Word of the Day Dagdegan: How Linguists Writhed Over a Nice Hebrew Word for Clitoris

The Hebrew Academy shuddered at using a word related to 'tickle' for clitoris, yet that happened.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

In 1533, the translator Nathan Hameati sat in his room in Rome, quill in hand, peering over a manuscript of Avicenna's Canon of Medicine, the world’s most important medical text at the time. Scratching his forehead, he thought: How should I translate the Arabic word daghdagh into Hebrew?

In the Canon of Medicine and in subsequent texts, the word daghdagh usually carried the general meaning of "to tickle." Before its publication the word generally had a more sexual meaning as the dictionary Lisan al-Arab, published by Ibn Manzur at roughly the same time, put it - “In relation to the private parts of a woman and another person: to stimulate.”

Hameati's problem was that the Bible and other ancient Hebrew texts didn’t have a word for tickle, let alone a word for stimulating a woman down there, at least none that he knew of. So he simply transliterated the Arabic word into Hebrew, creating a new word - dig-DEG.

Digdeg was used by several writers in the field of medicine in subsequent years, but was forgotten within a few generations. The word was only reintroduced into the Hebrew language in 1891, when Ze’ev Yavetz used it in a publication he published called Haaretz – not this newspaper (which was founded in 1918).

That's rude

It was Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai who took this Hebrew word for tickle and used it to create a word for the clitoris - dag-de-GAN, in a German-Hebrew dictionary he published in 1927. Tur-Sinai based his choice on the German slang word for clitoris, Kitzler, which literally translates to tickler, as does his neologism.

The important medical dictionary prepared by Dr. Aharon Meir Mazia, but only published five years after he died, in 1935, has dagdegan as the word for clitoris. The dictionary was edited by the doctor-poet Saul Tchernichovski, who also provided a number of synonyms for the tiny organ: ba-TAR, a transliteration of the Arabic term; kham-DAN, which he himself came up with, meaning roughly “one who seeks pleasure”; and khev-yo-NIT, which is the diminutive noun form of "hidden," a rough translation of the Greek word clitoris, which is a diminutive noun form of "covered".

Dagdegan appears as the Hebrew word for clitoris in Mazia's dictionary of medical terms, which was only published five years after he died. The dictionary was edited by the doctor-poet Saul Tchernichovski. who also provided a number of synonyms for the tiny organ: ba-TAR, a transliteration of the Arabic term; kham-DAN, which he himself came up with, meaning roughly “one who seeks pleasure”; and khev-yo-NIT. That is the diminutive noun form of "hidden," a rough translation of the Greek word clitoris, which is itself a diminutive noun form of "covered."

But the Committee of the Hebrew Language rejected all, deciding that Hebrew shouldn't have a word for the thing, and that Israelis should simply say "clitoris". This is why? “Because the Committee of Medical Terms thought that for educational purposes (in teen educational literature) it wasn't proper that words whiffing of rudeness be used, and the scientific word would be better. "We didn't like the suggestion of batar either,” the committee sniffed in 1939.

Even so, the battling words for clitoris fought it out for decades. Come the free-wheeling 1960s, dagdegan prevailed.

The word doesn’t appear in the influential Milon Khadash by Avraham Even-Shoshan published in 1947, but only in the addendum published in 1961. The same goes for Reuven Alkalay’s Hebrew-English-Hebrew dictionary. The word is absent in the 1958 edition but appears in the 1965 edition.

Poets dared to tread

But though the word was spoken, it seems it was too vulgar to be written down. It would take three poets to change this.

First came Harold Shmil, who in his poem Eastern Plant (1968) wrote “And the dagdegan / very big / like a small penis.”

After him came David Avidan whose poem Symposium on the Youth-Revolution (1973) has the word dagdegan nine times, including the line: “The new challenge for the sophisticated penis: To be or not to be a dagdegan."

Third was Yona Wallach who called on her lover to pass his tefillin on her dagdegan in her poem Tefinin (1982). That caused quite the public storm, especially after the then Deputy Minister of Education Miriam Tasa-Glazer called her a “beast in heat.”

This proliferating use didn’t impress the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which convened to discuss Prof. Aharon Dothan’s suggestion that the word be admitted into the academy's dictionaries in 1986. Only Prof. Amatzia Proat voiced his opinion in the matter: “Dothan says the term dagdegan is in use. It is true that this was the term used in the 1940s in the literature and textbooks we avidly read when we were young, but I think that this word hasn't appeared in textbooks for years; instead clitoris is used, and in several novels the word clitoris also appears. As far as I know, it is women who oppose the use of dagdegan, feeling the term is slightly insulting. Thus I suggest we keep clitoris.”

No-one voiced a counter view and a vote was promptly held, in which clitoris beat dagdegan seven to four.

As late as 1999 the academy elected to keep clitoris and reject the ostensibly pernicious, rude, inappropriate, offensive dagdegan. But that stopped once and for all in 2009, when the academy voted on hundreds of biology term en masse - and among them dagdegan entered, unnoticed. In any case, ask any Israeli on the street what a clitoris is; chances are they won't have a clue. Dagdegan, they know.

Georgia O'Keeffe said it best: Grey line with black, blue and yellow.Credit: WikiPaintings.org

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