Tuesday, June 02, 2015


Reader Gavriel asked about the history and etymology of the word androlomusia אנדרולומוסיה (or אנדרלמוסיה) meaning "chaos, confusion, disorder".

Klein writes that the meaning of chaos and confusion is only from Modern Hebrew, whereas the original (i.e. post-biblical) meaning was "pestilence". He provides the following etymology:

Greek androlempsia, for androlepsia (=seizure of men in reprisal of the murder of a citizen abroad), compounded of aner, genitive andros (=man), and the stem of lambanein (=to take).

Andros as "man" should be very familiar as the root of words like android and anthropology, and the second half of the word, "-lepsia" also appears as "take, seize" in the word epilepsy, literally "a seizure". (Even-Shoshan proposes an alternate etymology: androloimos - "plague, annihilation". However, I have not been able to find any source for this, or even any mention of this Greek word anywhere).

The connection between Klein's definitions and etymology of androlomousia is somewhat confusing. First, what does pestilence have to do with androlepsy, and second, what do either have to do with confusion and chaos?

Regarding pestilence, I haven't found a source that explicitly describes andralomusia as such. It has a much more general sense in the midrashic sources that I've seen, such as this quote from Vayikra Rabba 23:

אמר רב שמלאי: כל מקום שאת מוצא בו זנות אנדרולומוסיא באה לעולם והורגת יפים ורעים.
Rabbi Simlai said: every place where you find lewdness, androlomusia comes to the world, and kills the good and the bad.
This midrash is discussing the flood, and so isn't referring specifically to pestilence, but general disaster and catastrophe. The additional note of killing "the good and the bad", fits nicely with the concept of androlepsy, where citizens were seized (and killed) regardless of their guilt. This type of situation, whether the actual example of androlepsy, or the analogous divine punishments mentioned in the midrash, besides being horrific, was surely chaotic as well. So we can see how the word took on its more modern sense.

In current spoken Hebrew, androlomusia is not used very frequently. It's a bit antiquated - maybe even ostentatious. Israelis prefer the much shorter balagan בלגן. I hope this put an end to the confusion...

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

makhn a lebn

The modern Hebrew phrase le'asot chayim לעשות חיים literally means "to make [a] life", but has the sense of "to live it up" or "have a good time". According to Rosenthal, the phrase originates in the Yiddish מאכן ע לעבן - makhn a lebn, which also literally means "to make a life".

When I read that Yiddish phrase out loud, it sounded a lot like the English expression "to make a living". The English version is different than the Hebrew - it means to earn enough money to support oneself. And while all of the words are clearly English, to me it sounded like it could have been influenced by Yiddish, like the phrases "go figure" or "get lost". It has a real Yiddish ring to it, like in this joke:

Mr. Cohen falls and is laying in the road. A lady gets a pillow from her car and lays it under his head until the ambulance arrives.
"Are you comfortable?" she asks.
"Ah vell," he says "I make a living." 

However, the phrase "make a living" in English predates Yiddish influence. The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary says it first appears in English in 1632, and the Online Etymology Dictionary has "living" in the sense of "action, process, or method of gaining one's livelihood" going back to 1400.

But I still think there might be a case made for a connection to makhn a lebn. Take a look at the Google Ngram Viewer for the phrases "make a living" and "making a living" from 1700 to 2000:
While there certainly are examples of early use, the phrases shoot up in the late 1800s and in the 20th century - precisely when the Yiddish influence on English began to grow dramatically.

Coincidence? You tell me! I have to go make a living, and if there's any free time - maybe also le'asot chayim...

Friday, May 01, 2015


Hard to believe, but this is Balashon's 500th post! Since I started the site in February 2006, there have been many fluctuations in post length and depth, and the frequency of posting has also varied considerably. But my interest in the subject of etymology hasn't changed, and I'm very grateful that you have continued to read and follow me for so long. I'm also particularly appreciative to those of you who click on the Google and Amazon ads and links - that small amount of income has allowed me to reinvest in resources. Just recently with that revenue, I was able to purchase a book I was interested in for a very long time, Michael Sokoloff's A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. This book, which was published in 2002, is a fantastic resource for researching Aramaic words from the Babylonian Talmud (of which many influenced later Hebrew words) and has in-depth etymologies as well.

For today's post, I thought I'd look at the methodology of Sokoloff, as well as a number of his predecessors, and hopefully you'll get some insight into how I do the research for Balashon. The word I'm looking at is alunka אלונקה - "stretcher, litter". Looking at Talmudic dictionaries is helpful, since the word appears in the Talmud, Beitza 25b, although in a slightly different form: אלונקי alunkei.

So let's start looking in Jastrow's dictionary. This is his entry:

In the preface to his dictionary, Jastrow explains his motivation in his etymologies - to regain words "from foreign origin for Semitic citizenship" and "unless conditions of importation are apparent, the presumption should be in favor of the home market." If possible, he will always prefer a Semitic origin to Talmudic words. He accused Krauss of "proclivity to find Latin and Greek in words indisputably Semitic" and said that "led the author into a labyrinth of fatal errors." However, in many cases, by sticking with his approach, Jastrow seems lost in a parallel labyrinth.

He makes two claims in this entry which support this approach. First of all, he states that the word alunkei is of Hebrew or Aramaic origin, coming from a compound of על-ענקא, al-anka, on the neck. We've previously looked at anak, and while it did originally mean neck, and led to other words, Jastrow uses anak very frequently, in etymologies which are rather far fetched (I didn't even quote his etymology for my entry on arnak, which he said originally meant "merchant's bag suspended from the neck".)

His second claim regards the word phalange. According to "Sm. Ant" - the book  A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (William Smith)  - it has a similar meaning in Greek to alunkei - "poles used to carry burdens". Jastrow adds that is "of Semitic origin", presumably from alunkei. I haven't found anyone else who makes that claim, and I can't think of another example where an aleph in Hebrew became a "ph" in Greek. More likely is the explanation in the Online Etymology Dictionary, in the entry for phalanx:

1550s, "line of battle in close ranks," from Latin phalanx "compact body of heavily armed men in battle array," or directly from Greek phalanx (genitive phalangos) "line of battle, battle array," also "finger or toe bone," originally "round piece of wood, trunk, log," of unknown origin. Perhaps from PIE root *bhelg- "plank, beam" (source of Old English balca "balk;" see balk (n.)). The Macedonian phalanx consisted of 50 close files of 16 men each. In anatomy, originally the whole row of finger joints, which fit together like infantry in close order. Figurative sense of "number of persons banded together in a common cause" is attested from 1600 (compare Spanish Falangist, member of a fascist organization founded in 1933).

A source with a bias to a different language is the Aruch Hashalem by Jastrow's contemporary, Alexander Kohut. Kohut has a preference for Persian origins to Talmudic words, and in his entry for alunkei, we find it as well:

The abbreviation ל"פ means לשון פרסית - "Persian Language". (I can't read the non-Hebrew script following that - if any readers can, please let me know). Many of Kohut's Persian etymologies are rejected by modern scholars. However, in this case, Persian is the generally accepted theory.

Steinsaltz on Beitza 25b has the following note:

He writes that some claim that the word derives from the Persian aurang, meaning "throne", and that word has entered Arabic as well. Aurang, or an alternate aurand, can additionally mean "glory" or "beauty" (not clear to me which meaning is earlier).

Klein has a different Persian etymology:

While he doesn't point it out here, this entry bears a great similarity to his entry for "palanquin" (also meaning "litter") in his CEDEL:

The "Old I" in the first entry, and the OI in the second, refers to "Old Indian" (Sanskrit), and so both the Hebrew/Aramaic and Portugese/Javanese words derive from palyankah / paryankah.  (See this Balashon entry for more on the root of "peri-" and this one for more on the root of "angle"). The Online Etymology entry has a similar entry for palanquin (he frequently relies on Klein's CEDEL), but with an interesting twist at the end:

"a covered litter," 1580s, from Portuguese palanquim (early 16c.), from Malay and Javanese palangki "litter, sedan," ultimately from Sanskrit palyanka-s "couch, bed, litter," from pari "around" + ancati "it bends, curves," related to anka-s "a bend, hook, angle," and meaning, perhaps, "that which bends around the body." Some have noted the "curious coincidence" of Spanish palanca, from Latin phalanga "pole to carry a burden."

If you recall, we saw mention of phalanga in Jastrow's entry. I think a possible source of the noting of the "curious coincidence" is the 19th century Hobson-Jobson dictionary of Indian terms. Here is the relevant section for the entry on palanquin:

The two words - palanca (phalanga) and palanquin are certainly similar in both meaning and sound. Perhaps the Portuguese form was influenced by both the Asian and the European roots during their time in India, or maybe there was even earlier contact between the languages. No one seems to be sure, and doubt is not a bad thing in etymology - I certainly prefer it over unjustified confidence. 

In the Hobson-Jobson entry, I happened to notice footnote #1, and I'm glad I did. The author notices:

This is referring to the word אפריון apiryon in Shir HaShirim - which I wrote about back in 2007 and had forgotten to look up now! Apiryon also means palanquin or litter, and I discussed a number of different etymologies, including one from the BDB, which says that apiryon might actually derive from this same root we've seen before:

So if this is true - then while alunka might not have a Semitic grandfather, it could very possibly have a Hebrew cousin - apiryon!  As I once wrote, the real search for roots - in genealogy or etymology - can often be more rewarding and fascinating than playing a linguistic version of "Separated at Birth".

But as I wrote in the beginning of this post, I'm most excited about my new Sokoloff dictionary - and not for the reason you might think. Let's look at his entry:

The first suggestion he mentions, abrang, seems to be related to Steinsaltz's suggestion of aurang (see here). I can't find any cognates regarding the second suggestion. So why is this entry so exciting? It's less interesting than Klein's proposal, and what I discovered based on it. But what Sokoloff provides, which none of the books I've quoted until now did - is the sources for the etymologies! That's so important, and yet until I acquired his book, I had no idea how much it was missing. I'm sure Klein, Steinsaltz and the others did research and had reasons for their theories. But without documentation, it all just seems like speculation. So I'm hoping that I will benefit from my future research with this new book, and I hope you will as well.

You might be asking one last question. Why didn't I quote Ben Yehuda? It turns out - there's no entry for alunka in his dictionary. He began work on it in 1908 and continued until his death in 1922 (the final editing continued after he died). I found use of the word alunka in newspaper articles beginning in 1915, and books from the 1920s. These were without explanation, so it's likely the word was used in speech for a while previous to its appearance in print (it's unclear to me who started using the Hebrew alunka instead of the Aramaic alunkei). Why did Ben Yehuda leave it out? Probably because he believed it was of foreign origin, and he generally avoided including words of that nature. And while Jastrow might have disagreed - it seems that Ben Yehuda was right!

Monday, April 27, 2015


A friend recently asked me why Hebrew used the same word - tik תיק - for both "bag, satchel" and "file, dossier, portfolio". This is one of those cases where knowing the etymology helps.

The word tik has been around in Hebrew for a long time, going back to the mishna (Shabbat 16:1 mentions a tik for a torah scrolll and tefillin, meaning a case or box). However, the Hebrew word was borrowed from the Greek theke, meaning "receptacle, that which is placed". So a tik is something you place things in - which applies to both files and bags. We find almost the same sound and meaning in the English word ticking, for which the Online Etymology Dictionary has the following entry:

"cloth covering (usually of strong cotton or linen) for mattresses or pillows," 1640s, from tyke (modern tick) with the same meaning (mid-14c.), probably from Middle Dutch tike, from a West Germanic borrowing of Latin theca "case," from Greek theke "a case, box, cover, sheath"
Another related word is bibliothek, deriving from the Latin word for library:

Old English biblioðece "the Scriptures," from Latin bibliotheka "library, room for books; collection of books," from Greek bibliotheke, literally "book-repository" (from biblion, see Bible, + theke "case, chest, sheath," from root of tithenai "to put, place"

From tik, we also get the verb תיק, meaning "to file", and the related word tikiya תיקיה. While sometimes the suffix -ya is a diminutive (as in the word lachmaniya לחמניה,  a roll, is a diminutive of lechem לחם, bread), in this case the suffix either means a place to put things, or a collection of, like sifriya ספריה - "library", is a place to put a book - sefer ספר. So a tikiya is a filing cabinet. But in today's computerized world, we're less likely to use the word for an actual cabinet, but a place to put our computer files, i.e. a folder.

And if we've already mentioned the word library twice, I'll go for the hat-trick. In Hebrew the word sifriya can mean, in addition to "library", also a computer directory. In both English and Hebrew the question arises as to which is the proper term for the collection of files: directory/sifriya or folder/tikiya. According to this site, both are acceptable, but directory is more appropriate for command line interfaces (like MS-DOS or Linux), and folder is better for graphical interfaces like Windows.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015


During the Pesach vacation, we visited the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Bet Shemesh. It's a really interesting museum, with live animals, and a guided tour that exhibits animals from the time of the Tanach, and explains both their religious and scientific background. I found particularly fascinating the cases where the the biblical word for an animal now refers to something else.

One of the surprises for me was the tzav צב. In Modern Hebrew, that word unquestionably refers to the turtle. But in the museum, we instead found a large lizard. How did this happen?

First of all, let's see why it originally meant a kind of lizard. This is relatively easy to determine, as we have the Arabic cognate dabb, meaning lizard. Kaddari says it refers to a large lizard from the Agamidae family, and the Daat Mikra on Vayikra 11:29 (the only mention of the tzav in the Tanach), more specifically identifies it with the Egyptian dabb lizard (also known as the Egyptian Mastigure), Uromastyx aegyptia, known in Arabic as dhab. It is found in the desert areas of this region, and is eaten by Bedouins (although this is prohibited to Jews in that verse in Vayikra).

In Hebrew, this family of lizards is the chardon חרדון family, and this is how Targum Yonatan translates the word. Rav Saadia Gaon explicitly identifies the tzav with the dabb lizard.

So why today does tzav mean turtle?

The Encyclopedia Mikrait says that this may be due to confusion with the only other appearance of the word tzav in the Torah in Bamidbar 7:3. That verse is describing the offerings the princes gave at the dedication of the Tabernacle, and mentions that their offerings consisted of שֵׁשׁ-עֶגְלֹת צָב - six eglot (wagons) tzav. The meaning of tzav here is very unclear. The midrashim in Sifrei on the verse and  Bamidbar Rabba 12:17 mention various opinions amongst the rabbis, including "fully equipped", "beautifully decorated", or "the color of the sky". Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi says that it meant קמירות kamirot - "vaulted, covered" (deriving from the Greek kamara - "vault, arched roof", and ultimately the source of the English word camera.) Onkelos also says that tzav here means "covered", 

Rashi writes that the "only" meaning of tzav is covered, and his decisiveness here may have caused later writers to view the turtle as the likely "covered" reptile. (In most editions of Rashi, he actually identifies the tzav in Vayikra as froit, Old French for frog or toad. However, Moshe Katan in his explanations of the foreign words in Rashi, printed in the introduction to the Daat Mikra, writes that some manuscripts of Rashi have the word tartuge, meaning "turtle".)

Over the years there have been some attempts to use the word shalchufa שלחופה for tortoise (based on the Arabic), but it has never caught on.

So now when you read Parashat Shemini, where it mentions the tzav, you'll have a better idea of what is referring to. But don't worry if you didn't pay attention last week, during Parashat Tzav - that's a different spelling (צו) entirely...

Monday, March 23, 2015

nitzul, hatzala and hitnatzlut

In Israel's last election cycle, there was much mention of the word hitnatzel התנצל - to apologize. This is the hitpael form of the root נצל. In its other forms, the root has very different meanings. The piel form nitzel ניצל, means "to exploit" or "to utilize". And the hifil form, hitzil הציל, means "to rescue, save". Considering how loaded with emotions those words are, it's understandable the desire to make a connection. For example, in this blog post, Avidan Freedman writes:

And if the word for apologizing (lehitnatzel) wasn't a reflexive form of the word for ‘taking advantage of’ (lenatzel), implying that someone who apologizes is essentially taking advantage of himself, (thus transgressing the 1st commandment of Israeliness ‘Thou Shalt Not Be A Freyer”), perhaps “No More Apologizing” would be a less attractive slogan.

(For more on freier, see my post here). After challenging his initial assumption, he then later he takes a different view:

If this is so, then the root of apologizing is not a way to take advantage of ourselves, but a way to bring ourselves salvation.

This was a very nice drasha on the words, connecting all three meanings, but let's take a deeper look at the etymology.

All three verbs are connected, and originate in an earlier meaning, pervasive in the Tanach, but not found in modern Hebrew. The root נצל, originally meant "to take away, tear away, remove". We can see that meaning in Hoshea 2:11 וְהִצַּלְתִּי צַמְרִי וּפִשְׁתִּי - "I will snatch away My wool and My linen", or in Shemot 33:6 -  וַיִּתְנַצְּלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-עֶדְיָם  - "So the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments".

With that understanding, the hifil form - hatzala הצלה - "rescue", becomes easy to understand. When you rescue someone, you take them away, remove them from danger. So a lifeguard is a matzil מציל, and a survivor is a nitzol ניצול.

What about nitzul ניצול "exploitation" or "utilization"? The verb originally meant "to strip, to spoil" - in other words, to take something from someone else. We find this verb mentioned in regards to what the children of Israel did to Egypt (Shemot 3:22, 12:36) -  וַיְנַצְּלוּ אֶת-מִצְרָיִם - "they despoiled the Egyptians". Only in modern Hebrew did the word take on the more general sense of "exploit, take advantage of", and apparently the even less specific "utilize" came later, as it does not appear in Ben Yehuda's dictionary.

And now to hitnatzlut התנצלות - "apology". This too is a later development, first found in Medieval Hebrew. Klein says the verb first meant "he excused himself" and later "he apologized". Ben Yehuda (and later Even Shoshan), gives a slightly different explanation: "he made an effort to remove his guilt."

So we can see that the meanings of the word have changed significantly over time. So if you didn't know the original meaning before, no need to apologize. My pleasure to rescue you, and feel free to utilize my site in the future...

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


A reader asked if there is any connection between the Hebrew word for wallet or purse - ארנק arnak, and the French word arnaque - "to swindle" (perhaps due to antisemitic associations between Jews and money).

That doesn't seem to be the case (not that there's no precedence for antisemitism in language, years ago I heard about how the ASL sign for "Jew" was the same as the one for "stingy"). Arnaque derives from arnaquer, which in turn comes from a German word for harness - "harnacher". This Wikipedia page describes the etymology as follows: harnacher, arnaquer "to amuse, swindle" < harnacher "to harness, equip, disguise".

Arnak is originally a Talmudic word, appearing as ארנקא (Bava Batra 8a, Berachot 19a) or ארנקי (Yerushalmi Kiddushin 61a). Klein provides the following etymology:

Back formation from Aramaic ארנקי, which is borrowed from Greek arnakis (= sheepskin coat), a feminine noun probably formed through haplology from arno-nakos, a compound formed from aren, genitive arnos (=sheep) and nakos (=fleece).

Arnakis may also be the source of the plant name Arnica.

Nakos comes from a Greek root meaning "press, squeeze", and so has a cognate in the word nastic, a botanic phenomenon where one side of a plant moves because it's being pressed or squeezed from another. Wallet and squeezing? I can feel a connection...