‘Who put the condom in condominium?” asks avid reader Hugo Hefnerovich: more as an accusation than as a question. Despite the tone, the inquiry is worthy of further investigation, since the French inventor of the sheep gut prophylactic was a descendant of Rashi who had fled south from Troyes to the eponymous town of Condom near the Spanish border. The popular American brand, indeed, still carries the name of Rashi’s home town.
A spurious folk etymology places the word’s roots in Hebrew. Originally a larger tent-shaped object designed to facilitate the time of nidah in a woman’s cycle — it was made l’hachin dam, to prepare for blood. According to my 26-volume Alexander Harkavy Dictionary of English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Spanglish, Perso-Ugaritic and Detailed Concordance of Middle Eastern Chickpea Cuisine, this is entirely fallacious.
In fact, both condom and condominium come simply from the Latin. The prefix “con” meaning “with” takes respectively –domus meaning home and –dominium meaning domain. The reason for the allegation of Hebrew provenance is that throughout the Middle Ages — in a bizarre slander about blood — Jews were blamed for all repetitive bleeding such as hemophilia or menses.
In the most violent of the attacks on Jewish communities proceeding from these accusations an old man was burnt alive. The event became known as the night of the “poor grey man” or “pauvre gris homme” (colors used for adjectival modification preceded the noun in southern French departments until Napoleon codified the word order). Over the years the phrase lost its original meaning until it showed up again in Russia as the “pau-gr-omme” or pogrom.
To commemorate the event, French Jews eat the sweet, burnt browned lokshen from the side of the bowl. They call it l’homme brulé and in parts of the Sephardic French diaspora, l’homme brulé or brulant can also refer to burnt rice which is regarded as a delicacy in East Asia. However, throughout the Indian continent burning rice is regarded as wasteful and evidence of a poor cook. It is referred to in Tamil as “adi pudicha saatham” (cooked rice, caught at the bottom) or in Hindi as “jale huye chaval.”
Larry Harvey, who is of Sephardic descent, obviously felt other connotations to the term when in 1986 he founded a festival of freedom he called l’homme brulant, or Burning Man.