Word of the Day / Koksinel

A politically incorrect Hebrew word for cross-dressing and feminine-appearing men has origins in red dye, ladybugs, Christian symbolism and a transsexual French entertainer.

The hebrew word koksinel (kok-si-NEL) is considered derogatory, and its use is broadly seen as politically incorrect, but it is still often used in Israel to describe men who cross-dress or are otherwise percieved as feminine.

The second century Greek geographer Pausanias writes in his Description of Greece of an ancient dye industry in the city Ambrossus, which manufactured kokkos, a brilliant red dye that was prized in the ancient world. The dye was extracted from the bodies of bugs living in the fruit of the kermes oak, which they called kokkos too.

“There breeds in the fruit of the kokkos a small creature. If this should reach the air when the fruit has ripened, it becomes in appearance like a gnat, and immediately flies away. But as it is they gather the fruit of the kokkos before the creature begins to move, and the blood of the creature serves as a dye for wool.”

The word kokkos had myriad uses in Ancient Greek. In addition to the dye, the insects it was extracted from, and the tree in which it lived, the word also had the more general meaning of grain or seed. This latter meaning survived into Modern Greek.

The kokkos dye was a sought-after commodity in the ancient world and particularly in Rome, where its name was latinized into coccum. Quintilian, the first century rhetorician used it in this form in his magnum opus, the Institutes of Oratory. In a warning to parents not to indulge their children in luxuries he writes: “He cannot yet articulate his first words, when he already distinguishes scarlet (coccum), and wants his purple.”

The years went by, and Latin slowly turned into French. The word coccum fell out of use as the name of a color, but still survived in the name of the ladybug, which the French, due to its brilliant red color called coccinelle.

In Christian symbolism, the ladybug has come to be associated with the Virgin Mary, because in early paintings of the virgin she is portrayed wearing red and has seven black spots seen as symbolizing the Seven Joys of the Virgin and their matching set of seven Sorrows of the Virgin. Mary is also the lady in ladybug and the Mary in the German marienkäfer.

It was this connection to holy femininity that led Jacques Charles Dufresnoy, a Frenchman, to adopt "Coccinelle" as his stage name when he embarked on a successful career as a singer in drag in 1953. In 1958, Coccinelle travelled to Morocco to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Returning to France as a woman, the story of Coccinelle, who underwent the first sex change widely publicized in Europe, caused a sensation across the continent.

In 1964, Coccinelle came to perform several times in Israel. For most Israelis this was their first encounter with a transexual . “Seven passports that included the title ‘Mr.’ - even though they were carried by women, raised the suspicion of police officers in passport control yesterday,” the Israeli daily Davar reported in December 1964. “Only after some questioning they understood that the seven were former-men that changed their sex and became women. The guests, who arrived last night, are members of the parisian band Carouselle, one of whose members is the famous Coccinelle.”

During the 60s Coccinelle's name entered Hebrew as a word for transsexual, a cross-dresser or just any man perceived as feminine, mostly in a derogatory sense. But during the 70s the word began to be used in the press as well, at first in quotation marks and later without.  “A ‘transvestite’ suspected of wounding a young girl at the Ofira restaurant on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv caused a stir on Friday when he was brought in front of a judge in Tel Aviv and was remanded for ten days,” Davar reported in September 1977.

Coccinelle died of a stroke in 2006, but her legacy lives on in the Hebrew language.

Nir Kafri