Jeffrey Goldberg and the Tukhis Police

By Philologos

Published June 21, 2010, issue of July 02, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The political commentator and national correspondent of The Atlantic magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg, whom I first met many years ago at the office of the Forward when he was writing for this paper, has run afoul of the foul-language police. Interviewed by New York Times journalist Helene Cooper in the Sunday Times’ June 6 Week in Review section, Goldberg was quoted as saying: “I don’t necessarily believe you solve all of America’s problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen by freezing [Israeli] settlement growth. On the other hand, there’s no particular reason for Israel to make itself a pain in the tush either.”

A pain in the tush? Could my friend Jeffrey really have said that?

Of course not. He later explained what he did say at his blog site:

“When Helene first interviewed me, I actually used the word ‘tuchus’ rather than ‘tush,’ but she phoned back a couple of hours later to tell me that the newspaper’s Special Committee for the Proper Deployment of Yiddishisms ruled that ‘tuchus’ is insufficiently elegant, and could I please offer a substitute. I asked Helene for a suggestion, and she came up with ‘tushie.’ I responded by questioning whether the word ‘tushie’ could be considered more elegant than the word ‘tuchus.’ I also told her that I could not allow myself to be quoted using the word ‘tushie’ because I am no longer four years old. Because I am prone to compromise…. I agreed to substitute ‘tush.’”

Getty Images

One may be permitted to doubt whether the Times actually has a Committee for the Proper Deployment of Yiddishisms (although if anyone did have one, it would be the Times), but otherwise, Goldberg’s account rings true. Which leads one to ask: How “inelegant” would “tuchus” have been? Is this Yiddish word really, as the editors of the Times think, the semantic and connotative equivalent of the English word “ass,” which the Times deems too vulgar to print?

Michael Wex, the highly knowledgeable and always entertaining author of three books on Yiddish usage, seems to think that it is. In his “Just Say Nu,” Wex, who doesn’t have a censorial bone in his body, has a boxed section titled “A Bar Mitzvah of Behinds,” in which he presents us with “Thirteen [Yiddish] designations for the human rear (in declining order of politeness.)” These are, with Wex’s English translations and transliterations (which follow the Polish rather than the more standard Lithuanian pronunciation of Yiddish): 1) Hintn, rear; 2) Hinterkhaylek, hindpart; 3) Interkhaylek, underpart; 4) Gezess, seat, buttocks; 5) Zitser, sitter, seat; 6) Zitsflaysh, seat-meat. 7) Di mekheeleh, The I-beg-your-pardon; 8) Der Vee-hayst-men-es, The whatchamacallit. 9) Der vee-dee-yeedn-hobm-gereet; The where-the-Jews-rested. 10) Ookher, rear, behind; 11) Akhoreiyim, hindparts; 12) Morsh, ass; 13) Tukhes, ass.

This is followed by a page of commentary, in which, among other things, Wex points out that Expression 9, Vu-di-yidn-hobn-gerut (to use standard Yiddish transliteration), is a witty allusion to the Bible. There, in Chapter 33 of the Book of Numbers, in an account of the Children of Israel’s wanderings in the desert, we find the verse, “And they departed from Makhelot and encamped at Tahat.” The place-name Tahat, which occurs nowhere else in Scripture, is spelled and pronounced the same as the Hebrew word taḥat, which means both “under” and, in modern Hebrew, the rear end. It is from taḥat that Yiddish gets tukhis, and from tukhis that American Jewish English gets “tush” and “tushie.”

On the Wex Scale of Descending Politeness, tukhis and morsh (from German Arsch) vie for least polite and are both defined as equivalents of “ass.” And yet, though “ass” itself is far from being the “dirtiest” of English words, any speaker of both Yiddish and English would say, I think, that tukhis is even less so in Yiddish. It’s the kind of word that although you might not want to use it in the presence of your mother-in-law, would not shock her that much if you did.

There are various reasons for this, the deeper ones having to do with Jewish and non-Jewish attitudes toward the human body that cannot be discussed in a paragraph. Here, I would say only that tukhis in Yiddish is not a word associated with stupidity, violence or concupiscence, the way “ass” is in English. You don’t call an idiot a tukhis, you don’t “kick tukhis” when you humiliatingly berate or assault someone, and a woman regarded as a pure object of male desire is not a “piece of tukhis.” Although a tukhis can be licked in Yiddish by a shameless flatterer, or offered for kissing to someone one scorns, it is ultimately just a rear end. While perhaps not the most savory part of the human anatomy, it does not invoke contempt, brutality or lust. Not even the prudish need cringe overly at the mention of it.

The Special Committee for the Proper Deployment of Yiddishisms goofed on this one. “A pain in the tuchus” should not have pained the Times that much. The newspaper’s reaction was, sad to say, rather assinine.

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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.