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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.


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).