Why Hebrew Has So Many Words for 'Penis'

Ancient scribes in biblical times squirming at saying That Word begat euphemism creep. Thus were born dozens of terms for penis in Hebrew, an otherwise rather sparse language.

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Why does Hebrew have so many words for penis? The answer lies in euphemism creep - over millennia.
Why does Hebrew have so many words for penis? The answer lies in euphemism creep - over millennia.Credit: Dreamstime.com

Hebrew has a great abundance of words for the penis, though it's usually a rather sparse language. This is because in Jewish culture, as in many others, the male organ is the subject of taboo and like other unmentionable subjects, it is prone to a process called ‘euphemism creep.’ Speakers shy at calling the taboo subject by name, and use a euphemism instead. Eventually this euphemism itself becomes tainted through use, and a new euphemism replaces it. Thus, creep generates a richness of synonyms not shared by non-taboo words.

Euphemism creep didn't start yesterday. The Bible is replete with circumlocutions for penis, to the extent that it isn’t clear what the actual word for penis was in ancient Israel.

Biblical allusions include basar (“flesh”, Exodus 28:42), erva (“nakedness”, Leviticus 18:6), mevoshim (“private parts”, Deuteronomy 25:11), regel (“leg”, 2 Kings 18:27), shofkha (“spout”, Deuteronomy 23:1), yad (“Hand”, Isaiah 57:8), and me’or (“Nakedness”, Habakkuk 2:15).

Later, during the times of the Mishnah and the Talmud (the first six centuries of the Common Era), the rabbis added some more euphemisms to those of eld: panim shel mata (“lower face”, Shabbat 41a), ama (“middle finger”, Shabbat 108b), etzba (“finger”, Pesachim 112b), shamash (“helper”, Nidah 60b), gevia (“corpse”, Negaim 6:7), parmashtaq (probably a Persian word for “penis”, Mo’ed Katan 18a), and evar (“organ”, Bava Mezia 84a).

In the Middle Ages, even though Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language, rabbis kept up the pace. New names of the era included: brit (“covenant” - referring to circumcision), gevura (“manliness”), geed (“tendon”), zakhrut (“maleness”), zanav (“tail”) and kama (“ripe sheaf”).

A marmoset demonstrating how "tail" became a euphemism for penis. Photo: Dreamstime.com

The rise of the zayin

With such an abundance of suggestions at their disposal, and these lists are not exhaustive, you would think that when Hebrew was reborn as a spoken language starting in the late 19th century, the new Hebrew speakers – preoccupied with finding words for the modern world - would settle for the rich pickings from previous generations of Jews over millennia. Not so. New words had to be found.

An early “modern” word for penis, zereg, was first noticed among giggling children at Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya school in the early 20th century. It may have been a corruption of gezer (“carrot”) or zerek (“hose” - defunct).

Another word springing from the classrooms of early Tel-Aviv is zayin, which is by far the most common used word for penis in contemporary Hebrew, though – you stand warned - it is considered vulgar.

Etymologists have proposed many theories for the origin of this word. One is early Hebrew speakers referred to their organs as weapons, and zayin in fact simply meant “weapon” before its association became too dirty for that use.

Zayin is also the seventh letter of Hebrew. Some suggest the organ was named for the letter because of its phallic shape (ז) or because the letter itself was used as a euphemism for a dirty word starting with zayin (much as English uses “The F-Word”), perhaps zereg, zachrut or zanav mentioned above or - less likely - the vulgar Arabic term for “penis” - zubb/zubr/zubby, the last of which is still used by Israelis today.

Soldiers inadvertently may be showing us how the archaic Hebrew word for "armaments" came to mean "penis". (Gil Eliahu)

Jewels and dragons

Two Yiddishisms adopted by Hebrew that became popular colloquialisms for penis are shmock and shtrungool.

Shtrungool is apparently a Hebrew corruption of strunckel - “little (tree) trunk.” As for shmock, Hebrew embraced it as it was in Yiddish - a vulgar word for penis (unlike English, in which the variant schmuck means “idiot”).

Some Yiddishists think shmock originated in the German for “jewels,” Schmock, or from an ancient Polish word for “snake, dragon” – smok; or from a corruption of the diminutive of Yiddish for “stick” - shtekl.

Other fairly common euphemisms for penis include katan, which simply means “little,” and bulbul, a children's word for penis.

How bulbul could become a word for penis is unclear. There's a common bird named bulbul, of the Pycnonotidae family (not so weird - think of "cock"). Or maybe the word originated in the name of a stick, weirdly called bulbul, which Israeli kids used when playing doodes (a local version of cricket). Or maybe it came from an Arabic word for “spout,” bulbula.

Bulbuls flirting in the flowers: How these rather small, delicate songbirds became euphemisms for penises isn't clear. (Photo: Dror Artzi)

The polite, “official” word for penis is peen, and it comes from an ancient typographical error.

The Mishnah, a treatise on Jewish law written in roughly 200 CE, has a passage that reads “A key of metal with pins of wood is pure” (Kelim 13:6). The word for pins here is khapeen.

But sometime over the generations, a scribe made a mistake, replacing the first letter, khet (ח), with the nearly identical looking hei (ה). From "khapeen" – pins, plural, the word was mistakenly rendered as "hapeen," the pin.

In modern Hebrew too, pin came to be peen. And when Hebrew revivers were looking for a word for penis, they decided peen would do for that too. It was reminiscent of penis and pins sort of look like tiny penises.

This actually caught on. But in the 1950s, the Hebrew Language Academy chose not peen but evar ("organ") as the official word for penis, or evar meen – "sex organ".

People did indeed take to saying evar meen, which was used for both male and female naughty parts, but in writing the word remained peen. Then in 2009, the academy caved in to the public and made peen the official word. But although it was the will of the people and it's official to boot –it's rarely used when speaking any more. It's considered too prissy.