How the Prophet Isaiah Gave Hebrew Its Word for Vagina

If St Jerome and other experts are right, Israelis may have thought that 'pot' meant vulva, but actually they were saying cup. Or forehead. Or maybe something else.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Or maybe this painting of Georgia O'Keeffe is really of a forehead.
Or maybe this painting of Georgia O'Keeffe is really of a forehead.Credit: Via Bloomberg
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

As in English, Hebrew has more than one word for the female genitalia. The most commonly used word in day-to-day parlance is koos, a vulgar word that Hebrew adopted from Persian by way of Arabic. There are other colloquialisms, to be sure: tuta and manush, to name a couple. All are roughly akin to "pussy" – neither scientific, nor terribly offensive.

But the “official” word, used in sex-ed classes, textbooks and in awkward conversations with the gynecologist, is pot. With a long "o" (as in "note").

Technically that means “vulva” but it has come to be used more generally to mean “lady parts”. For this, Israelis can thank the Prophet Isaiah and his obtuse prophesies. That is the only place the word 'pot' appears in the bible.

But there's some question as to what it means.

The Lord will do something

Out of the eight Hebrew words in Isaiah 3:17, only five are clear.

An honest reading admitting our ignorance would render the verse as “The Lord will do something to the tops of the heads of the daughters of Zion and The Lord will do something else to their somethings.” The last of these blanks is the noun pot.

This ambiguity led to quite divergent interpretations and translations over the ages, starting with translators into Greek and Aramaic, who simply glossed over the words they didn’t know.

The Septuagint, a Greek translation of biblical materials from the 2nd century BCE, rendered the verse thusly: “The Lord will humble the haughty daughters of Zion, and The Lord will expose their form.”

The somewhat later Aramaic translation, probably from the 1st century CE, has it: “The Lord will subjugate the dearest daughters of Zion, and The Lord will remove their dignity.”

Then, four centuries later, in about the year 500 CE, Saint Jerome translated the same verse into Latin. Unlike his predecessors, he made a genuine attempt to decipher the obscure words.

Jerome decided that the first verb (shipakh), the thing God will do to the top of the heads of the daughters of Zion, was to “expose" (an anagram of the Hebrew word in the text).

As for the end of the verse, according to Jerome, the word pot was really pe’at with the letter aleph, missing. Pe'at means either “corner” or “lock of hair”. (It isn't rare for words in the bible to be missing the letter aleph.)

Jerome also decided that the other mysterious verb in the verse, ye’areh, that relates to the locks of hair, means “denude”.

Put together, Jerome’s translation reads: “The Lord will expose the tops of the heads of the daughters of Zion, The Lord will remove the locks of their hair.”

In contrast to some, St. Jerome put study into his interpretation of Isaiah. Painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1480)Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Somewhat strengthening Jerome’s argument is the fact that the same Hebrew word for “top of the head” appears in conjunction with the word pe'at (corner/lock of hair) elsewhere in the Bible (Jeremiah 48:45), but with the aleph preserved.

Enter the rabbis

The rabbis of the Talmud however understood the Isaiah verse in a completely different way, in fact in more than one.

The Talmud (Shabbat 62b) preserves two conflicting interpretations, one by Rabbi Abba Arika, the other by Rabbi Samuel of Nehardea.

The two rabbis agreed that Isaiah was warning God would inflict the heads of the daughters of Zion with a skin disease called sapakhat. (Ergo, they grasped the unknown verb 'shipakh' as meaning “to inflict with sapakhat”, which does make some sense - there are a lot of sh/s swaps in Hebrew).

The second part of the verse is where they diverged. Rabbi Abba Arika understood it as meanings “will make their ‘cups’ spill” - ye’areh could mean “spill out contents” (rather than "denude"). The allusion to “cups” is rather tenuous, being based on “their pot” – poteihen - vaguely sounding like the Greek word for cup, koton.

Using some mix'n'match letter mixing of his own, Rabbi Samuel of Nehardea took the phrase to mean “will make their openings be like forests” (understanding pot as an altered form of petakh, “opening”, missing the letter khet.) Ya’ar is Hebrew for forest, so “turn into forest” isn’t completely insane. However, it is not clear what having one’s opening become forest-like means.

Either way, thus both rabbis agreed that pot means “vagina,” though they had their different ways of getting there.

Fore and aft?

This interpretation was later strengthened by Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra in the 12th century, who explained that the pot in Isaiah was related to the word potot in 1 Kings (7:50) - a hole used as a hinge of a door, “hinting to their backside” as he put it.

In 1935, the British Assyriologist Sir Godfrey Rolles Driver suggested that pot may have meant “forehead,” since Akkadian has a word putu with that meaning, and is related to Hebrew.

The so-called "Cyrus cylinder", written in Akkadian, which is closely related to ancient Hebrew, and in which "putu" means forehead.Credit: British Museum

So how did modern Israel come to adopt a word of mysterious origin and unknown meaning as "vagina"?

Whatever it was taken to mean, the word "pot" fell out of use in the Middle Ages. When it resurfaced is not entirely clear. The first reference we have to its use, in the anatomical context, is in a footnote of a medical dictionary from 1928. The author, Dr. Alexander Malakhi, evidently thought it was too dirty for print as it is only given in a list of synonyms as “p.-”.

Though we can’t know for sure, it is quite likely that pupils at the Gymnasia Herzliya pulled pot out of Isaiah and started using it as a word for “lady parts”. They were certainly responsible for giving modern Hebrew a couple of vulgar words for “penis” at about that time, and Dr. Malakhi went to school there.

The word "pot" as vulva began to gain wider acceptance in the 1930s, and later, in 1939 the Committee of the Hebrew Language adopted it as the official word for “vulva,” ignoring the criticism. Not a single woman took part in the discussion.

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