This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
Yiddish has many synonyms for so-called dirty words. They are called grob (uncouth), mies (ugly), maybe even shmutsik (dirty). But Yiddish curses are far different from English ones, because they generally don’t include foul language. If you tell someone to “Go to hell!”, for example, you say: Gey in dr’erd!, which is considered rude, but each word individually is kosher.
There’s a funny story about a Yiddish writer regarding the word grob which has an alternative meaning: “deep-voiced”. The writer was a husky guy, but had a high-pitched, almost feminine voice. Once, he went into a bar where the bartender knew Yiddish, and ordered a beer in the mame-loshn. The bartender was surprised by his voice and asked, jokingly, if he could speak in a lower register (greber in Yiddish). “OK, I can speak greber,” the writer answered in his usual high pitch. “Kiss my ass and give me a beer!”
Interestingly, some Yiddish words that are derived from Hebrew, traditionally called the holy tongue, were probably euphemisms at one time, but are considered vulgar today. Yiddish has a number of polite words for the derriere, for example, but two of the least polite terms happen to come from Hebrew: the best-known one is tokhes, and the other one is okher.
The Hebrew word for other parts of the body are also pejorative. The Yiddish word for eyes – oygn – is neutral, but the Hebrew term – eynayim – is insulting (“Quit staring at me with those eynayim of yours!”) The Yiddish word hent simply means “hands”, whereas the Hebrew yadayim refers to unwieldy clumsy hands.
The Yiddish words for male and female genitals are too many to be discussed here, but one should be mentioned: beytsim, literally “eggs” in Hebrew, generally the polite word for “testicles.” Polite or not, the Talmudic tractate named “egg,” which discusses the rules for holiday observance, is pronounced beye, because beytse, the spelling pronunciation, was considered by the rabbis to be too vulgar to mention when discussing Jewish law.
There are even words that are perfectly acceptable in English and other European languages, but if people only knew their history…
The word “avocado”, for example. It’s a fruit that many people love, especially in guacamole. In French, the word is “avocat,” oddly the same word as “lawyer”. But in its language of origin, Nahuatl (one of the native languages of Mexico), “avocado” means “testicle,” because according to the ancient Aztecs, that is what the hanging fruit resembled.
Then there’s “vanilla.” The word also originated in Mexico but it comes from the Latin, where it means “sheath.” To be more specific, the root of the word is “vagina.”
And don’t even ask about “porcelain.” The first part is the same as “pork”; the second part refers to a sow’s anatomy. We had better skip the details.
This story "If It’s Too Embarrassing In Yiddish, Say It In Hebrew!" was written by Paul Glasser.