Tuesday, January 17, 2017

seret and sirton

In Hebrew, the word seret סרט means "ribbon". Let's take a look at the history of the word, and some possible relatives.

As Elon Gilad writes here, the word first appears in the Mishna and meant "strip (of fabric)". In 1892, Ben Yehuda revived seret to mean "ribbon", and in the 1920s, it came to mean "film" and "movie", due to the ribbon-like appearance of the film strip. Klein says that sirton סרטון actually means "film strip", but today sirton is used for a short film, particularly a video clip (like the ones shared on social media).

Gilad says that seret may "derive from the Greek word sirtis, which means “bolt” (as in locking the door)." This is similar to the suggestion in Ben Yehuda's dictionary that it derives from the Greek syrtēs, meaning "rope", however the dictionary ultimately rejects this idea as unlikely.

Klein does not give an etymology for seret (other than saying that it is cognate with the Arabic sharit). However, he does tell us that there is another similar looking Hebrew word that derives from the Greek syrtis: sirton שרטון (this time with the letter sin, not samech). Here is his entry for this sirton:

Post-Biblical Hebrew - "sandbank". [Borrowed from Greek sytris (=quicksand), from syrein (=to trail, drag, sweep away), which is related to sairein (=to sweep, clean)]

Note that both "bolt" and "rope" are things that are pulled or dragged.

In modern Hebrew you'll often hear the expression "ala al sirton" עלה על שרטון -  meaning metaphorically "to get stuck, run aground", like a boat on a sandbank. (Interesting that the Greek word referred to something you could get stuck in by sinking, whereas the Hebrew was the opposite - you got stuck higher up than you wanted to be.)

Syrtis today refers to two sandy gulfs in North Africa, called so either due to sandbanks or quicksand. Klein, in his CEDEL, writes that the English word "swerve" is cognate (both originating from the same Indo-European root, *swerbh), also having a similar sense to "trail, drag, sweep away."

However, there are other theories regarding the origin of seret. Stahl connects it to the root סרט, or in the Biblical form שרט, both meaning "scratch, scrape." The Arabic cognate also means "to tear", or "to rend one's garments in mourning." He writes that the Arabs would tear leaves and fibers from palm and other trees to make ropes and strips - and this is the origin of the word seret.

From this root we get the verb שרטט, "draw, rule, mark lines, sketch" and sirtut שרטוט is "drafting". Another related word is sartan סרטן. It originally meant crab (a scratching animal), which in the zodiac is the sign "Cancer", and as in English later came to mean the disease cancer as well. The connection between the crab and the disease isn't clear - perhaps the hard tumor is similar to a crab shell, or maybe the enlarged veins of a cancerous tumor resembled the legs of a crab.

To go back to our original word, in modern Hebrew slang, seret means an exceptional experience, often a negative one. Eizeh seret איזה סרט - "I can't believe what just happened to me." On the other hand, mehaseratim מהסרטים ("out of the movies") indicates something unusually excellent. I hope this post falls into the later category...

Sunday, January 01, 2017

partzuf and frum

There is a connection between the Hebrew word for face - פרצוף partzuf and the Yiddish word frum, meaning "religiously observant, pious." Let's take a look.

Partzuf is a Talmudic word borrowed from the Greek prosopon, meaning either "face" or a mask that covers the face (in Greek it eventually came to mean "person" as well). Hebrew already had the biblical word for face, panim פנים, and so partzuf went through a number of transformations. In Talmudic literature the two words were more or less synonymous, but later in Hebrew it began to take on a negative one. (Panim can be used for the face of any physical object, whereas partzuf is only for a human face). So today partzuf generally has less a positive connotation, and so you might tell a child not to make a face - לעשות פרצופים le'asot partzufim or partzuf atzuv פרצוף עצוב - "sad face".

In any case today the sense of "face" is almost always  associated with some description, and as such has also come to mean "characterization, personification", and through a process called metonymy, where an attribute is substituted for the thing meant, we have in Israeli slang the use of partzuf without any description to refer to an ugly or negative person. Eizeh partzuf איזה פרצוף - "what a (bad/ugly) guy!"

The etymology of prosopon goes back further than Greek. Klein writes that it literally means "that which is toward the eyes", from pros (= toward, to, against) and ops (=eye, face). Pros is related to the prefix pro, also meaning "before, in front of, sooner," and is the root of dozens of English words. One of them is "from", which originally meant "a preposition denoting departure or movement away in time or space" and also the word "frame":

Old English framian "to profit, be helpful, avail, benefit," from fram (adj., adv.) "active, vigorous, bold," originally "going forward," from fram (prep.) "forward; from". Influenced by related Old English fremman "help forward, promote; do, perform, make, accomplish," and Old Norse fremja "to further, execute." Compare German frommen "avail, profit, benefit, be of use."

Sense focused in Middle English from "make ready" (mid-13c.) to "prepare timber for building" (late 14c.). Meaning "compose, devise" is first attested 1540s.

The German cognate mentioned in that entry, frommen, has a related word in German - fromm, meaning "pious, devout" (via the senses of "good, righteous".) And from here we get the Yiddish word "frum".

Quite a journey, no? Things aren't always what they seem - a partzuf might be a face, or it might be a mask, and don't get me started on knowing whether or not someone is actually frum...

Monday, December 26, 2016


I found an old note of mine that said I should write about the word achsania - the Hebrew word for "hostel." Since the note was written in English, I initially assumed that the word was spelt with a chet, and was therefore cognate with the word machsan מחסן - "storeroom", and I could see a connection regarding storing things or people.

But when I started looking in my dictionaries, I discovered that the word is actually spelled with a khaf - אכסניה (or אכסניא). Klein writes that the word originally meant "hospitality", then "lodging", and derives from the Greek xenia, meaning hospitality. Xenia is related to xenos, "stranger, guest", and is the root of the English word "xenophobia", meaning "fear of strangers." Both come from the root xeno-, "strange, foreign", and ultimately may be cognate with the Latin word meaning guest - hostis. If this is the case, it would lead to a connection between achsania and usphizin אושפיזין, as we discussed here.

Achsania earlier had the sense of "inn", which is generally more rural than an urban hotel. Today the word for inn is pundak פונדק, although tzimmer צימר is used for specifically rural guest houses. Hotel is malon מלון, and therefore the less expensive option, hostel in English, found its place in achsania. As far as I know, there's no specific Hebrew word for "motel"...

Sunday, December 18, 2016

date and dekel

Here's a connection between two words that you might not have known. I don't have too much to add, but I found it really interesting.

Klein has the following entry for the word "date" (fruit of the palm tree):

Old French date (French datte), from Old Provençal datil (or from Italian dattero), from Latin dactylus, from Greek dactylos, 'date', which is of Semitic origin. Compare Hebrew deqel, Aramaic diqla, Syriac deqla, Arabic daqal, 'date palm', and Hebrew Diqlah, name of a region in Arabia, rich in date palms (see Genesis 10:27 and I Chronicles 1:21). The form of Greek daktylos, 'date', was influenced by a folk-etymological association with daktylos, 'finger', suggested by the fingerlike shape of the date.

In Biblical Hebrew we don't have dekel דקל for date, but rather tamar תמר. And in Talmudic Hebrew, when dekel was introduced (likely via Aramaic), it was used to refer to the date palm, not the date fruit (as in other Semitic languages). Tamar continued to refer to both the tree and the fruit.

Regarding the Dikla דלקה of Bereshit 10:27, the Daat Mikra writes that Arabic geographers mention a place called Dikla in Yemen.

Regarding the root dkl - Klein in his Hebrew dictionary, following Ben Yehuda, says that the ultimate etymology is unknown.

The homonym for date - "time" is not related at all, but as we saw here, might have a connection to the word in Hebrew for religion - dat דת.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

geves and gypsum

The Hebrew word geves גבס and the English word gypsum are closely related. Let's see how.

In Hebrew today, you'll most likely hear geves used to describe a type of construction - drywall, used to form the interior walls of buildings, and for orthopedic casts of plaster. But both of those uses were adopted because of the mineral primarily used to make them - gypsum.

During Talmudic times there were a number of longer words for gypsum including gipsis גפסיס (Para 5:9, Pesachim 75a), gipsos גיפסוס (Yerushalmi Shabbat 5:1) and gipsim גפסים (some versions of Kelim 10:2). The Ben Yehuda dictionary reports that the current form, geves, was based on these Talmudic forms, and this was the word used by people in Eretz Yisrael in his time. He doesn't mention this, but I wonder if perhaps the switch from the letter "pe" to the letter "bet" was due to influence from contemporary Arabic, who often make that switch, and pronounce their word for gypsum as jabas. (It's possibly that the answer is in page 119 of this book, but unfortunately I don't have access to it and  Google Books only gives me a snippet view.)

The dictionary also points out that the Talmudic forms come from the Greek, and this is where the English word gypsum derives as well. Klein writes in his CEDEL in the entry for "gypsum":

Latin, from Greek gypsos, 'chalk', of Semitic origin. Compare Arabic jibs, Mishnaic Hebrew gebhes, gephes, 'plaster, mortar, gypsum', which probably derive from Akkadian gassu (whence also Aramaic gassa גצא, whence Arabic jass, jiss, juss, qass, qiss), 'gypsum'.

The Aramaic gatza גצא, which according to Sokoloff means "lime", is found in some Talmudic era texts (some versions of Moed Katan 10b) as a parallel to sid סיד - "whitewash".

So as often happened in that region, the word geves was originally Semitic (Akkadian), then borrowed into Greek, then borrowed back into Hebrew and Aramaic. That is how language is built - not with stone walls that never change, but with much more adaptable gypsum...

Saturday, December 03, 2016


Why is the Hebrew word for "president" נשיא nasi? I'm not entirely sure, but I'll share my ideas with you. Let's start out by looking at the history of the word.

The word appears in the bible 129 times (not including four other cases where it means "rain cloud", but that's unrelated). The Even-Shoshan concordance says it means "head of a tribe, head of a congregation, ruler, etc." One thing I noticed from looking at the concordance was that it shows up in some biblical books, but not others.

Milgrom notes this in Excursus 1, "Some Political Institutions of Early Israel", in JPS Numbers. He defines nasi as "chieftan" or "clan leader", and sometimes the leader of the entire tribe. He then writes:

The term nasi' occurs over one hundred times in the Bible in a striking distribution. It clusters in the first four books of the Torah and in Joshua and again in Ezekiel and the postexilic books. It is totally absent from Deuteronomy, Judges Samuel and all the other prophets.

He continues:

The antiquity of the term nasi' is corroborated by its occurrence only among those non-Israelite societies that are nomadic: Ishmaelites (Gen 17:20, 25:16) and Midianites (Num. 25:14)

Sarna, in his comment to Shemot 22:27 in JPS Exodus makes a similar comment:

Hebrew nasi'  is the title given to the chief of a clan or tribe in the period before the monarchy.

And in his commentary on Bereshit 34:2, Sarna notes that Hamor, is called the nasi of the land, and not a king, as the Canaanite leaders usually are, because "the ruler of Shechem has dominion over rural - that is, tribal - territory as well as the urban center ... Such a complex situation does not permit absolute power. Indeed, Hamor does not act like a king."

So from all this we see that nasi refers to a leader who is not a king, and therefore is absent from many sections of the bible that focus on the monarchy. There are some biblical synonyms for nasi, such as nasich נסיך and nagid נגיד. It might seem, due to their similar sounds that nasi and nasich  are related, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Nasich, while meaning "prince" in current Hebrew, derives from the root נסך, "to pour", and as Klein writes, originally meant "he upon whom the anointing oil was poured". Nagid  (which today is used as "governor", as in "governor of the Bank of Israel") does not share a common root with nasi, but as Klein writes, they share a similar path of development. Here is his entry for the etymology of nasi:

Derived from נשא and literally meaning 'lifted up, exalted'. For sense development, compare nagid (=leader), from נגד, 'to be high'. According to G. Hoffman, nasi literally means 'speaker', and derives from נשא in the sense 'he lifted up (his word)'; compare nagid, which may have also meant originally 'speaker, spokesman'.

Later the term nasi was adopted to mean the head of the Sanhedrin, e.g. Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi. This Encyclopedia Judaica entry describes how it was used even after the end of the Talmudic period:

The title nasi persisted for many centuries and in different lands throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes as the title of a defined head of a Jewish institution, sometimes as an honorific title only, given to important personages and to sons of illustrious families.

But why president? My theory is that there had always been a clear distinction between a king - מלך melech, and nasi. This certainly doesn't mean that the word nasi ever meant a democratically elected ruler before modern times - but in earlier periods, when the role of king had very significant implications (particularly in Jewish law), there needed to be an alternate term for such a leader. And since nasi had been used throughout the generations, it was a natural choice for a translation of "president", when that term began to be used.

Of course, I wouldn't need to resort to conjecture if I could find any source mentioning the coinage of the modern use. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any such source. As I did when I researched artzot habrit, I turned to the archives of the Historical Jewish Press. The earliest mentions of nasi there meaning "president" appear in the 1860s, describing Abraham Lincoln (there's an interesting Hebrew article here about how Lincoln was covered in the European Jewish press at the time). It's unclear to me if this means that the sense was coined then, or if it had been used earlier, but no one happened to be writing about presidents before that point.

This 1858 article in Hamagid, mentions James Buchanan, but calls him the ראש ממשלה Rosh Memshala of America, a term that today means "prime minister" and sar שר, "minister":

By 1861, the newspaper Hacarmel describes Lincoln as nasi, but puts the term "president" in parentheses to help the reader:

The parentheses are gone by this 1862 article in Hacarmel, although they call him ראש נשיא - rosh nasi:

And the earliest mention I found of "president" in Hebrew was from this 1853 book discussing Napoleon III, who had the title of "prince-president".

As mentioned in this Wikepedia entry, the term "president" has a history going back quite a while before being adopted by the founders of the United States. But those usages weren't so well known, so I can see why I wouldn't be able to find any references to them in Hebrew texts. However, certainly there must have been some awareness of US presidents before Lincoln, even if the Jews were not paying so much attention to the goings on in the States at the time (and their press wasn't as fully developed).

If any of you readers know of earlier uses of nasi or other Hebrew synonyms for "president", or any other sources that discuss the coinage of the term, I'd love to hear...

Saturday, November 26, 2016


The Hebrew word for "prophet" - נביא navi has a surprising number of suggested etymologies. Let's take a look at some of them.

Klein gives the following etymology for navi:

Probably derived from the base נבא (= to call, proclaim); accordingly the original meaning of navi probably was 'the man who calls or proclaims'.

He then has this entry for the root נבא:

Akkadian nabu (=to call, announce, proclaim), Arabic naba'a (= he uttered with a low voice, announced), naba' (= announcement, information), nab'ah (=a low sound).

This article by Daniel E. Fleming quotes Albright as saying that navi

is a noun from a passive form of the Semitic root nb', "to call"... The prophet is therefore "one called" by God.

In the end, he prefers this theory:

The Syrian nabu is best understood as one who invokes the gods, and the noun should be an active participle from the verb nabu, "to name." ... the Hebrew nabi is best explained by the same etymology.

The Ben Yehuda dictionary says that the Arabic verb meaning "to announce, inform," had the sense of someone walking from land to land, and perhaps this sense of walking from place to place was the original meaning, since these kinds of travelers would be the ones to inform.

The same source also suggest another theory, which connects it to a different Arabic root meaning to "wake from sleep", in which someone's heart is suddenly awake with the need to speak about something.

Returning to the Akkadian connection, the Akkadian dictionary has the following entry for nabu:

G. to name (+2 acc.) ; to invoke (a god) ; to nominate ; to decree, ordain D. to lament, wail Š. to cause to proclaim N. to be named ; to be appointed, called upon

This last sense, "to be appointed", calls to mind a suggested etymology by my friend Michael Gerver. He wrote:

Although I have not seen this suggested anywhere, it seems possible that Arabic nawaba, “represent,” “substitute,” is related to Hebrew נוב, “speak,” if the Arabic word originally meant “speak for.” Arabic nawaba is the source of Arabic na’ib, “viceroy,” whose plural nuwab is the source, via Hindi or Urdu, of English nabob

Even if nawaba doesn't mean "to speak for", it could still be connected to nabob via the Akkadian "appoint". Here is the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for nabob:

1610s, "deputy governor in Mogul Empire," Anglo-Indian, from Hindi nabab, from Arabic nuwwab, honorific plural of na'ib "viceroy, deputy," from base n-w-b "to take someone's place." Also used of Europeans who came home from India having made a fortune there, hence "very rich man" (1764).

I also have no proof of this (although as always, I welcome help from readers), but I relish the opportunity to discuss nabob (which can mean "important person" in addition to "rich man"), as it was used so masterfully by my inspiration for this blog, William Safire. When Safire was a White House speechwriter in 1970, he wrote a speech for Vice President Spiro Agnew that used the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism." It is one of the most famous quotes associated with both Agnew and Safire.

I've always loved the phrase - but until now, had no idea that nabob could be perhaps related to navi...