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A vagina by any other name…

Over lunch today, our conversation turned to an article a couple of us had recently read in Tablet about Yiddish words for vagina. (Yes, this is fairly typical lunchtime conversation at the Jewish Women's Archive.) None of us had really thought much about this topic before, but we were all quite intrigued. Why yes, it IS strange, we agreed with the author, Elissa Strauss, that Yiddish slang for penis has been assimilated into general English usage, while Yiddish slang for vagina is virtually unknown.

Why is this? There certainly is a need for more good terms for vagina. I have to admit that I haven't yet found one in English that really works for me. Mostly, they're derogatory (think the c-word). If they're not derogatory, they're too cutesy and diminutive (think itsy-bitsy). Or they're just plain cheesy (think honey pot). But the Yiddish terms -- like knish or schmundie -- have a nice ring to them. Not sexy, to be sure, but friendly, comfortable, intimate. Like an old friend, not something shameful or little-girly or directly out of a 1970s lesbian collective.

The truth is that I'm a big believer in teaching people the real names for things, which requires using those names regularly. I would argue that most slang for genitals conveys that there is something shameful or dirty about them. And I think we need to be able to say what we're talking about, not use euphemisms. I am, after all, the person who suggested to my husband that we teach our two-year-old daughter the difference between her vulva and her vagina. (I lost that battle.)

But I will admit that vagina sounds a little clinical. It's hard to feel "warm and fuzzy" (no pun intended) about such a cold term. And as someone who's generally sex-positive, I believe we need to make our vaginas our friends. And friends sometimes have nicknames. Schmundie won the lunchtime poll. I'm going to try it out.

In the meantime, I hope my phone doesn't ring too often today, because it's all I can do not to answer the phone "Schmundie central."

More on: Yiddish, Language, Vagina
4 Comments

While I am feeling a bit timorous about getting involved in this conversation I have to relate a term I heard as a boy being used by Yiddish speaking male adults when making jokes, usually off color, that used a Yiddish term for a vagina. However, it's not one I would think you would use bring up your child. It's "vilde lokh" Some of you may recognize the word "vilde" as meaning wild and "lokh" as meaning lock, opening, etc. Don't hate me. I love Jewish women.

For decades I searched for slang words for vagina, purely as an intellectual pursuit. I thought the same as the author: 9 billion slang terms for penis, and none for vagina (at least no common ones)!? How could this be?

My mother, who is a fluent Yiddish speaker didn't know any. (When we were really little, for lack of another term, she referred to the entire area between the navel and the upper thighs as the pupik, even though we all knew it literally meant belly button.)

In my quest, I called the Forvitz and asked a Yiddish speaker there. The best she could do was the word for "birth canal." (something like "mutter shaft.") Too technical! My husband, a photographer who spends a lot of time and money over at B&H, asked some of the Hasidic guys who work there the same question. They were happy to help.They asked around among the guys, but the best they could do was "va-ghee-na" (just another way of pronouncing vagina.)

Growing up, my friend's grandmother referred to it as a "shmoonie" and this immediately supplanted "pupik" as my own family's new preferred word. It SOUNDED Yiddish but being that nobody else had ever heard it, we assumed her bubbe had just made it up. Still, it was funny and affectionate; a keeper. It's the word I still use to refer to my lady bits. It's catchy and friendly without being overtly sexual or twee or aggressive. It's so apt, many of my non-Jewish friends have adopted it.

But, my search for a REAL Yiddish word went on.

A couple of years ago, I was offered a contract to write Dirty Yiddish Slang (Ulysses Press), and I began to search in earnest. I found the cutesie expressions like knish and pierogie -- names implying something to nosh on -- but standing alone they retained their food meanings. Among Yiddish speaking women (for example, when Hasidic women go to the gynecologist), female genitalia is euphemistically referred to as "dorten" (there) or "meiseh" (story).

But I wanted at least one good, solid Yiddish word for vagina! How could there not be one???

Then, in helping me with my book, my mother-in-law taught me the world "shmunda" which she said was very rude. (I gather the equivalent of c&^t.) Immediately I realized that "shmoonie" was to "shmunda" what "shmekl" is to "shmuck" -- a diminutive, affectionate, juvenile version of the word.

All those years of searching, and I'd been using the Yiddish slang term all along!

At that age I don't think your daughter could have had a word for something she could not see. As she grows up, at any given age she might understand the difference, yet not want to learn any details. In fact, I know a woman in her forties who once told me she had no desire to know anything more anatomical than a single word for everything "down there." This revelation surprised both me and my wife, who is an ob/gyn physician. But the woman I'm referring to did not grow up in an "Our bodies, Ourselves" kind of household -- which I guess also shows why that book really is needed.

An Yiddish article on Vaginas. What's next?

But I got to say... it had a certain..'.Ich vaice nich ' ..., and I was on 'shpilkas ' while reading it the whole way through.

Keep up the good commentary!

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "A vagina by any other name…." 29 July 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/schmundie>.

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