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The Duck in the Long Johns

On the origins of a particularly popular winter undergarment

Avi Shafran
March 23, 2018

Ever hear of the epic poem “The Cat is a That”?

I didn’t think so. I wrote it a few years back for a Jewish magazine catering to Hassidic/yeshivish folk, in order to address a common confusion of appropriate pronouns. It included the immortal lines:

There are words so simple, so common, so plain

That confusing them causes us terrible pain.

They grate on the ear, they bother the head,

They set teeth on edge, and up make us fed…

No more “neighbors we hear that are going on vacation”

Or “children that come from Haiti are Haitian.”

No more “Zaidy, that is with computers a novice.”

Or “Zeldy that’s coming to visit on Shabbos.”

My greater Seussian goal, though, has always been to one day write a Yiddish version of The Cat in the Hatsans cat, sans hat. It would be called Der Katchkeh in di Gatkehs.

That would be “The Duck in the Drawers.” Yes, I know, it sounds better in Yiddish.

Katchkeh” is borrowed directly from the Polish word for duck, kaczka. (The Slovak word is kačica.) (The Alaskan city of Ketchikan, it is said, derives from a Tlingit name meaning “Thundering Wings of an Eagle.” But no duck has aspirations to eaglehood.)

The Yiddish duck-word, as it happens, is the linchpin of a memorable joke, about a very sheltered Jewish teenage boy living on a remote Polish farm whose father takes him on a shopping trip to the big city, where he encounters young women for the first time. He asks his dad in Yiddish, “What’s that?” and the father, uninterested in a birds-and-bees discussion, dismisses the query with “a katchkeh.” Oh, the boy tells himself, that’s a duck. The exchange happens several times, whenever the lad spies a member of the opposite sex.

Finally, as the pair are about to return to the farm, the boy asks his father, “Tateh, efsher kenst koifen mir a katchkeh?” “Daddy, maybe you could buy me a duck?”

Ah, but we digress. What exactly are gatkehs, and whence the word? By “drawers” above, I didn’t mean anything to do with furniture but rather underwear, usually long underwear, sometimes in fact modified with the word langeh, “long.” The etymology of the Yiddish underwear-word is unclear. Some say it was the surname of a manufacturer of such woolen winter garments. But the Polish word for “pants” is gacie and the Croatian, gaće. So those are entirely reasonable parents of the Yiddish word.

The common English synonym for langeh gatkehs, incidentally, is “long johns.” That name reputedly comes from the late-19th-century heavyweight boxer John L. Sullivan, who, like most professional fighters of that era, wore long, lightweight pants in the ring. Another candidate is longues jambes, French for “long legs.”

An intriguing synonym for gatkehs is, reportedly, napoleonchikes, though the connection between the undergarment and the French emperor is obscure. The long, tight breeches Napoleon is depicted as wearing in famous paintings of him might be the inspiration for that slang.

And, no, gatkehs are no relation to gatka, the Indian martial art associated with Punjab region Sikhs. There is, however, no public information about what the subcontinental fighters wear under their robes, so who knows?

I’ve actually been rethinking my idea about a Der Katchkeh in di Gatkehs bestseller. Considering that particular waterfowl’s rather short legs, the illustrator would likely be stymied.

Alas, there’s no true Yiddish word for “stork.”

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