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.