Thursday, July 23, 2015

"Penis" in Hebrew

EUPHEMISMS AND SYNONYMNS: Why Hebrew has so many words for 'penis.' Ancient scribes in biblical times squirming at saying That Word begat euphemism creep. Thus were born dozens of terms for penis in Hebrew, an otherwise rather sparse language (Elon Gilad, Haaretz).
Hebrew has a great abundance of words for the penis, though it's usually a rather sparse language. This is because in Jewish culture, as in many others, the male organ is the subject of taboo and like other unmentionable subjects, it is prone to a process called ‘euphemism creep.’ Speakers shy at calling the taboo subject by name, and use a euphemism instead. Eventually this euphemism itself becomes tainted through use, and a new euphemism replaces it. Thus, creep generates a richness of synonyms not shared by non-taboo words.

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).

And the multiplication of terms continued in the Middle Ages and even in modern Hebrew.

Although this is not a subject discussed frequently at PaleoJudaica, in a remarkable synchronicity the immediately preceding post also has to do with a biblical penis, that of Boaz. See the link to Chris Brady's post on "Boaz's Turnips."