Jona van der Schelde

Cryptic Codes and Humorous Euphemisms: talking about taboos in Jewish languages

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In over 2 millennia, Jews scattered across the Earth, yielding diasporic communities in places as culturally and geographically distinct as the urban splendor of Medieval Baghdad and the desolate plains of Belarus and countless places in between and beyond. Despite the forced dispersion, the Jews remained one people, in large part due to Hebrew, which was the liturgical language for all those communities. Lashon haKodesh, or the Holy Tongue, was a truly uniting factor throughout centuries of exile. Wherever Jews dwelt, they learned the ruling language of the land but also peppered their speech with elements of Hebrew, creating full-fledged languages in and of themselves, the most famous ones being Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic (all with several regional varieties). The Hebrew element in these languages’ vocabularies differs in terms of size and pronunciation, but also shows striking similarities across the communities. One such similarity is the semantic domains these Hebrew elements often cover: quite logically, of course, religious terms are often designated in Hebrew (prayer = tfile in Yiddish = tefilá in Ladino = tfélla in Judeo-Arabic), but so are not so holy taboo terms and secret synonyms.

It makes sense. At many points in history, Jews have had to be wary of their neighbors, whether they be Christian (in Haketia, the Judeo-Spanish once spoken in Morocco, simply referred to as sajén from the Hebrew word for neighbor, שכן), Muslim or generally Gentile (in Yiddish, of course, goyim, in Judeo-Persian guim, both from the Hebrew word for nations גויים, while any non-Jew was called ummot, from that other word for nations אומות, in the Neo-Aramaic of Kurdish Jews). Other references to the dominant religion are similarly ingenious: Judeo-italian caròvve for Jesus Christ (from Hebrew word for a relative קרוב), the slightly harsh Judeo-Arabic mashugga for Muhammad and gallakh for a Christian priest (from the Hebrew root גלח for shaving, referencing their tonsured heads) which is found across Jewish languages in Europe. 

The usage of these terms ensured that Jews could talk amongst themselves in code when the situation called for it, like when making sure that no one could eavesdrop – neither a nosy neighbor nor… a child! Children were naturally less literate and less knowledgeable of Hebrew, which was thus the perfect secret lingo for parents when speaking about topics that were deemed inappropriate for the children’s ears. Those topics were either ominous (like danger סכנה = sakone in Yiddish = s’kkana in Judeo-Arabic with characteristic doubled consonant) or morbid (like widow אלמנה = almone in Yiddish). Especially in this last category, many euphemisms are found: the Hebrew word for cave מערה is used for cemetery in Yemenite Judeo-Arabic, the more general word for closet ארון strictly came to mean coffin in Ladino and, through an imaginative bastardization of hashivenu השיבנו (cause us to return), the Yiddish-origin colloquial word for dead, kassiewijle, entered into my own Dutch language. There’s also a Dutch Sephardic cemetery that bears the name בית החיים (house of the living) from the Ladino term bedahaim. It’s apparent that these Hebrew euphemisms were not just used to shelter children from difficult topics but also to provide adults with some consolation or relief when faced with life’s cruelties. 

It’s amazing that words can do that – brighten the bleakness, subdue the seriousness and even poke fun at the profane. Hebrew euphemisms abound, too, in words surrounding certain taboo body parts and their functions. Everybody knows Yiddish tukhes which is derived from the Hebrew word for bottom תחת, its Ladino counterpart being tajád. Also in Ladino, a toilet is called bedakavó from בית הקבוד or house of honor, whereas in Judeo-Italian it’s simply macom, from the Hebrew word for place. Somehow it worked well to use the ancient language to describe these earthly things, with the Holy Tongue firmly in cheek, I’m sure.

Another area in which there is a need for cryptic communication is of course the underworld. That’s why we find plenty Hebrew-origin words in criminal jargon, too, like French pègre meaning underworld from the Hebrew word for corpse פּגר and Judeo-Italian jorbedde for policemen, which combines the Hebrew letters yud and bet to signify 12, the number on their uniform. In Dutch street parlance, Yiddish has had an especially big influence – smeris is policeman from שמירה meaning guarding, penoze is underworld from פּרנסה (livelihood) and jatten is stealing from יד (hand). Many other such words are out there, by now used in a kind of throwback sense by law-abiding Jewish and non-Jewish Dutch speakers alike, usually oblivious to the remarkable journeys these words have undergone. 

Many of those holy words, that traveled from the Levant out into Europe, Asia, Africa and beyond, meanwhile semantically shapeshifting and adapting to alternative articulations and indigenous intonations, also journeyed back with the diasporic communities to Ottoman Palestine, where Ben-Yehuda had the crazy dream to revive the ancient tongue. Amazingly, his dream came true and Hebrew fully proved its role as a unifying factor of disparate Jewish communities, playing a major part in the success of the state of Israel since its establishment in 1948 and transitioning from an opaque, old language into a transparent, young one . A consequence of Hebrew having become a full-fledged spoken language again after more than 2,000 years is that it is no longer the best means to speak discreetly or take the sting out of a taboo. Therefore, other languages are often used by Hebrew speakers nowadays to express things like bodily functions (English-inspired la’asot pipi), curse words (ba’asa and cous emek, both extremely crude in Arabic but quite commonplace in Israeli Hebrew) and insults (fraier and klafteh from Yiddish). Thus, the cycle continues, though the roles are reversed since the homecoming of Hebrew – Yiddish and Judeo-Arabic now functioning like two deviant children both corrupting and invigorating their archaic but juvenile mother.

As old as the Hebrew language is, the tendency for people to use language creatively in order to soften, satirize and make sense of the supposedly unspeakable is at least as old. May both live on and on. 


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About the Author
Jona van der Schelde loves language and cycling. He lives in the Netherlands and teaches Hebrew.
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