Euphemism and Dysphemism
EUPHEMISM AND DYSPHEMISM
Euphemism is the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive word or term for one that is indelicate, blasphemous, or taboo. Various types of euphemisms are found in the Bible, including (1) avoidance of direct implication of the speaker – "Should you gouge out these men's eyes" rather than "our eyes" (Num. 16:14; similarly, i Sam. 29:4); (2) avoidance of direct implication in an oath – "God do so to the enemies of David" rather than "my enemies," David being the speaker (i Sam. 25:22; similarly, i Sam. 20:16); (3) avoidance of the expression "to die": several different euphemistic expressions are employed, e.g., (a) "I am about to go the way of all the earth" (i Kings 2:2); (b) "I shall go the way whence I shall not return" (Job 16:22); (c) "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him" (Gen. 5:24; cf. ii Kings 2:3); and (d) "They shall sleep a perpetual sleep and not wake" (Jer. 51:39, 57); (4) avoidance of "cursing" (or rather, "blaspheming") God: the Hebrew verb barakh ברך ("bless" or "praise") is employed (i Kings 21:10, 13; Job 1:5, 11; 2:5, 9), or, instead of the verb, the object is changed from "yhwh" to "the enemies of yhwh" (ii Sam. 12:14); and (5) avoidance of indelicate and offensive expressions: (a) the expression "to cover one's legs" (Heb. hasekh raglayim) is substituted for "to defecate" (Judg. 3:24; i Sam. 24:3); "the bread he eats" (Gen. 39:6) for "the woman with whom he has sexual relations" (cf. Prov. 30:20); (b) the following are changed by the keri (qeri) of the masoretic text: the verb shagal ("to rape") to shakhav (Deut. 28:30; Isa. 13:16; Jer. 3:2; Zech. 14:2); ʿ afolim ("hemorrhoids") to tehorim (Deut. 28:27; i Sam. 5:6, 9, 12; 6:4, 5); ḥare (ʿ e) hem ("their excrement") to Ẓo'atam (ii Kings 18:27; Isa. 36:12; cf. also ii Kings 10:27 where Le-maḥara'ot is read lemoẓa'ot); and sheineihem ("their urine") to memei ragleihem (ii Kings 18:27; Isa. 36:12).
Lists of euphemistic expressions in the Bible are found in early tannaitic collections of halakhic Midrash. Eleven examples are given in the Mekhilta (Shirah 6) and seven in the Sifrei (Num. 84). The technical term employed is kinnah hakatuv, "Scripture used a euphemistic expression." Later collections of Midrash (Tanḥ. Be-Shalah 16; Gen. R. 49:7; Ex. R. 13:1) employed the phrase *tikkun soferim ("emendation of the scribes") and record additional examples of this phenomenon. Though the difference in terminology reflects two different schools of thought, namely those holding that the Bible itself originally employed euphemistic expressions and those holding that the change was first made by the soferim, both agree that the changes were made in deference to the honor of the Lord (Lieberman). Examples of one such list follow: (1) "Abraham remained standing before the Lord" for "The Lord remained standing before Abraham" (Gen. 18:22); (2) "For his sons were blaspheming themselves" for "blaspheming God" (i Sam. 3:13); (3) "But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit" for "My glory" (Jer. 2:11); (4) "Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die" for "You shall not die" (Hab. 1:12); and (5) "For he who touches you touches the apple of his eye" for "my eye" (Zech. 2:12). Another kind of substitution resulting from religious scruples is found in the change of the vocalization of the verb ra'ah (ראה; "to see") from the active to the passive, "to be seen" (Luzzatto). It is used when referring to the three appointed times during the year that the Israelite was obliged to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order "to see," i.e., to be in the presence of God (e.g., Ex. 23:15; 34:20, 23; Deut. 16:16).
Dysphemism is the substitution of an offensive or disparaging term for an inoffensive one. The biblical examples pertain to idolatry: (1) ʾ Elil ("idol"), whose etymology is uncertain (it may be the diminutive of ʾ el ("god") or derived from ʾ al ("non-entity")), means worthlessness, nothingness (e.g., Jer. 14:14; Job 13:4); (2) shikkuz ("abomination") is found in the expression, "Chemosh, the abomination of Moab and Molech, the abomination of the Ammonites" (i Kings 11:7; cf. also ii Kings 23:13; cf. also the dysphemistic use of shikkuz meshomem ("abomination of desolation"; e.g., Dan. 11:31)). The plurals shikkuzim (e.g., Deut. 29:16; ii Kings 23:24) and gillulim (literally, "dung-pellets"; "fetishes"; e.g., Lev. 26:30), and to ʿevah ("abomination"; e.g., ii Kings 23:13, "Milcom, the abomination of the Ammonites"), are comparable terms; (3) the word boshet ("shame") is substituted for ba ʿal ("lord"; originally a title for the God of Israel, but later interpreted as the name of the Canaanite god, Baal, in several personal names: the names of Saul's son, Eshbaal (i Chron. 8:33; 9:39), and grandson (Jonathan's son), Merib-Baal (i Chron. 8:34; 9:40), are changed to Ish-Bosheth (ii Sam. 2:8) and Mephibosheth (ii Sam. 4:4); the name of the "judge" Jerubbaal (Gideon; Judg. 6:32) later appears as Jerubbesheth (ii Sam. 11:21)); (4) the vocalization of "Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonites" may be a dysphemism alluding to boshet, "shame" (e.g., i Kings 11:5, 33), Ashtoreth for Ashtereth (cf. Gr. Astarte).
A. Geiger thought the same was true of the pointing of *Molech, the god of the Ammonites (e.g., i Kings 11:7), but since O. Eissfeldt's study of this term, the word molekh, which may have originally meant "vow" or "sacrifice," and its pointing, which may be original to a West Semitic dialect, have been subject to debate. Some scholars have also assumed a similar pointing for the Hebrew word, tofet, tefet (cf. Gr. Thappeth, Thapheth, Tapheth). The substitution of the place name Beth-Aven ("house of iniquity") for Beth-El ("house of God"; Hos. 4:15; 5:8) is also a kind of dysphemism which was employed because of the idolatrous worship in that place.
[Shalom M. Paul]
In the Talmud
Euphemisms are extensively used in the Talmud and Midrash. The recourse to them is based upon various considerations. The first is the insistence on the need for pure and refined speech and the avoidance of all gross and vulgar expressions. This is explicitly stated in the Talmud: "One should not utter a gross expression" and examples are given of the manner in which the Bible itself employs circumlocutions to avoid the use of the word "unclean." Actual examples are given: two disciples of Rav were discussing how the discourse in the academy had exhausted them. One of them said that he was as exhausted as a pig ("davar aḥer," see later), while the other said "as a kid." Rav refused to speak to the former. Similarly it is stated that Hillel foretold of Johanan b. Zakkai (or Judah ha-Nasi of R. Johanan) that he would be an outstanding teacher in Israel because, instead of saying, as his colleague did, "we may gather olives in uncleanness," he said "we may not gather olives in cleanness," and the forecast was fulfilled (Pes. 3b). The rabbis even regard the use of the phrase "eating bread" in Genesis 39:6 (Gen. R. 86:6) and in Exodus 2:20 (Tanh. 1:11) as a euphemism for sexual intercourse (that they are probably right with regard to the former seems clear from a comparison between Gen. 39:6 and 9).
This delicacy is particularly evident in the euphemisms used for the privy parts of the body and their functions. The male genital organ is referred to as "the organ" (ever: bm 84a) and the female as "that place" (Nid. 20a). The toilet is called "the house of water" (Meg. 3:2) or "the house of the chair" (Tam. 1:1; Ber. 25a). Urine is called "the water of the feet" (Ker. 6a) or "the jet" (silon: Ber. 25a) and defecation "having need of his apertures" (Git. 70a) or "turning aside" (ponim: Toh. 10:2; nifneh: Ber. 62a). Sexual intercourse is "the usage of the bed" (tashmish ha-mittah: Yoma 8:1) or simply tashmish (Ket. 65b) and so on.
A special euphemism is the use of the phrase davar aḥer ("another thing") for anything repulsive. It is generally used for the *pig, but is variously employed also for leprosy (Pes. 76b, 112b), sexual intercourse (Ber. 8b), immorality (Ket. 7:5), and idolatry (Men. 13:10; Shab. 17b).
The second reason for euphemisms is in order to avoid phrases which would wound susceptibilities. The most common euphemism in this category is the phrase sagi nahor ("with excess of light," cf. T. Gray on Milton's blindness "but blasted with excess of light") for a blind man (Ber. 56a; tj, Pe'ah 8:9, 21b) and in fact it is regarded as so characteristic that a euphemism is called "sagi nahor language" (tj, Pe'ah 5:5, 19a; Lev. R. 34:13). Various euphemisms such as "departed" (niftar:bb 16b), "his soul rested" (nah nafsho:mk 25a/b; Ket., 104a), and "left life for the living" (shavak ḥayyim le-kol ḥai) are used for death, and a cemetery is called "the house of life" (cf. Eccles. 12:5).
The third reason is based on the injunction "a man should not open his mouth to Satan" (Ber. 19a), i.e., one should not invite misfortune by ominous statements. The rabbis detect such a euphemism in the use of the third person "and it [the people of Israel] shall go up from the land" (Ex. 1:10). According to the Talmud Pharaoh actually meant to say "and we shall [be forced to] go up from the land," and they will possess it, "but it is like a man who curses himself and hangs the curse on someone else" (Sot. 11a). To this category belongs the use of the phrase "the enemies of Israel" for Israel when it speaks of calamity overtaking the Jewish people (Suk. 29a; Lev. R. 25:1) or "the enemies of the Sages" (Ta'an. 7a) and the forecast of calamities is couched in the words "and every trouble which shall not come on Israel" (Pes. 117a).
Dysphemisms or cacophysms are usually employed with regard to idolatry and idolatrous sites and practices. The Talmud (Av. Zar. 2a) discusses whether the word ed used for the heathen festival (Av. Zar. 1:1) should be written correctly with an ayyin ("testimony") or with an alef ("calamity") – a dysphemism. Idolatrous worship is called tumah ("uncleanness": Tosef. Av. Zar. 7:2), the festive day "a day of repulsion" (yom nibbul: Gen. R. 87:7), and the verse "ye shall destroy their name" (Deut. 12:3) is interpreted as meaning that a dysphemistic name is to be given for its correct one: "where its name is Bet Galya ["the house of revelation"] it should be called Bet Karya ["the house of concealment"]; where its name is Ein Kol ["the all-seeing eye"] it should be called Ein Koẓ ["the eye of a thorn"]" (Av. Zar. 46a). It should, however, be pointed out that the rabbis are not always consistent in their avoidance of unpleasant expressions (cf. Lieberman).
During the Middle Ages and until recent times dysphemisms became common in Yiddish when referring to the non-Jewish equivalents of Jewish ceremonies and institutions. They usually took the form of a disparaging, assonantal word. Thus a non-Jewish wedding (ḥatunnah, Yid. khasene) was contemptuously referred to as a "hashlereh '" a word without meaning, and for bet tefillah ("a house of prayer"), bet tiflah ("a house of abomination") was used. Those phrases, however, belong to the common and even vulgar vernacular.
in the bible: A. Geiger, Ha-Mikra ve-Targumav (1959), 172ff., 193ff., 199ff.; O. Eissfeldt, Molk als Opferbegriff (1935); S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (1950), 28–37; T. Noeldeke, Neue Beitraege zur semitischen Sprachwissenschaft (1910), 87ff.; H.C. Brichto, The Problem of ' Curse' in the Hebrew Bible (1963), 160ff., 170–2 (examples in Arabic). in the talmud: S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (1950), 34; E.Z. Melammed, in: Sefer Zikkaron… Benjamin de Vries (1968), 119ff. add. bibliography: B. Landsberger, "Das 'gute Wort'," in: maog, 4 (1929), 294–321; M. Held, in: H. Beinart (ed.), Studies in Bible …Cassuto (1987), 104–14; D. Marcus, in: janes, 11 (1979), 81–84; idem, jaos, 103 (1980), 307–10; A. Cooper, in: jjs, 32 (1981), 56–64: M. Pope, abd i, 720–25; G. Rends-burg, in: vt, 45 (1995), 513–23; S. Storch, Euphemismen in der Hebräischen Bibel (2000).
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]