How One Hebrew Letter Came to Mean Both 'Penis' and 'Weapon'

Thus prime ministers found themselves orating about the perils of the arms race and being greeted with giggles.

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Perseus brandishing the head of the murdered Medusa, cast in bronze by Benvenuto Cellini, 1545: Showing zayin in both its main permutations.
Perseus brandishing the head of the murdered Medusa, cast in bronze by Benvenuto Cellini, 1545: Showing zayin in both its main permutations.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

"Begin at the beginning," the King of Hearts advised would-be writers in Alice's" Adventures in Wonderland": "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

The kids say, "Tell it all the way from A to Z." Yet the ancient Greek alphabet was from alpha to omega ("I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord" - Revelation, 1.8). This order preceded the Latin alphabet in the history of letters.

So, if omega is the end in Greek, how did the Z wind up in last position?

In Phoenician, the precursor of all alphabets, and in Hebrew and then Greek, Z is the seventh letter.

Almost all alphabets have the same order of letters. The reason why they start with A, or Alpha, or Aleph, followed by B is long lost. The only evidence that it has always been so is a small clay tablet found in 1948 in the ruins of the ancient city of Ugarit, which flourished from 1400 to 1200 B.C. on the northern Syrian coast. The tablet shows the letters written down in the order we know today (called abecedary), albeit in cuneiform.

The power of the seventh letter

Being the seventh letter in that seemingly arbitrary order does mean being special.

Many religions revere the number seven. According to Genesis, God created the world in six days and rested on Sabbath, the seventh day. Every seventh year the earth is supposed to be given a rest: farmers may not sow.

As for Z's shape, in Phoenician it consisted of a vertical stroke with two horizontal bars, on top and at the base – a sort of sideways H.

The Aramaic zayin originally looked like the Latin letter we have today, Z, then deteriorated into a wavy line.

The modern-day Hebrew zayin looks a lot like the letter preceding it, vav, which a vertical line. But the zayin has a small T-like roof on top, slanting left.

Squint and the Hebrew zayin looks like an ax, or similar armament. Which explains the meaning of its name, in Hebrew: in the Bible “zayin” means “weapon."

Hence sages and kabbalists see zayin as signifying power: It's seventh and is shaped like a weapon.

The letters petition God

There is a legend about all the letters presenting themselves before God and asking him to start creating the world with them (according to the idea that the letters are God’s bricks of creation, pieces of his eternal Lego). Zayin wants to be the cornerstone by virtue of being seventh, like the day on which the Sabbath is observed. God refuses: it's unfit to be the basis of creation, as it denotes fighting and war.

Modern Hebrew accepted zayin's same connotations. References to arms in revitalized Hebrew is klei zayin, literally “instruments of war." The arms race was merutz ziyun and so forth.

But a living language is an unruly creature. Sometime, somewhere, the name of the letter “zayin” started being used to denote the penis.

Not for nothing is the word "tool" used in many languages when referring to it.

Weapons of war: A male prerogative

Oncolos, a Roman convert to Judaism in the second century CE and the first translator of the Torah to Aramaic, wrote that a woman should not carry arms ("klei zayin"), as this is a male, not a female prerogative.

By the time Modern Hebrew started to flourish, the times were post-Freudian and the phallic symbol was glaring. But the connection between the seventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the male genitalia had actually been made much earlier: as early as the 16th century, Rabbi Moshe Kordoveiro, one of the Zafad kabbalists, wrote about the zayin being the symbol of the covenant, the brit and the Sabbath:

As the Sabbath follows six days of labor, the dash which turns vav into zayin is a crown, the head of the male member, which is revealed in all its glory by the act symbolizing the covenant, the circumcision, cutting the foreskin that covers the head.

The Sabbath feeds the days of the week, and therefore the letter is called zayin, to symbolize the food (mazon, from the same root), and this is the glorious covenant: the male body is to be seen in the vav, the zayin being the penis erect, its head exposed, and het, the eighth letter, (like a roof with two legs), is the female (Shaar HaOtiot - "The Gate of Letters" - in the book Pardes Rimonim, "An Orchard of Pomegranates," by Kordoveiro).

For some time zayin as penis was used mainly as slang, the Hebrew equivalent of a four-letter word. And as Hebrew is a language which tends to 'verbalize' nouns (to turn them into verbs), the verb lezayen, meaning "to use the zayin," became the Hebrew equivalent of "to f--k."

That led to many misunderstandings. A prime minister would be orating at a political rally about the arms race, warning about the perils of klei zayin and merutz haziyun, and get a lot of giggles from the crowd in response.

He who giggles last

Now it's time to find out how the Z migrated to become the last letter in the Latin alphabet.

Some languages have a use for certain letters, and some don't. The Latin had no use for the letter z, so it dropped it, not by Senate decree but by lack of usage. That created a vacancy in the seventh slot.

But nature abhors a vacuum. G, the third letter of the Hebrew and Greek alphabets, moved to the seventh place. C, somewhere near the end of the Greek and Hebrew alphabet, moved to the vacated third slot.

The Romans, who thought they could manage without the Z - there are no Latin words with that sound - soon found out that while they themselves did not need it, they did need the Greek culture. And the Greeks did need the Z and use it a lot, by Zeus.

So Z was added back to the Latin alphabet at the end, almost as an afterthought, after U V, W, X and Y, all hitched to the alphabet in time to address sound needs of developing languages. And this is the whole story of zeta, from zayin to Z.

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