Last week, when we were presenting our Word Mavens program at a luncheon in Voorhees, NJ, a woman blurted out the word knipple. It was one of her favorite words and she wanted to share it with us. We hadn’t heard that Yiddish word in years, and it made us laugh out loud. It’s now at the top of the list of Yiddish words that tickle us – words like ongeblozzen, farbisseneh and farkakteh.
Pronounced keh-nipple (with a hard K), it refers to a small amount of money that a married woman squirrels away.
In A Piece of Her Heart, Sissy Carpey’s autobiographical saga about her Russian Jewish family, she tells a story about her great Aunt Yetta, who gave her some marriage advice – not about sex, but about money: “In Yiddish, Yetta instructed me on how to survive in a marriage. ‘Every woman needs her own knipple,’ Yetta said. ‘No wife should have to ask permission from her husband to buy a dress for a family occasion, a gift for a child, or a piece of jewelry now and then.”
Carpey defines knipple as a “small piece you break off,” like when you’re baking and you break off a knipple of dough to make a cookie. So, it makes sense that a knipple is a small bit of money liberated from a larger, shared joint bank account – a little bit of dough for yourself.
Liz Perle, author of Money, A Memoir, learned about a knipple from her grandmother. “My grandmother went over to her pocketbook, a black patent leather rectangle with a silver clasp that I liked to snap open and shut. Opening it, she took out a $20 bill, folded it twice and handed to me. ‘This is the beginning of your knipple,’ she told me. ‘Every woman needs one. Every woman needs money of her own that her husband never knows about so she can do what she wants. What she needs. Remember that.’”
Where do you hide a knipple? Seymour Gross, a Yiddish lover and friend of Judy Scolnic, Ellen’s machetayneste, recalls that bubbies would wear many aprons, one on top of the other, and they would either hide money in the pockets or tie a knot in the apron and tuck the money in there. He believes that knipple originally meant knot. Other friends, the Getzs, say that the word comes from the Yiddish “knip,” meaning “pinch,” so the fabric is pinched, and then the cash is put into this pinch.
Ellen’s mom has a knipple. She showed its hiding place to her daughters – and taught them the funny word –decades ago. But we can’t tell you where her knipple is.
Erica Manney’s grandmother also advised her to always have a knipple. In her blog “You Should Only Know,” Erica writes, “The knipple is the knot you make in a handkerchief – picture a hobo’s handkerchief with the knipple-knot. You keep your money inside that, just for a rainy day or to buy a little something for yourself.”
We weren’t surprised to learn that knipple has another meaning – it’s a code word for a woman’s private parts, which, like the money, is hidden away. It reminds us of other secret words for vagina that we’ve heard about, such as knish and shmundie.
We had to find out what Leo Rosten, the ultimate Yiddish maven, had to say on the topic. In The New Joys of Yiddish, he wrote that a woman’s knipl (that’s how he spells it) is like her little pushke. Pushke is an old-fashioned term for a little box used to collect tzedakah (money for charity). Rosten says a woman “could spend it as she sees fit, for charity, for a treat for the children, for a special holiday delicacy, or for a small luxury for herself. Often the woman’s pushke was the family’s only emergency fund.”
Jewish grandmothers aren’t the only ones who know about knipples. In fact, the concept of a wife having a little money set aside for her own use – pin money – dates to 1540 when Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII, introduced pins to England from France. Pins were expensive, and husbands gave their wives a little extra money – pin money –to purchase these necessities. Ironically, to get money today, you need a PIN when you step up to an ATM – a different kind of pin money.
Even the wife of the President of the United States needs pin money. That’s what Henry G. Freeman, a Philadelphia real estate developer, declared in 1912, when his will established the Pin Money Fund for the First Ladies’ “own and absolute use.” Barbara Bush got $36,000 from the fund; she donated a portion to charity and used an unspecified amount to “do something nice for my grandchildren.” Although her grandchildren don’t call her Bubbie, she surely acted like one.
Neither of us have a knipple. We both earn some money on our own, and we don’t have to ask our husbands before we send a care package to our college kids or buy something new to wear. But after all of this research, the idea of keeping $200 tucked away in our underwear drawer – just for us – sounds like a fine idea. Our bubbies would be proud.