[ENG]    The 1000 Names of the Jew’s harp


Nomenclature of over thousand proper names for the Jew’s harp from all over the world

 … mainly arisen between 1986 and 1992, while the author studied

 and wrote about the Jew’s harp, grown out to a knick-knack

 and is supposed to be a unique study matter for Jew’s harp lovers.


lay-out: Phons Bakx / linguistic corrections: emer. prof. Frederick Crane


Who has helped this list growing:

Lindsay Porteous [Scotland], emer. prof. Frederick Crane [Iowa, USA], Tapani Varis [Finnland], Henk van der Zee [Netherlands], Georg Decristel [Austria], Dr. Fred Gerrits [Australia], Steev Kindwald  [Far East/USA], Tran Quang Hai [Vietnam/France], Walter Maioli [Italy], Daniel Roy [Quebec, Canada], Michael Wright [Oxford, England], Pat Missin [Jackson, USA],  Aksenty Beskrovny [Siberia], Mathias Esnault [France], Bernhard Folkestad [Norway] Étienne Rouleau-Mailloux [Quebec], Daniel Roy [Canada], Dr. Brian Diettrich [Aotearoa/New Zealand] and others.






   In the period that I studied the cultural anthro­pology of the Jew’s harp, many times the different proper names for this instru­ment came across my way. At first I had no intention to collect them, but later, when I noticed the expansion of it, I start to find pleasure in collecting them, and wrote down the names in an exercise-book. When possible I have anno­ta­ted their mean­­ing or the material from which the Jew’s harp is made, as well as some of the geo­gra­phical or ethno­graphical data concerning their place of finding.


   Most European Jew’s harp names have a designation of pre-industrial origin. Then, be­­fore the popular rise of the industrial mouth-harmonica in the ni­neteenth cen­tury, the Jew’s harp was reputed as folk in­strument in general. A lot of its names originated in the time-layers of rural culture. In practice they were com­pared with names of musical instruments that already had found their way to several European lan­g­uage groups during the early days. In this context we find name-adoptions with words as fid­dle, bell, drum, trumpet, horn, harp, organ, string, hurdy-gurdy, rattle or guitar, often accompanied by the word ‘mouth’. From the­se linguistic roots a group of names for the Jew’s harp was derived, in which the embouchu­re of mouth-instruments is indicated. Very near to this group are the name-adoptions that associate the part of the head which is concerned to the Jew’s harp playing: mouth, lips, teeth, throat, tongue and jaw.

   Another type of name for the Jew’s harp is the linguistic as­sociation with the physical or mechanical movement of the material of the in­stru­ment, for instance as the Hun­garian word doromb, meaning ‘vibrate’.

   Because of the growing clerical no­men­­clatures of latin synonyms for musical instruments, it occurred that the Jew’s harp received of­ficial [associative] names such as trombola, crembalum, cym­ba­lum orale, aura or tre­molo. Jew’s harp names also appeared as a variant on classical na­mes, e.g. the Greek/Latin symfonia [sumfonia], the Vul­gar Latin harmonica and ar­ganum, and the old Mid-Greek or­ga­non [organon].


   A very few contemporary names are spent on industrial trade. Most of the names are collected by fieldwork. Ethno-linguistic studies on the na­mes of the Jew’s harp already have been made. Among them we find very com­pre­hensive ones, like the study who was ma­de all over Russia and Siberia by Konstantin Vertkov1 and some other investigators in 1975. They described a list of different Jew’s harp types, mainly from all over the extensive eastern part of the former Soviet Union.

   Another interesting study concerns the Jew’s harp as it is ori­gi­na­ted and written in different English ways, like Jew’s trump, Jaw’s harp, jaw harp, et cetera. It was done by emer. prof.  Frede­rick Crane (1927-2011)2 in his first publication of the V.I.M. magazine in 1982. – It is so very often questioned how the prefix «Jew’s» has entered into the English designation of this instrument. It seems that the English language was the first to associate this mouth-instrument with the people of the Jewish race. But conspicuous that it is never been written and pronounced as the ‘Jewish harp’. As Michael Wright (Oxford) wrote in his “Search of the Origins of the Jew’s harp”(The Silkroad Foundation Newsletter): “We have no idea why it became known as the Jew’s harp, only that it remains the earliest name found to date. The instrument has nothing to do with the musical culture of the Jewish race, though the name confuses the issue of where it comes from as there is a natural, but erroneous, belief that the origins are Middle Eastern. The prefix «Jew’s» is used only in English and in a small part of Germany and first definitely identifies the instrument in a document dated 1481 as ‘Jue harpes’ and  ‘Jue trumpes’. The significance of this document, a petty customs account, cannot be underestimated, as it not only gives us the early name but a port of origin, Arnemuiden (West of Antwerp), and the merchant for whom the consignment was intended, a certain William Codde. It also clearly indicates that the names ‘Jue harpes’ and ‘Jue trumpes’ were in common usage in the late 15th century and known to both customs officer and merchant.”


   Of impor­tance was the linguistic fieldwork over the small territory of Belgium, exe­cuted by Hubert Boone3 in 1986. His list covers Jew’s harp names star­ting from three standard names throughout over Flan­ders and Wallony: gawe, èpinète and trompe. Very com­pre­hensive is the study about the ling­uistic origins of Jew’s harp names made by the German inves­ti­gator Regina Plate4. She pu­­blish­ed in 1992 a nomenclature of se­ve­ral hundred names all from dif­ferent parts in Europe and Eurasia, and provided it with detailed expla­na­tions about the origins.

    A brief study about the Jew’s harp on New-Guinea [Melanesia] has been completed by the ethno-musicolo­gical investigator Vida Chenoweth.5 Chenoweth published in 1976 a nomenclature of vernacular names for the Jew’s harp in their context of social-religious use. The nomenclature found in Marcuses’ Dictionary6 was of great importance for the origin of this booklet, just like the nomenclature of John Wright & Mervyn McLean in the three volumes of the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments7.


   In ‘primitive’ culture we often find the Jew’s harp downright as an in­stru­ment of pre-musicality, that’s to say, no other musical intention will be aimed than intoning rhythms and timbres of spoken words through the Jew’s harp. Many Asiatic names may be bound to this principle, but a lot of it is still unknown about it.

   Another section to give a name to the Jew’s harp is based on the ritual con­text in which the instrument is used. In ‘primitive’ societies of the eastern world we find different ritual contexts: soundsignals for courtship, ini­ti­a­tions of manhood, soundsignals for protection spirits, shamanistic healing prac­tices, soundcalls for bird spirits, sounds for funerals et cetera. But again, in these cases many of the design­a­tions for the instrument are still unknown.


   Among the group of wooden Jew’s harps and the very primitive parallel-instru­ments of the Jew’s harp, we may find name-adoptions from the grassy microcos­mos of na­ture. The names than often are associated with the glos­s­ary of insects and with the sound they make. Very near to this are the name-adoptions of onoma­topoeia: giving a name to an object by imi­­tating the sound [the object is making] in verbal forms. For example: the Malaysian djing-gong.   


   The question how does it come that there are so many names for the Jew’s harp? is dif­­ficult to answer, and obviously more than òne answer may fit. From my own opinion, one of the answers should be that the Jew’s harp is de­finitely an instrument of language itself. Musical instruments may find a primary example in the capability of the human Physique to produce sounds, and the Jew’s harp refers specific to the speaking voice, maybe the most

be­cause of the presence of a glottis in the instrument. And it was exactly the hu­man voice itself that has expressed the names to designate the objects.

   It’s my intention that this nomenclature of Jew’s harp names is va­lu­able for every­one who wants to know about it. And in case when it seems as incomplete, I hope someone will still feel its value as an excen­tric knick-knack. Here below you will find the main references for all the proper names that I’ve found in literature.


                                                                                                     Phons Bakx [3rd edition]



  (Click here) for the Nomenclature of Jew’s harp Names


     References in Literature


1.  Vertkov, Konstantin et alii 1975. The Jew’s harp in the Soviet Union [translation: Leonard Fox]. In: Atlas Muzu­kal’nykh Instrumentov Narodov SSSR [2nd, revised and enlarged edition]. Moscow. [In: VIM 3, 1987, p. 39-59];

2.  Crane, Frederick 1982. Jew’s [Jaw’s? Jeu? Jeugd? Gewgaw? Juice?] Harp. In: VIM 1. Iowa City [USA]. p. 29-41; VIM 9. Mt. Pleasant. P. 3

3.  Boone, Hubert 1986. De Mondtrom. De Volksmuziekinstru­menten in België en Nederland. Brussel. p. 9-11, 51;

4.  Plate, Regina 1992. Bezeichnungen für die Maultrom­mel. In: Kultur­geschichte der Maul­trommel. Bonn. Orpheus-Schriftenrei­he, Band 64, p. 119-158, 231-235;

5. Chenoweth, Vida 1976. Musical Instru­ments of Papua New Guinea. Ukarumpa. p. 14-20;

6. Marcuse, Sibyl 1964. Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary. Garden City. p. 264-265, s.v. Jew’s harp

7. Wright, John/McLean, Mervyn 1984. The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. London. Vol. II, p. 326-328, s.v.: Jew’s harp.

8. Dournon-Taurelle, Geneviève/Wright, John 1978. Les Guimbardes du Musée de l’Homme [Catalogue]. Institut d’Ethnologie. Paris. Passim p.

9. Ypey, Jaap 1976. Mondharpen. Amersfoort. uitg.: Rijksdienst voor het Oudheidkundige Bodemonderzoek [R.O.B.] -  p. 209-231, in: Antiek, nr. 11 [1976/1977] - UFSIA: MAG – T 277:87

10. V.I.M.-Volumes, editor Frederick Crane – for overview click here: http://www.antropodium.nl/allVIMs.htm#oversightvim

11. Bachmann-Geiser, Brigitte 1981. Die Volksmusikinstrumente der Schweiz. Zürich. p. 38-40