrew euphemisms for penis reminds me of the whole “pisseth against the wall” thing, as, I believe, discussed some years ago on Language Log.
    It’s not directly about the penis, and it might not directly be an euphemism, but the situation is similar.

    I wonder whether anyone has an idea what the actual word for “penis” in Ancient Hebrew was… I suppose, for all we know, it could have been one of the supposed early euphemisms (compare the Latin word penis, which literally means “tail”, and probably itself was part of an euphemism creep).
    EDIT: “to the extent that it isn’t clear what the actual word for penis was in ancient Israel”, says the article, so presumably no, it isn’t known.

  4. @January: I wonder whether anyone has an idea what the actual word for “penis” in Ancient Hebrew was … (compare the Latin word penis, which literally means “tail”, and probably itself was part of an euphemism creep)

    Your use of the qualifier words “actual” and “literally” here is rather problematic. What are your criteria for determining whether a given lexeme “actually” or “literally” points to, or refers to, a given object ?

    What is the actual, literal word in modern English for penis ? A Martian linguist might speculate that there is none, since English speakers apparently prefer a word from a dead language which literally means “tail” – euphemism in the guise of dead language use, as it were.

    Apart from that, why do you say “penis literally means tail”, when the word “penis” demonstably means tail or penis, depending on the context ? Since a prick is a front tail (not to be confused with the observational technique of that name), what’s the problem with calling it a tail ?

  5. David Marjanović says:

    Since a prick is a front tail

    As a biologist I can’t let this stand. 🙂 Of course the metaphor is pretty common.

    Anyway…

  6. Sorry, can’t help pasting this one.

    Heh. Don’t apologize, I don’t know how I could have refrained from including it!

  7. >>Anyway…

    Makes me think of the Russian “Lingua Latina non est penis canina” meme 🙂

    https://lurkmirror.ml/Lingua_Latina

  8. Makes me think of the Russian “Lingua Latina non est penis canina” meme

    As seen right here on LH!

  9. As a biologist I can’t let this stand.

    Biologists need not be consulted on these matters.Wo kämen wir denn hin ?

    Anyway, the other point of that was a silly one: the double meaning of “front tail”. Do you know “front tail” as a technique of keeping track of someone by staying ahead of them, instead of “tailing” them (from behind) ? Front tailing is difficult, but it has the advantage of not being so easy to detect as when someone is following you.

  10. “Some Yiddishists think shmock originated in the German for “jewels,” Schmock.”
    Well, no Yiddishist should think this, first of all because the German word is Schmuck, not Schmock, and second because that’s etymologically impossible because of the vowel.

    One Yiddish penis euphemism that comes from a Biblical word (though not precisely a Hebrew word) is Vayzose, which is the name of one of Haman’s sons. I’ve always liked that. I wonder if it exists in Modern Hebrew.

  11. That son of Haman is called Vaizata in Modern Hebrew. Hebrew Wiki says his name is used to mean “schlemiel”, rather than “penis”, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used in either sense.

  12. January First-of-May says:

    Apart from that, why do you say “penis literally means tail”, when the word “penis” demonstably means tail or penis, depending on the context ?

    That’s basically my point. The word almost certainly (I’m not enough of a serious linguist to clarify further) originally meant “tail”, and ended up meaning “penis” by euphemism creep (while perhaps still meaning “tail” at the same time).
    So an equivalent thing might have happened in ancient Hebrew, leading to a word that already meant “penis” when the Bible was written having also been used in its original meaning, and thus interpreted by later translators as having been an euphemism (even if it was).
    Imagine a modern English text that uses the word “cock” to refer both to the penis and the chicken. A later interpreter of that text could easily have understood the word’s use for “penis” (especially if it only came up one or two times) as an euphemism meaning “chicken”. This does not mean it is not an actual modern English word for “penis”.
    (This is even easier with Hebrew orthography, which can easily result in otherwise unrelated words looking related. English does not use a word meaning “donkey” as an euphemism for “buttocks”, but a later interpreter who’s not aware of the spelling “arse” can easily understand it that way.)

    I thought it was “Lingua Latina non penis canina est”, incidentally.
    A few years ago, I happened to see a LiveJournal post proposing to “fix” that phrase by, among other things, using a different Latin word for “penis”. I personally prefer thinking it actually means the dog’s tail 🙂

  13. Mevoshim is more accurately “the shameful bits”. Shamash is now used for a helper in synagogue services (a sexton? hee-hee), but also for the candle in the Hanukkah lamp which is used to light the others. I doubt that that usage goes back to Talmudic times, but it’s even more apt, since the shamash kinda sticks out.

    (Thanks for keeping the flame of filth going, Hat.)

    P.S. Gilad’s original Hebrew version of the column proved so popular, he dedicated the following week’s column to amendments and corrections based on reader input (Israelis are famously literate.) He then begged off to return to other topics.

    P.P.S. Didn’t LH discuss Hebrew penises before? Yes it did. Wasn’t there yet another, more recent discussion?

  14. Israelis are famously literate

    That’s because they’re mostly Russians now.

    *ducks*

  15. How dare you, Sir! All Israelis have always been avid readers of articles dealing with dirty bits!

  16. Q: What was Cock Robin’s name before he changed it?
    A: Penis Robinsky.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Schmuck is “jewelry”, “adornment”, not really “jewels” (Juwelen).

    Do you know “front tail” as a technique of keeping track of someone by staying ahead of them, instead of “tailing” them (from behind) ?

    Oh. I didn’t 🙂

  18. From the Urban Dictionary:

    Shut-up front tail!” or “What the hell is that front tail doing?” (said to a man when he’s behaving in a way that only a man could)

    And we also have this, of course

    (define (append! front tail)
    (if (null? (cdr front))
    (set-cdr! front tail)
    (append! (cdr front) tail)))
    ? (define foo ’(1 2))
    ? (define bar ’(3 4))
    ? (append! foo bar)
    ? foo ? (1 2 3 4)

  19. >>Israelis are famously literate

    >>That’s because they’re mostly Russians now.

    Reminds me of the old joke – “What do you call the Soviet immigrant getting off the plane who is NOT carrying a violin case? – A pianist!”

  20. Futurama also provides us with the term lower horn. Those of humans are considered an aphrodisiac on certain planets.

  21. @Stu, real LISP! With side effects! From before they invented functional programming! The nostalgia!

    But of course front and tail are just variable names, and the purpose of the function is to attach tail as the tail of front. Also the LISP 1 Programmer’s Manual is now online.

    DEFINE ((
      (NAPPEND
        (LAMBDA (FRONT TAIL)
          (COND
            ((NULL FRONT) NIL)
            ((CDR FRONT) (NAPPEND (CDR FRONT) TAIL))
            (T (RPLACD FRONT TAIL))
          )
        )
      )
    )) ()

    (I fixed an error)

  22. January First-of-May says:

    @Lazar – I wanted to put that into my previous reply. I thought I did, actually (must have forgotten).

  23. It’s standard Scheme (as shown by the use of “define”), but I don’t know any Scheme that prompts with question marks rather than some variant of >. What were you using, Stu?

  24. @JC, I realize it’s something newer than LISP 60, but destructive updates really were not the done thing when I did functional programming. Standard ML, rather.

    Emacs Lisp was something else.

  25. John, I merely copied it out of some Internet document I found on a “front tail” search. I have no Lisp on my machine.

    Unfortunately I have been forced to learn some Javascript. Not surprisingly, I now find Lisp less weird. I would now say – pardon my French – that Lars’ example is a definition (function) for a function that terminates by an invocation of the definition (function), thus creating the function.

  26. There’s a small Javascript “framework” called Stapes that also has a “define” function to create Stapes “classes”.The first parameter in define() is an array of strings: the paths to other Stapes “classes” that you want to “import”. The second parameter is an anonymous function whose parameters match up with the array strings.

  27. destructive updates really were not the done thing

    In Lisp, functional programming uses the abstinence method of birth control: that is, you program functionally by avoiding imperative features, since there are plenty of pure features to go around. But there are only a few primitive immutable objects, notably literal constants (and even then, enforcement of the immutability by the implementation is optional); even strings are mutable in content, though not in length. It’s not like Standard ML, where mutability is pushed to a small corner of the language (ref cells). Part of my current effort on Scheme is adding useful libraries that define convenient immutable data types.

    that terminates by an invocation of the definition

    I think the final () in Lars’s example has nothing to do with function calls, but is actually the result printed by the REPL (it is typical in Lisp for functions to return the empty list when they have nothing better to return). The example is written for a somewhat oddball REPL named “evalquote” that takes not an expression to evaluate, but a function name and then separately a list of arguments (which are interpreted as literals, not Lisp code) and applies one to the other, printing the result. So evalquote reads two objects, the symbol DEFINE (naming a procedure that installs definitions) and a list of definitions to install (only one in this case), returning the empty list. Evalquote REPLs are now basically obsolete. By contrast, in your Scheme example “define” is a piece of syntax, not a procedure that can be called at run time.

    (Apologies to those to whom this is all Greek, or Chinese, or whatever your language’s preferred idiom for gobbledygook is.)

  28. @Stu, Javascript is a small and surprisingly clean functional language — what is the unfortunate part about having to learn it? (I’m not talking about DOM language bindings or extensions like jQuery, you can call those many things but ‘small’ doesn’t really fit).

    And my LISP 1 program was just a translation of your found Scheme example.

  29. (Apologies to those to whom this is all Greek, or Chinese, or whatever your language’s preferred idiom for gobbledygook is.)

    No apologies needed as far as I’m concerned; I spend much of my time here watching people bat an invisible (to me) ball across an invisible net and enjoying the incomprehensible spectacle.

  30. LARS, nothing wrong with Javascript “itself”. It’s very amusing, and fits in with a lot of ideas I have arrived at over the years working with Smalltalk and Java.

    It just took me SO LONG to penetrate the harebrained “explanations” of aspects of it in the internet, and books, by web whippersnappers and ignorant know-it-alls. I give you the topic of “this” as an example.

    And my LISP 1 program was just a translation of your found Scheme example
    Yes.

  31. John: I think the final () in Lars’s example has nothing to do with function calls … a somewhat oddball REPL named “evalquote” …

    Ah, I see.

  32. @Stu, I feel your pain. Most of the people pretending to explain Javascript in the internet don’t actually understand the functional aspects. MDN (Mozilla Developer Network) is better than most.

    @John, the final () is a technicality, but it has to be there. The LISP I APPLY function takes a free variable list as its third parameter, and it’s mandatory in the input format as well — even when applying the DEFINE function to its list of parameters, the first of which is a list of definitions. Even though it would be pointless to specify free variables for DEFINE since it doesn’t call APPLY/EVAL.

    Anyway, since the input loop doesn’t evaluate the second S-expression of a triple, the effect is much the same as en evalquote loop — but you can put a lambda expression as the first S-expression, I don’t know if that works with evalquote.

  33. And my LISP 1 program was just a translation of your found Scheme example.

    Right, which explains why it’s called NAPPEND instead of the historic name NCONC.

    takes a free variable list as its third parameter

    Ah, yes, of course.

  34. Also NCONC is defined in machine code in LISP I and might be used internally — redefining it might break things or error out.

    Also also, NCONC returns the mutated first argument, or the second if the first one is (); NAPPEND returns NIL in all cases; and append! returns #void or throws “attempt to take cdr of non-pair #nil”. All of them crash and burn if the first argument is an improper list (I think — there seems to be a typo in the LISP I manual).

  35. For LH readers who are curious, the occurrence of פרמשתק parmaštaq in the Talmud (Mo’ed Qatan 18a) is here in a passage ascribing a ridiculously hideous appearance to Pharaoh:

    ואמר אביטול ספרא משמיה דרב פרעה שהיה בימי משה הוא אמה וזקנו אמה ופרמשתקו אמה וזרת לקיים מה שנאמר (דנייאל ד) ושפל אנשים יקים עליה

    Avitul, the scribe, said in the name of Rav (Pappa): “The Pharaoh in Moses’ days was one cubit tall. His beard was one cubit long, and his penis was a cubit and a span, to fulfill that which is stated (Daniel 4): ‘[The Most High rules over the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomsoever He wishes,] and He appoints the lowest of men over it’.”

    Gilad’s article suggests that this Talmudic word comes from Persian—or rather, for the date of the Talmud, Middle Persian. I was wondering whether or not פרמשתק parmaštaq is akin to Middle Persian pahrmāhišn and pahrmāhāgīh, “touch, feeling” and Neo-Persian پرماسیدن parmāsīdan “to touch, palpate”. Neo-Persian parmāsīdan would reflect something like a virtual Proto-Iranian *pari-mars-, containing the preverb *pari- and *(H)mars- from PIE *Hmelḱ-, “rub, touch, brush”. The compound is also seen in Vedic 3pl. perf. act. pari-māmr̥śuḥ (with -ā- justifying the reconstruction of the root with initial laryngeal), and the root in Latin mulceō, “to stroke, caress”.

    If the root etymology is correct, the semantic development of פרמשתק parmaštaq and its Iranian antecedent would be similar to that of Lat. pēnis and its congeners Greek πέος, Sanskrit pásas-, Middle High German visel, etc., (and further Hittite pisna-, “man” < *“penis”), all ultimately reflecting a Proto-Indo-European *pes-, “rub”.

    I hope all the tagging works. I don’t have reliable electricity here in Kurdistan, and can’t research any more, so I am posting… now.

  36. It worked! And I like both the quote and your suggestions.

  37. Stu: I recommend Douglas Crockford’s small book JavaScript: The Good Parts, which may or may not be available on line, I don’t know. It reminds me of K & R in style, except that it explicitly does not describe the whole language.

  38. Yes, I’ve read it. It helped me to push past the crap otherwise available.

    Here is Crockford in 2014.

  39. Thanks, Patrick!

    Except poetically, a person is not likely to be be a cubit tall, but it’s a fair translation of הוא אמה “He [is/was] a cubit”. Coincidentally, אמה ama, ‘cubit’ in BH, is now used for ‘middle finger’ and hence as one of the euphemisms here.

    Parmašta is mentioned in the book of Esther as one of Haman’s sons. Any connection there?

    Ruvik Rosental says that parmaštaq is making a comeback in gay slang, or at least it was when his blog entry was written. By now it’s probably already outdated.

  40. If the root etymology is correct, the semantic development of פרמשתק parmaštaq and its Iranian antecedent would be similar to that of Lat. pēnis and its congeners Greek πέος, Sanskrit pásas-, Middle High German visel, etc., (and further Hittite pisna-, “man” < *“penis”), all ultimately reflecting a Proto-Indo-European *pes-, “rub”.

    This opens a freeway for new interpretations of the temptation in the garden.

    When Eve offered Adam an apple, he wanted to rub it clean on his sleeve before biting in. When he noticed he didn’t have a sleeve, he rubbed it on his rubber (Proto-Indo-European *pes-, “rub”). This created novel, pleasant sensations, and he realized what Eve really wanted (he “knew” her).

    Has anyone ever figured out what the apple did when all this was going on ? Did it cast its seeds on the ground while watching ?

  41. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    Some Yiddishists think shmock originated in the German for “jewels,” Schmock, or from an ancient Polish word for “snake, dragon” – smok;

    It’s the current Polish word for ‘dragon’ as well. Slavic *smokъ is rather mysterious a word itself.

  42. Apparently some people think it’s cognate to snake, with various layers of folk etymology.

  43. Trond Engen says:

    Smaug

  44. Ah, this is where there was another discussion at LH on Hebrew penis issues.

    Ed.: With more about the sexual uses of the verbal root šmš.

  45. Trune:

    Tolkien himself says that Smaug is the preterite of Old Norse smjúga ‘creep through an entrance’, preserved in Icelandic. (It can also mean ‘put on clothes’, which connects it to smokkr ‘smock’.) He adds that the name is really a pseudonym, “a low philological jest”, referring to this bit of The Hobbit:

    “Because [the secret entrance to the Lonely Mountain] is too small. ‘Five feet high the door and three may walk abreast’ say the runes, but Smaug could not creep into a hole that size, not even when he was a young dragon, certainly not after devouring so many of the dwarves and men of Dale.”

    So nothing to do with Smaug being a wyrm, though Tolkien and his characters do call him a worm quite frequently.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    Tolkien himself says that Smaug is the preterite of Old Norse smjúga ‘creep through an entrance’, preserved in Icelandic.

    Oh, sich schmiegen – Smaug basically snuggles the ground. ^_^

    Edit: the vowels might actually really correspond.

  47. Trond Engen says:

    John: I know. I meant to suggest that the ‘snake’ cognate was contaminated with the cognate of smjúga because obvious reasons ref. Smaug.

    The verb is also preserved in Mainland Scandinavian. In my Urban Eastern Norwegian it’s smyge – smyger – smøyg – har smygi with a weak present, a recent change of diphtong in the preterite, and the stem plus -i analogical perfect participle that written Bokmål won’t see.

    David: I think the vowels correspond. But then Ger -ie- corresponds to everything.

  48. I meant to suggest that the ‘snake’ cognate was contaminated with the cognate of smjúga because obvious reasons ref. Smaug.

    That was a bit much to convey with one word. Cf. Sheridan’s play The Critic, where Sneer, the critic of the title, is watching the rehearsal of a play about Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth I’s prime minister (Puff is the director):

    Lord Burleigh comes forward, shakes his head, and exit.

    Sneer. He is very perfect indeed! Now, pray what did he mean by that?

    Puff. You don’t take it?

    Sneer. No, I don’t, upon my soul.

    Puff. Why, by that shake of the head, he gave you to understand that even though they had more justice in their cause, and wisdom in their measures — yet, if there was not a greater spirit shown on the part of the people, the country would at last fall a sacrifice to the hostile ambition of the Spanish monarchy.

    Sneer. The devil! did he mean all that by shaking his head?

    Puff. Every word of it — if he shook his head as I taught him.

  49. Trond Engen says:

    Yeah… I was posting from my mobile. The follow-up was from my iPad. This is the mobile again. Writing this long is hard work.

  50. Now you remind me of the scene in James Stephens’s novel The Crock of Gold between the Pooka and the Good Fairy. The latter is apparently small enough to be invisible, though by no means inaudible, and the Pooka is constantly asking him where he is speaking from. Later on, the Good Fairy is riding in the Pooka’s pocket and makes several sharp remarks to some other characters, which they naturally attribute to the Pooka.

  51. I just finished the third novel of the Ann Leckie Ancillary trilogy, where it’s sometimes not clear who’s talking even to the person/entity who’s talking. Highly recommended to all sf fans.

  52. JC, you’re thinking of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. That scene is one of the funniest conversations I know in English literature.

  53. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    The word *smokъ was prone to alteration by analogy (and maybe taboo?), as evidenced by the variety of forms: smok, cmok, zmok, zmek across Slavic languages (the ones with zm- are thought to be influenced by the word *zmьjь, from which Russian змей is derived). However no forms starting with sn- are attested AFAIK, no forms which would point to a hypothetical original *snogъ cognate to snake (and influenced by the verb *smъknǫti ‘flit, slip by’) or alternatively to a borrowing from Germanic, so the word may be doomed to remain unclear forever. There were attempts to derive it from the very verb *smъknǫti but an ablaut of the type ъ : o would be irregular phonetically as well.

  54. At Swim-Two-Birds is correct, of course. Thanks. But The Crock of Gold is very funny too.

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