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How the Yarmulke Got Its Name

The true story of one of Yiddish’s most misunderstood words

Avi Shafran
May 02, 2018

Who would ever have imagined that “Kippa Marches” would ever be a thing? And in Germany, yet?

But a thing it was, when, in the wake of a German Jewish communal leader’s suggestion–born of the most recent attack on a skullcap-wearing man (a non-Jewish Arab, as it happened; strange days indeed)–that German Jews forgo such head-coverings, Jews and non-Jews staged kippa-wearing solidarity marches in several German cities.

Whether or not, in the end, it is in fact safe to wear a kippa on a German street, one thing is certain: The Yiddish word for kippa is yarmulke. And that word is, as you may have guessed, to be our focus here.

If you have ever heard and accepted the contention that the word is a contraction of the Hebrew word for “fear/respect”–yir’ah, and the Aramaic word for “king”–malka–and that the word signifies the wearer’s fear of Heaven, well then, you have been had.

Yarmulke’s etymological pedigree is undeniably Polish, in which language the word jarmułka (with the stress, though, on the second syllable) still exists, and which originally referred to a skullcap worn by priests. (In Turkish, yağmurluk means a raincoat, which role a sufficiently expansive kippa, one supposes, might fulfill in a pinch.)

But back to kippah, a Hebrew word rooted in the Biblical word kaf, meaning “a spoon” or other concave surface, like the socket of a ball-and-socket joint (see Jacob’s wrestling with the angel). A Yiddish derivative of that word, another synonym for yarmulke, is koppel, or “small cap.” (Ted’s surname may come from a different Koppel, a Yiddish forename understood by some as a pet form of the aforementioned Jacob.)

Surely you noticed the kaf/cap similarity above. But it is a mere coincidence, as the English word comes to us from the Late Latin caput, or “head” (as in “per capita” and “capital”). In most Romance languages, a diminutive of that word means a hat, as in the French chapeau. True, a koppel goes on a caput, but the words themselves are not related.

And, as it happens, the Latin caput yields us, either via the German kopf or Romanian kaap, the Yiddish word for “head,” namely kup.

Which word, of course, plays a capital (little joke there!) role in the phrases Yiddishe kup and Goyishe kup, “Jewish head” and “non-Jewish head, which are predicated on the belief that Jews are smarter than non-Jews. And so, we have an excuse to illustrate the usage of the latter phrase (and our subject, too) through the story of a 19th-century German apostate, once Gedalia but with the new and lucrative name of Günther, who, the morning after his baptism, crawls droopy-eyed out of bed and, out of habit, goes to his dresser, fishes out his yarmulke, and places it on his head as he heads to the bathroom.

“Gedalya!” shouts his wife. “Look at what you just did!”

“Oy!” answers her embarrassed husband. “My Goyishe kup!”

Rabbi Shafran, whose latest book is “It’s All In The Angle” (Judaica Press), blogs at