Spit Your Way To Safety: Toi, toi, toi!

On Language

By Philologos

Published February 11, 2009, issue of February 20, 2009.
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On my way to tomatoes this morning, I was sidetracked by expectorations. If that seems like an odd thing to happen, let me explain.

It all began with a letter from Forward reader Herbert Hoffman, who wanted to know the derivation of the Yiddish word for “tomato,” pomedor. Although I knew the answer, I wasn’t sure of all its aspects, so I began to check on words for “tomato” in various languages. I had gotten as far as page 1,568 of my Deutsches Wörterbuch, where the word Tomate appears, when my eye fell on the unusual-looking entry toi, toi, toi! in the previous column.

What, in German, is toi, toi, toi with an exclamation mark? Translated into English, my Deutsches Wörterbuch has this to say:

Toi, toi, toi! (from an old superstition): An exclamation after a statement or declaration in order to prevent a hex from being put on it, accompanied by knocking on a wooden object such as a table with one’s knuckles. (Onomatopoeic, imitating the sound of spitting, saliva being supposed to have demon-banishing powers. Perhaps from Rotwelsch tof, from Yiddish tow, ‘good.’)”

And with that — this is the danger of consulting dictionaries, which is perhaps why a surprising number of people do not own them — I forgot all about tomatoes and began to think of toi, toi, toi. My first thought was that it was news to me that Germans uttered such a thing while touching wood for good luck.

My second thought was that, since the Deutsches Wörterbuch is undoubtedly right to regard toi, toi, toi as an imitation of spitting, there is no need to drag in the Hebrew/Yiddish word tov. Although tov, which indeed means “good,” may also exist in Rotwelsch, that now almost extinct German thieves’ argot and lower-class slang that has a large component of Western European Yiddish words in it, toi, toi, toi is simply a variant of Eastern European Yiddish tfu, tfu, tfu, with which some of you Forward readers are surely familiar. And if you’re not, you may know it as tfut, tfut, tfut; fut, fut, fut; fu, fu, fu; pu, pu, pu, or peh, peh, peh. All work equally well against the Evil Eye and are highly recommended after saying something that may make it want to take you down a peg, such as, “I think I’m going to get that raise that I asked for (tfu, tfu, tfu!),” or even just, “It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day (tfu, tfu, tfu!).”

English speakers tend to say “touch wood” in such situations, sometimes simultaneously rapping a wooden object and sometimes not. (And sometimes, too, rapping the object without referring to it.) Yiddish speakers, on the other hand, never touch wood and do not combine it with tfu-tfu-tfu-ing. Indeed, the belief was common among Jews that touching wood alluded to the Christian cross and was forbidden to them. This is in fact incorrect, since touching wood is a very old practice throughout Europe, going back to pre-Christian times, and probably originated in ancient beliefs about tree-dwelling spirits.

Nor are “touch wood” and “tfu, tfu, tfu” entirely interchangeable. You can say “tfu, tfu, tfu” every time you would touch wood, but you cannot touch wood every time you would say “tfu, tfu, tfu.” This is because the latter is used not only after hopes and predictions, but also after any praise or positive statement that might arouse the Evil Eye’s envy, such as, “She’s a beautiful little girl, tfu, tfu, tfu,” or, “Business has been good this year, tfu, tfu, tfu.” One cannot substitute “knock wood” for “tfu, tfu, tfu” in such sentences, because knocking wood pertains only to future events.

Spitting against the Evil Eye, usually done three times, is far from a uniquely Jewish custom and is certainly as old as knocking on wood. The first-century C.E. Roman author Pliny describes it as widespread and as resorted to in different kinds of situations, such as averting witchcraft and poisonous snakes and protecting babies, whose mothers or nurses commonly spat three times upon the ground if someone looked at the infants too intently or praised them. The practice (like the belief in the Evil Eye itself) is apparently Mediterranean or Middle Eastern in origin, from which it spread to other parts of the world. And whereas it once called for actual spitting, in many places it has gradually evolved into verbal substitutes. Although no one knows for sure why it has been considered so effective against the Evil Eye, the popular anthropological theory of the moment is that the Evil Eye’s maleficent actions, as the ancients understood them, had to do with the drying up of vital fluids or spirits in the human body, and saliva countered this effect.

As for Mr. Hoffman’s question about tomatoes, I haven’t forgotten it. Tfu, tfu, tfu, it will be the subject of next week’s column.

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


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