Stealing Fanny

On Language

By Philologos

Published July 15, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009.
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Manus Gass of River Edge, N.J., writes:

“Reading about Michelle Obama’s cousin, Rabbi Capers Funnye, stirred a recollection of a Russian Jewish word that I believe referred to the Tsar: ‘Fonye.’ If I remember correctly, it was sometimes followed by ganef, thief. Could you let me know whether such a word or phrase really exists?”

It really does, both as “Fonye” and as “Fonye ganef,” with “Fonye,” unlike Rabbi Funnye’s name (which is pronounced “fun-NYE”), stressed on the second syllable.

Fonye almost certainly comes from Vanya, an affectionate form of Ivan, as in Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya.” “Fonye the thief” as a Yiddish epithet for the czar originally may have referred to the czarist practice of forcibly shanghaiing and impressing Jewish youngsters, sometimes barely in their teens, into the Russian army for terms of service of up to 25 years; the men entrusted with the task were known in Yiddish as khapers or “snatchers,” and the Jewish community lived in great fear of them. Although this practice reached its height in the first half of the 19th century under czars Alexander I and Nicholas I, its origins go back to the 17th century, which did have one Czar Ivan, Ivan V. It is thus possible that he was the original “Fonya ganef,” the czar who stole Jewish children. But it is also possible that, practically all the czars having had a reputation among Jews for rapacity and antisemitism, the original Fonya ganef was a different Ivan, such as Ivan IV, known as “the Terrible,” who ruled for 50 years in the 16th century.

“Fonya ganef” was not an epithet reserved by Jews for the czar alone. It also was sometimes used by them to refer to Russia or to Russians in general, or at least to Russians regarded as unscrupulous goyim. (The fact that most Russians thought of Jews as cheats and thieves just as most Jews thought of Russians that way is ironic but hardly noteworthy; prejudiced majorities and minorities have often projected the same negative images onto one another.) Remarks like, “Fonya ganef has gone to war against Japan,” or, “One should never do business with Fonya ganef,” could be heard often among the Jews of Russia prior to World War I.

Fonya should not be confused with Fanya, once a common girl’s name among Eastern European Jews, whose origins are entirely different.

Fanya most likely derives from the Spanish name Estefania, the feminine form of Stefano, from the Greek Stephanos, meaning “crown” (from which also, of course, comes our English Stephen). If it seems strange to you that Eastern European Jews should have made widespread use of a Spanish-derived name, it shouldn’t. Other such girls’ names were in frequent use in Eastern Europe too, such as Shprintse, from Spanish Esperanza; Yente, from Spanish Gentilla, etc., all going back to the eastward migration of Spanish Jews after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

The English girl’s name Fanny has a different origin: It comes from French, in which it is a nickname for Françoise or Francine. (The 1950s hit Broadway musical “Fanny” was an adaptation of the French playwright Marcel Pagnol’s 1932 comedy of the same name.) Yet because of its similarity in sound to Fanya, Fanny became an extremely popular name among Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is certainly no accident that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, the number of annual Fannies born in the United States climbed to 2,000 in 1920 from 500 in 1881, the year the great Eastern European Jewish immigration began. After the climb, it began to decline steadily and eventually all but disappeared. The Fanny boom was almost entirely a Jewish phenomenon.

The disappearance of the name Fanny is no mystery, either. Once again, it is not an accident that the first case recorded by my Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang of “fanny” taking on the meaning of “backside” or “buttocks” in the United States dates to 1920. Nobody wants to name their child “backside,” even if it took a while for this sense of the word to penetrate American society, so that as late as the 1950s, a well-known Jewish professor of Bible is said to have dedicated a book of his “to my Fanny.”

This meaning of “fanny” came from England — where, however, the word had long vulgarly referred not to the rear end, but to the female sexual organ. Several authorities trace this usage to John Cleland’s semi-pornographic 1748 novel “Fannie Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.” Yet, word historian Bill Casselman has argued that such an etymology reverses the order of things, and that “fannie hill” as a British sexual vulgarism predated Cleland’s novel, which comically named its female protagonist for an already existing expression. Casselman’s ingenious theory is that this expression started as a pun on mons veneris or “mount of Venus,” the old Latin name for the fatty tissue overlying a woman’s pubic bones, mons having been translated as “hill” and Venus having been comically anglicized as Fanny. As they say in Italian, si non e vero, e ben trovato — if it’s not true, it’s such a good story that it should be.

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


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