Thick Description

Thick Description

These are a couple of thoughts inspired, though by no means about, a friend of mine. So before I start getting hate mail or death threats or simply called a jerkface, I want everyone (especially the person in question's significant other) to know that this entry is about language and togetherness. It is not about me objectifying select womanly part - though I admittedly may stray from my more noble intentions for the sake of a joke. Specifically, this is about the language used to describe females who are not naturally waifish, nor inclined to shoot up enough heroin and/or stick their fingers far enough down their throat enough times to simulate waifishness. Also I will not be making any judgements as to the content of trunk junk, nor will I attempt to formulate that sexiest of ratios of cushion-to-pushin'.

A friend of mine was recently told that she was "thick" but that this was fine because it meant that she was, in the most complimentary of senses, "juicy." That someone may be called "thick" is not all that interesting from a linguistic point of view, but juicy is because it's metaphorical and therefore reveals a web of cognitive associations. It should be pointed out that the giver of this succulent complement was African-American. This will have grand social and political implications by the end of this posting.

I began to wonder about encodings of full-figuredness in other languages and cultures. Naturally, I turned to good ol' Yiddish. Nobody is more aphorism- and analogy-happy than we Jews after all. Kvetching alone keeps us all way more linguistically vigorous than the average bear.

The logical term to consult was
zaftig. Urban dictionary (the semantic source for the sedentary surfer) offers four definitions and examples which are of varying usefulness and taste:

1. buxom; a woman with a well-developed figure
She was a zaftig, dewy-eyed lass.

2. Deliciously plump, or carrying your extra weight very well.
All the guys dig my big hips, my succulent boobs and my juicy avalanche behind. They freak out every time I say I'm going on a diet...

3. (Yiddish) plump and juicy
He's got a new zaftigah girlfriend.

4. Synonym for fat, chunky, beefish, large, plump, etc., often used in personal ads.
Single zaftig looking for fun or just tacos.

Well how 'bout dem juicy apples - look at #2 and #3! Turns out that zaftig comes from zaftik which literally means "juicy" and has its roots in the Middle High German saft which meant "juice or sap."

Now, I will grant that this linguistic parallel is not perfect and actually seems to refer to two distinct takes on femininity.
Zaftig is used more refer to women who are bosomy, thus representing the nurturing aspects of motherhood. "Juicy" seems to focus more on what common parlance currently calls "bootyliciousness." From this we can infer that, the African-American English term refers not to the nurturing liquid of mother's milk as representing by bosominess, but rather to the analogy of the posterior to a ripe fruit or melon and...Oh how should I put this?...a propensity for said fruit to yield natural reducers of copulatory friction. But let us not despair or succumb to distraction. There is common ground to be found.

What I am saying is that this is an opportunity for the Black and Jewish communities to come together. Yesterday I heard an interview with Bernard Henri-Levy, French (and absurdly French-sounding) intellectual and author of American Vertigo. One of the points he made about America was that, while political correctness is generally good in that it directly confront the encoding of racism and prejudice in language, it also has had the deleterious side effect of creating a culture of victimhood oneupsmanship. This is precisely what keeps Jewish and Black communities to work more closely to secure social justice. My Holocaust trumps your slavery. The Warsaw Ghetto is gone, but people still live in the decaying projects. Et cetera. Of course, this is nothing new. The powers that be, when they get tired of simple scape-goating, love to turn minorities against each other. But it needn't be that way.

So today, thanks to the common language, that Jews and African-American share, I am proposing to organize the Million Juice March. Blacks and Jews marching arm-and-arm. It worked for the Freedom Rides and voter registration; it can work now.


At 1:26 PM, Blogger Butternugget said...

Zaftig is an awesome word. I think I like it most because it doesn’t sound at all like what it is describing (to me) and sounds more like the name of a planet that is threatening the earth in an early sci-fi movie where everyone wore silver to show they were living in the future or on a planet other than Earth.

Margaret Cho did an early stand-up piece centering on this word and of course her size, needless to say it was hilarious.

Also, just for kicks, some of my other favorites (besides “thick” and “zaftig”), “grande”, “queen size” and “husky”.

At 7:54 PM, Blogger AMY said...

I really like this post. Especially as I am the thick woman referenced! I teach in a high school that is 99.9% African American, so I had to learn that it was not an insult to be called thick. And it doesn't mean slow! But I prefer bodacious.


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