Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Daily Hump: Jew's Harp

I'm a Jew, but I don't own a harp. I suppose if I did, it'd be a Jew's harp. But in actuality there is a specific type of musical instrument called the Jew's harp--it was earlier known as a Jews' trump--and yet it is neither a harp nor a trumpet and why it is associated with the Jews has been a source of mystery for centuries.

The Jew's harp consists of a lyre-shaped metal frame that is held between the teeth. A soft twanging sound is created by plucking a steel tongue that projects from the frame. The instrument is found in cultures throughout the world yet only in English has it managed to become associated with Jews. Some theories suggest that the Jew's harp got its name because it was made popular by my favorite extinct group of converts, the Khazars. Others suggest Jew is simply a corruption of jaw. And yet another theory posits that Jew is a corruption of the French jeu (toy).

Funnily enough, the dictionary of dictionaries, the OED, calls the jeu theory "baseless and inept." Oh snap! The OED theorizes that because the Jew association only exists in English perhaps Jews were involved in the manufacturing and selling of the instruments in England. Another OED theory is that because the Bible continually mentions harps and trumpets, the word Jew was added to the name as a marketing ploy (Jews are Biblical and they endorse this harp--Christian Joe like the Bible, thus Christian Joe wants this Jew's harp). This idea seems a bit of a stretch because although it correctly assumes that a Biblical association would be viewed positively, it's ignoring the blatantly obvious fact that a Jewish association would most likely be viewed negatively. Afterall, the English are the same people that in 1290 expelled Jews from their country for 350 years (thanks, Edward I--ass).

Nope, I actually think the jeu theory is most likely the correct one. Webster's cites the etymological root at the Dutch Jeugdtromp (youth's trumpet). If we apply Occam's razor, these linguistic corruptions seem much more likely than the OED suggestions. I have to admit, I'm a bit disappointed with the OED on this one.

Jews' Tromp [OED]

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:: posted by David, 8:27 AM

2 Comments:

Also a Jew, I too have wondered about the Jews harp. Why did I not receive one at my Bat Mitzvah? It seemed as good as time as any.
Blogger Loocite, at 11:54 AM  
Cheers Dave. It's also known as a "juice harp", which is apparently what the instrument was called on radio and tv back in the day.

My little sketch plays on the fact that the harmonica is also sometimes referred to as a "harp" or "Blues harp".
Blogger Shawn Feeney, at 3:21 PM  

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