Word of the Day / Pupik

After a lot of navel gazing, Hebrew settled on this word to refer to the bellybutton in daily speech. Here are the ins and outs of its journey.

If you're like most people, you probably have a small dimple in your belly. Israelis now call this bellybutton a pupik (PU-pik), but that wasn’t always the case.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, father of modern Hebrew, called it a tabur (ta-BOOR) and while we are on the subject, his bellybutton wasn’t what is commonly called an “innie”: his tummy sported an “outie.”

Tabur is the more official, high-brow term, roughly comparable to the English "navel". It appears twice in the bible, both times in the phrase "tabur haaretz” or “the navel of the land.” The renowned rabbi Rashi explained it like this: “On a high stronghold over the land like that which is in the center of a man with a slope on all sides." Evidently, he has an "outie" bellybutton in mind.

Ben Yehuda concurs, defining tabur as “a srar, and metaphorically, the navel of the land, the middle, the center, a high place.”

If you've never heard of srar as a synonym for navel, you're not alone. It is highly obscure and not used these days. It appears just once in the bible in the Song of Solomon's seventh verse, a love poem in which an admiring poet describes the body of his muse from toe to crown:

“...O prince's daughter! The joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman. Thy srar is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies. Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins...”

Rashi and the rest of the rabbinic commentators agreed with the King James Bible in ascribing a navel to the otherwise inscrutable “srar." But Ben Yehuda was unconvinced.

“The word is unclear in its place,” he wrote. He gave it the standard definition but added: “Apparently the tradition is wrong. What sense is there to compare a navel with a basin...that is always full? Things of this nature would only have been said on a place from which a lover drinks nectar, such as the mouth, the breasts, etc.”

It seems that by “etc” Ben Yehuda hints to the astute reader what he really thinks the meaning of "srar" is but dares not write. It is as if Ben Yehuda is saying: “Look carefully at the female anatomy between the thighs and the belly and find a better definition than that which tradition ascribes.”

Whatever the "srar" is, for Ben Yehuda the idea that one could drink from a bellybutton is absurd; it seems that he was unaware that “innie” bellybuttons were out there.

Now back to the pupik…

Birds don’t have bellybuttons but some of them do have gizzards. These are the part of some animals’ digestive tracts used to grind the food before further digestion. From Talmudic times to this very day this organ has been called a "kurkivan," which is yet another name for the bellybutton. The reason they share a name is supposed to be that the umbilical cord looks like a gizzard. I don’t find them too similar but there must be some connection because also in Slavic languages the word “pop” means both bellybutton and gizzard.

Proto-Slavic, the language of the Slavs in the Dark Ages before writing was adopted, gave "pop" to its descendant languages: Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, etc. Many of them added the diminutive ending -ik. This is the case with Polish, which has the word "popik" for navel.

Yiddish adopted "popik" from the Polish, Hebrew in turn adopted it as "pupik" and this is the word used by most Israelis to describe their bellybutton today. Ben Yehuda would probably have been outraged.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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