Bulbul.
Hebrew speakers will always find this unassuming bird's name a little naughty. Photo by Dreamstime
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Imagine if there were a winged creature called the weenie and it almost became your national bird. The objects in the sky that are the talk du jour in Israel right now may be a bit louder and sharper than your average avian, but back in 2008, being compelled to take pride in the weenie bird on the shortlist was a fate Israel just barely escaped.

In English as in Hebrew and Arabic, the white-spectacled bulbul gets its name from the Persian bulbul, which etymologist Ernest Klein calls “a word of imitative origin,” after this critter’s (X-rated?) tweets.

While attributing glasses to this mostly gray songbird with white rings around its eyes may seem to grace it with some dignity and focus our attention on the bird’s face, that image is arguably counteracted by the fact that it is also known as bulbul tzahov-shet, or yellow-vented bulbul: the bulbul with the yellow backside.

The avian vent, also called the cloaca, is an opening that serves as the bodily exit for the digestive, urinary and reproductive systems in both male and female birds. That, of course, brings us back to the other kind of bulbul, a popular childish name for the male reproductive organ that has been known to cause the same kind of snickering you would get in English if you were to casually mention to people who were not ornithology enthusiasts that you had just spotted some great tits – I am referring to the woodland bird, of course – through your binoculars.

The origins of bulbul as a nickname for Mr. Schlong are confounded, however, by the similarity between bulbul and the Hebrew for “confusion,” bilbul, with bulbul at one point referring to someone who was mevulbal, or confused. In fact, Israel’s educational television used the word freely in a series of five-minute traffic-safety ads in the 1970s starring Shmulik, better known as Bulbul Hakabulbul, whose thinking is so muddled he doesn’t always remember to cross the street safely.

The connection between the similar-sounding words is also made in the popular children’s song “Mak’hela Aliza” (“Joyful Orchestra”) by songwriter Leah Naor, about a bird orchestra in which the bulbulim tell the warblers that they don’t want their songs to have words, because “even without words we get terribly confused [mevulbalim].”

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Sometimes parents get terribly confused as well, using silly names for their children’s private parts. In an article on the Hebrew website Nana, one mother explained her choice of bulbul as the house byword for her son’s ding-dong by saying, “That’s what it’s called in popular slang.” Another acknowledged that “bulbul is a bird,” but said “it sounds less pretentious” than using the actual Hebrew word for penis, peen.

As for Israel’s national bird contest, it was the long-beaked, elaborately crowned hoopoe (dukhifat) that ultimately won, leaving the yellow-vented bulbul hopping around with its bulbul in its hand, metaphorically speaking, of course.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, click here.