Mexican Flu: The Other White Meat

On Language

By Philologos

Published May 06, 2009, issue of May 15, 2009.
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There’s not much that’s funny about swine flu, but ultra-Orthodox Knesset member Ya’akov Litzman, acting head of Israel’s health ministry, has given us some comic relief. Repeatedly referring to the disease at a press conference April 27 as the “Mexican flu,” Litzman studiously avoided all mention of “swine” as if the very word were nonkosher, thereby causing much merriment in secular Israel. A newspaper cartoon showed him wearing a sombrero and serape and holding a bottle of tequila, while using one foot to kick aside a little piglet.

This is a contemporary form of verbal prudishness that has little basis in the Yiddish-speaking Jewish tradition to which Mr. Litzman belongs. True, both Hebrew and Yiddish do have a traditional euphemism, davar ah.er or dovor akher — literally, “another [or a different] thing”— for those who would rather not call a pig a pig. Yet, dovor akher was used more by Yiddish speakers to signify an unpleasant or unsavory person than it was for Sus scrofa, to give the pig its proper title. In ordinary conversation, the most Orthodox Jews in Europe never had the slightest qualms about using the Yiddish word khazer, which comes from Hebrew h.azir, “pig.” Indeed, whereas Yiddish often prefers Hebrew words to German or Slavic ones when referring to the realm of the sacred, khazer is the only Yiddish animal term I can think of that comes from Hebrew, too. The word was also used often in Yiddish, as words for “pig” are in many languages, for a selfish person. And in its form of khazirei, which today generally means “junk food,” it signified anything disgusting or unclean.

In addition, Yiddish has numerous sayings and proverbs that make free use of the word khazer. If one wishes to tell someone that as long as he’s doing what he shouldn’t, he may as well enjoy it, one says, “Az men est khazer, loz es shoyn rinen ibern moyl,” — “If you eat pork, eat it till you slobber.” “Der khazer iz treyf, ober der mekekh iz kosher” — “Pork is treyf, but buying and selling it is kosher” — is a Yiddish equivalent for “Money has no smell.” “Fun a khazer-shventzl ken men kayn shtrayml nit makhn” —“You can’t make a fur hat from a pig’s tail” — means that you can’t fashion something honorable or attractive out of something objectionable or repugnant. I daresay that Mr. Litzman, whose Yiddish is perfect, has used such expressions himself. Saying shapa’at ha-h.azirim, which means swine or pig flu, at a Hebrew press conference should not have been such a problem for him.

And yet, secular Israelis are hardly in a position to laugh, because if there is anywhere in the world today where speakers regularly resort to euphemisms in order to avoid speaking of pigs and pork, it’s secular Israel. Although most Israelis do not keep strictly kosher homes and many eat pork, rarely will you hear any of them refer to pork as b’sar h.azir, “pig meat,” even though this is the normal way to say it in Hebrew, just as beef is b’sar bakar, “cattle meat,” and lamb is b’sar keves, “sheep meat.” Rather, the preferred term is basar lavan, “white meat,” which does not mean “breast of chicken.” A pork chop in an Israeli restaurant is stek lavan, meaning “white steak,” and sweet-and-sour pork on a Chinese menu is lavan h.amuts-matok. And if you wish to purchase ham or bacon in a nonkosher butcher shop, you do not use the word h.azir, either. In fact, you do not use Hebrew at all. Ham is known by the German word Schinken, and bacon is — well — beyken.

The most curious thing about all this, from a socio-linguistic point of view, is that, if the same Israeli who asks for a stek lavan in a restaurant should happen to go as a tourist to China, when he gets back he will tell you, without batting an eyelash, that the favorite meat there is b’sar h.azir. The euphemism basar lavan, in other words, is reserved for pork consumed by Jews and not for that eaten by other peoples, in regard to whom the word h.azir is perfectly permissible. One is reminded of the story of the Jew who walks into an appetizer store in New York, points to something in the window of the counter and says, “I’d like a quarter-pound of that whitefish salad, please.” “I’m sorry, sir,” the counter man tells him, “but that isn’t whitefish, it’s shrimp.” To which the Jew replies with an angry look and the question, “Did anyone ask you what you called it?”

In so-called primitive cultures, taboo words and names are treated as though they had the power of things, so that avoiding them by circumlocution or substitution can be imperative. It’s amusing to see how primitive we sometimes remain. In this respect, Deputy Health Minister Litzman with his “Mexican flu” and the secular Israeli with his “white steak” are two of a kind.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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