Updated August, 2013

HISTORY OF THE JEW'S HARP

compiled by Bill & Janet Gohring Corrections added by Dr. Fredrick Crane

The Jew's Harp is a small musical instrument which is held against the teeth or lips, and plucked with the fingers.

Its appearance in many cultures of the world, and ancient roots, attest to the magical essence of this simple instrument.




History of the name "Jew's Harp"

Very little early history is available.

The Jew's harp is known world-wide by many different names, depending on the country of origin.
Some examples are:

England - Gewgaw
Germany - Maultrommel (which means mouth drum)
Japan - Koukin
Russia - Vargan
Siberia - Khomus
Philippines - Kumbing and kubing
Italy - Scacciapensieri
Norway - munnharpa or munnharpe
France - guimbarde
Bali - genggong

Musicologist Phons Bakx of the Netherlands has compiled the nomenclature
of over thousand names  for the Jew's harp from all over the world
.
See:  http://www.antropodium.nl/Duizend Namen Mhp.htm
 

A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (New York 1957), p.259, reports a recent trend:

Jew's Harp (Jews' Harp); juice harp. For over 400 years the instrument ... has been connected in English with the Jew's ... Whether any derogation was originally intended is not known but it is apparently believed that some might now be felt, for the instrument is invariably referred to in radio and television programs as a juice harp. Considering the drooling that often accompanies amateur performances on the thing, this is a fairly ingenious emendation, and considering the fact that it is only on radio and television programs that children hear of the instrument at all any more, the new name is probably better established among the young than the old name, and one more word has undergone one more preposterous change.

Frederick Crane (in VIM #1) says, "To summarize, six words have been discussed as the original form from which the Jew's of Jew's Harp was corrupted: jaw's, jeu, jeugd, gewgaw, giga, gawe. The frequency and dogmatism with which the various etymons have been asserted vary from very great to very little."

For a full story on the etymology of the name Jew's harp, see VIM #1 (Frederick Crane, Editor, address below) for a blow-by-blow account written by Dr. Crane himself.

Gordon Frazier, editor of PLUCK (a newsletter for Jew's harpist -- address below) says in PLUCK #3:
"In brief: The earliest known written citation of Jew's harp in 1595, in England. Prior to that it was called Jew's trump (earliest spelling: jewes trump). Before that it was known as trump in Scotland and northern England; the origin of the "jewes" preceder is obscure. However, there is no indication that the origin was connected with Judaism or the Jewish people. It probably came from some other word -- one possibility is the Old English word gewgaw - and was then, many years later, "fixed," resulting in the current form.

Jaw harp is a 20th century creation. It was first suggested as an origin of Jew's harp as pure conjecture - there is no evidence of that name ever being used in common parlance before then. From that point, several different music historians indulged in sloppier and sloppier research, until jaw harp as an origin progressed from baseless conjecture to absolute "truth".

Jaw harp, then, is not an invented term intended to be politically correct, but is rather a misnomer brought to life by bad scholarship. In its favor, jaw harp is a misnomer of a misnomer - a quirky name for a somewhat quirky instrument.

An informal survey of Jewish friends over the years has yielded mixed reactions to the "Jew's harp". Almost all found it inoffensive, or were puzzled that the question had even been raised; however, the few who did find it offensive objected to it rather strongly.

One said he thought it sounded like a slur invented by Christians, Big Christian harp, little Jew's harp. This is an imaginative yet unfounded theory, but given the abuse that Jews have suffered throughout history, it is an understandable one.

An important fact to consider is that the name Jew's harp in not considered a slur only because of the historic persecution of Jew's. It is also because of the negative image the instrument has endured in the United States. (If, say, French toast were used only for hog feed here, the French might well be insulted by the term).

And even though aficionados of the Jew's harp are aware that in most of the world - perhaps even most especially in Europe -- the instrument has been revered, not reviled, the fact remains that perceptions can be as important as fact. A perceived slur can hurt as much as an intended one.

English is a fluid, flexible, and capricious language. Whether Jew's harp, trump, jaw harp, or something else enters popular usage cannot really be dictated. Even if it could, changing language in the name of "correctness" seems a bit Orwellian.

PLUCK will continue to use Jew's harp, as it is still the most common term in use, but when referring to a player of the instrument will use "jawharpist." We will also use whatever name the maker of a particular instrument uses, and use a player's choice in name as well.

The way to combat the perception of the name "Jew's harp" as a slur is not to try to change the language, but to improve the image of the instrument.

We can do that by treating the Jew's harp as a legitimate musical instrument and encouraging others to do the same." Frederick Crane suggests (in VIM #4) changing the name to TRUMP. He says, "If I fancied that I could influence the English vocabulary, I would propose that we return to the Middle Ages, and make a fresh start by calling the instrument trump once more. The word has much to recommend it. It is the oldest known name of the instrument in English, and has an unbroken tradition to the 20th century in Scotland, at least. It is a cousin of the oldest terms in the languages of Europe, such as French trompe, German Trumpel, and Slavic drumla. It isn't likely to be confused with the names of any other instruments, though it does resemble trumpet. And it has a nice, folksy quality to it, quite perfect for the instrument." (See VIM #4 for a complete discussion on this.)

Some interesting historical data

Throughout Europe, Asia and the Pacific, except Australia, no pre-Columbian traces have been discovered in the Americas. Until introduced as a trade item by Europeans, none were found on the African continent. It is found everywhere in Russia. Bamboo and wooden lamellate types are found in the Pacific, SE Asia and in China except in Northern China (where the classical form of the Jew's Harp was an iron idioglot lamellate type). Through European colonization, the bow-shaped metal Jew's Harp was introduced into the Americas, Africa and Australia mainly by the Dutch and English for North America. In Siberia and Mongolia, the Jew's Harp was used to both induce trance and to heal the sick. Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer is said to have used the Jew's Harp therapeutically in psychotherapy.

Quote from the HAWK'S EYE (Burlington, Iowa ... June 6, 1844): "Woman is said to be like a Jew's Harp because she is nothing without a tongue and must be pressed to the lips." (added later by the Quarterly Visitor of Washington, Iowa:) "Then she is music for the soul."