How Do You Say 'Freebie' in Hebrew?

Linguistic Road Leads to Same Place as KFC Slogan

Finger-Lickin’ Linguistics: The Hebrew term for freebie may come from the Spanish term for finger-licking good. In other words, Bibi Netanyahu and Col. Sanders have plenty in common.
getty images
Finger-Lickin’ Linguistics: The Hebrew term for freebie may come from the Spanish term for finger-licking good. In other words, Bibi Netanyahu and Col. Sanders have plenty in common.

By Philologos

Published April 30, 2012, issue of May 04, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

How do you say “freebie” in Hebrew? This was the question facing the daily newspaper Haaretz when called upon to translate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remark, delivered in Jerusalem in English on April 15, that the United States and Europe had given Iran a “freebie” by deferring further negotiations over its nuclear program until late May.

Haaretz’s initial attempt, made in its April 16 coverage of the story by reporter Barak Ravid, was matana, the Hebrew word for “present” or “gift.” Yet the following day, Chemi Shalev, its correspondent in the United States, sought to better that. “My first impression,” he had Netanyahu saying in a Hebrew translation retranslated here into English, “is that Iran has gotten a chupar.” And Shalev went on: “With Senator Joe Lieberman standing by his side, Netanyahu demonstrated his proficiency not only at the latest American slang, but also at American domestic politics.”

Shalev’s own proficiency at American slang is none too great if he thinks that “freebie” is a recent term, because it goes back to at least the 1920s and has been known to Americans for decades as denoting something given away free for promotional purposes, and by extension, as something that can be had at no cost. Where the word’s second syllable came from is unclear. The “-bie” may originally have been a meaningless rhyme, or else the word “by” as in, “Product X is being given away free by Company Y,” or else “bye” in its sports sense of being allowed to advance to the next round of a tournament without having to face an opponent.

In any case, chupar (pronounced “tshoo-PAHR”) is indeed better than matana, since it is slangy like “freebie” and has a meaning that is similar though not identical to it. A chupar in current Israeli Hebrew is an extra perk — a bonus to an employee, an upgrade to a traveler, a weekend’s leave to a soldier, an ice cream cone to a child — given as a reward or incentive or simply as a nice surprise. The word also yields the verb l’chaper, as in a sentence like, “Hu chiper et ovdav b’nofesh b’Elat,” “He treated his workers to a vacation in Eilat.”

Although chupar has been derived by some from Hebrew shipur, “improvement,” this is no more than a folk etymology, there being no reason that a Hebrew “sh” sound should have changed to a “ch” sound, which is not native to the language and always indicates a foreign influence. Moreover, the influence in this case is clear: It is the Ladino expression chupar los dedos, “to lick one’s fingers” — that is, to enjoy something greatly, such as a tasty dish. The proof of this is not only that Israeli Hebrew has also adopted chupar los dedos literally in the form of the idiom l’lakek et ha-etsba’ot, but that chupar in Hebrew originally meant something especially good or delicious, as can be seen by looking it up in volume two of Dahn Ben-Amotz and Netiva Ben-Yehuda’s Hebrew slang dictionary, published in 1982.

Chupar los dedos is not just Ladino. As para chuparse los dedos it is also standard Spanish for “mouthwatering” — or, as one might say today, for “finger-licking good.” And this, of course, raises the question: Is “finger-licking good” a translation from Spanish just like l’lakek et ha-etsba’ot is from Ladino?

“Finger-licking good,” despite its folksy feeling (especially when written “finger-lickin’”), is not an old expression. In fact, it was coined in the 1960s as an advertising slogan by the Kentucky Fried Chicken Corporation, whose early television commercials showed the company’s legendary founder, “Colonel” Harland Sanders, licking a last bit of drumstick from his fingers. (No doubt fried chicken is a food traditionally eaten with one’s hands because if attacked with a knife and fork, its batter crumbles in one’s plate instead of all over one’s face as it’s supposed to do.) The slogan served the company well for years, until — or so the story goes — it was introduced, along with the product it advertised, into China in the 1980s as “eat-your-fingers-off good” and nearly scared a billion Chinese away from Kentucky fried chicken forever.

Did someone in the ad agency that came up with “finger-lickin’ good” know Spanish? It’s not impossible. But there’s another possibility, too. Sanders, who started selling the world fried chicken from a Kentucky gas station at the age of 40 (although he learned to cook at the age of 6, when his father died and his mother had to go to work), had a checkered career before that, which included jobs as a steamboat pilot, insurance salesman and railroad fireman. None of this would have taught him any Spanish — but a stint in the U.S. Army, for which he volunteered as a 16 year old in 1906 after lying about his age, might have, since he served nearly all of it in Cuba, then a protectorate of the United States. Was it Sanders himself, then, who translated para chuparse los dedos as “finger-lickin’ good” and went on to conquer the world with it? Go prove it wasn’t.

It’s a pleasanter subject to ponder than an Iranian bomb, anyway.

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!
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • 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.