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Pit of Ignorance

llan Levine from Manhattan writes:

“Whenever I meet someone who is, or claims to be, fluent in Yiddish, I give him or her a test. I ask, ‘How do you say “armpit” in Yiddish?’ Over many years, I have yet to receive a correct answer to this question, even from people whose first language was Yiddish. Do you have any thoughts on why speakers don’t know the word pakhveh? After all, it does appear in Uriel Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English dictionary. (As an aside I might mention that some years ago, I took a Yiddish course at the Workmen’s Circle. The teacher was a young man recently arrived from Russia. After one class, I asked if he knew how to say ‘armpit’ in Yiddish. He thought for a moment and said, ‘What is armpit?’ Could this help to provide an answer to the question?)”

I suppose the point of Mr. Levine’s closing question is that no one in any language goes around talking very much about armpits, thus making it a word that nonnative speakers, or native speakers who no longer use their mother tongue regularly, might tend not to know or to forget. This very well could be the explanation he is looking for. Although armpits have never been quite as taboo a subject in polite society as genitalia or excretory organs, they are not one without its embarrassments.

Indeed it may not be a coincidence that whereas the words for most body parts in Yiddish come from German, all three of these areas are known by non-Germanic terms that might have been euphemistic in origin. Pakhve is a Ukrainian word, a close cognate of the Polish for armpit, pacha. Both are associated with verbs meaning “to smell [of something]” — Ukrainian pakhnut and Polish pachnac — and since the latter means to smell good or fragrantly, it may be that pacha was originally a euphemism in these languages, as well.

But that’s only a guess. It’s not always possible to determine why, for body parts or anything else, Yiddish sometimes uses a Germanic word, sometimes a Hebrew one and sometimes a Slavic one. Why, for instance, does a language that calls the stomach boykh (cf. German Bauch), the chest brust (cf. German Brust) and the back rukn (cf. German Ruecken) call a shoulder pleytze (cf. Polish plecy and Ukrainian pleytse)? Why, when the Yiddish words for “ear,” “mouth,” “nose” and “eyes” are Germanic, is the ensemble of all these things together — that is, a face — called by the Hebrew ponim? (The Germanic gezikht has the more literary sense of “countenance” in Yiddish.)

In many cases, one must assume that there was a process of slow replacement. A Germanic word for “shoulder,” aksel, exists in Yiddish, too, as a less frequently used synonym for pleytze, and clearly, before Yiddish-speaking Jews began their migration into the Slavic regions of Northern and Eastern Europe, aksel was the word they used; next, pleytze would have entered Yiddish as a synonym for shoulder — perhaps originally in a translation of a Slavic idiom like the Ukrainian znezuvat pletseyma, which became Yiddish kvetshn mit die pleytzes, “to shrug”; finally it edged out aksel as the Yiddish speaker’s word of choice. Perhaps that was also when the German word for armpit, Achselhoehle (literally, “shoulder concavity”), which in any case was cumbersome, yielded to the homier Slavic pakhve.

Or take the Yiddish word for “chin,” morde. This is a Polish word meaning “snout” or “muzzle,” which eventually took the place of Germanic kin — which, like aksel, still exists as an alternate term. Presumably, morde was at first a Yiddish slang term, like English “snout” in the sense of “nose,” which then gained respectability and lost its comical or pejorative sense.

With Hebrew names for body parts like ponim, eyver (the male sexual organ) or tuchis (the rear end), it’s less clear what the order of genesis was, since it is possible that these were words used in speech and writing by Jews before they spoke Yiddish, and that formed part of Yiddish’s vocabulary from the start. And as for the one Yiddish body part the words for which comes from French —

French, you ask?

Yes, indeed, although in all fairness it had to travel through German first. This is the Yiddish word for “waist,” talye — which derives from French taille, going back to Old French tailler, to cut, whence French tailleur and English “tailor.” By the 12th-century taille had come to mean a “size,” as in the size of a shirt or a coat, and from there it proceeded to take on the meaning of “waistline,” which is of course the first thing a tailor measures. The Germans, who by the 17th century had come to think of the French as the height of fashion, took the word from them, and from there it passed into Yiddish.

To tell the truth, I didn’t know the Yiddish word for “armpit,” either. Thank you for your letter, Mr. Levine. Live and learn.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].


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