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Why do French people say petit juif for elbow and is it offensive?

We look at the history of this expression which is becoming less common in everyday language

As the French language evolves, some words and expressions are better left in the past Pic: N.Savranska / Shutterstock

Reader question: I heard someone refer to banging his elbow as se cogner le petit juif (to knock one’s little Jew). Where does this strange expression come from and is it really acceptable?

In English when your elbow bashes against something and that familiar electric twang vibrates up and down your arm it is known as ‘hitting one’s funny bone’

This happens because the ulnar nerve runs very close to the bone at the point of our elbow and hitting this nerve causes an unpleasant sensation in your arm. The expression is thought to be a play on the name of the arm bone between elbow and shoulder, the ‘humerus’ , and the word ‘humourous’.

Due to the unique feeling this causes, languages across the world have particular expressions for this, and in France, they say se frapper (or se cogner) le petit juif (to hit the little Jew).

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The history of the expression is thought to come from the Middle Ages, when a large number of tailors and fabric workers in France were Jewish. 

It is said that when measuring fabric they would wind the material around their forearm, and as they made wide movements when wrapping the fabric, would often hit their elbow on surrounding walls or their workstation.

Over time, to ‘hit the little Jew’ therefore became the general expression for hitting your funny bone.

It is important to note that petit juif is only used in the same context as the English ‘funny bone’,  that is to say, when you hit it against something and feel pain. Most of the time the French use coude, which means elbow.

Nowadays, the term is liable to be seen as offensive, as it relies on stereotypes about Jewish people so it is best not to use it.

No ‘new’ expression has yet replaced the original, however, so it is probably best to err on the side of caution and just say Aïe (Ouch!) instead should you happen to bang your ‘funny bone’.

It is also worth mentioning that the French term is not used in the other context in which English-speakers talk about their ‘funny bone’, which is when referring to humour, as in ‘the comedian’s show really tickled my funny bone’, or ‘he’s got no funny bone’ (no sense of humour).

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