Sunday, September 25, 2016


A reader wrote and asked how did keren קרן come to mean both "horn, ray" and "fund"?

Both Even-Shoshan and Klein say there are two possible answers. We'll look at each, but first let's take a look at the two meanings.

The first dictionary entry for keren, is found throughout Biblical Hebrew and has a number of meanings:

  • horn (as in the horn of an animal)
  • a shofar (made from a horn)
  • strength, power (figuratively related to the strength of the horn)
  • ray, beam (a ray protrudes from its source like a horn. A misreading of the Biblical verse describing the rays radiating from Moshe caused many Christians to believe that Moshe, and in fact all Jews, had horns).
  • corner, point (again, related to the idea of "protrusion")
  • container (a horn was used to hold things, like oil, food, etc)
Keren meaning "fund, capital, principal" is a financial term, and is found in post-biblical Hebrew. It always has a distinct dictionary entry.

While as I said, both Klein and Even-Shoshan say that this later meaning of keren might have developed from the earlier one, neither explain how. Horowitz, however, does write (page 63):

Since keren, the horn, was used to store oil it gradually came to mean a receptacle in general, or a place where things are stored. From this usage developed the meaning "a fund".

He doesn't quote any verses, but the usage in Shmuel I 16:13 - keren  hashemen קרן השמן - "the keren of oil" (used for anointing kings) is one example of this usage. So keren went from a horn used to store oil and became a fund used to "store" money.

An alternate explanation says that the two meanings of keren have different roots. For the meaning "fund", Klein provides this etymology, unrelated to "horn":
borrowed from Akkadian qerenu (=heap, pile, stack; threshing floor), qaranu (=he heaped, piled)

This would mean that this sense of keren is cognate to the Hebrew goren גורן - "threshing floor", as both have the same Akkadian root.

Keren as horn, however, has a very ancient etymology, and many sources, such as this one, find cognates in Indo-European languages (and I briefly touched on it in this post).

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

ketev and kotev

In the Bible, we find the word ketev קטב meaning "destruction, plague". It appears in this form in Devarim 32:24, Tehilim 91:6, and Yeshaya 28:2. In Hoshea 13:14 there is a different vocalization - it appears as kotev. In Talmudic Hebrew and later, ketev is also the name of a demon.

A homonym is kotev meaning "axis, pole". This usage began in the Middle Ages. For example, Ibn Tibbon uses it in his Hebrew translation of the Arabic Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides.

Is there any connection between the two words?

Regarding ketev, Klein follows the Ben Yehuda dictionary and provides the following etymology:

Related to Aramaic קטב (=he cut), Arabic qataba (= he cut off), qutbah (=arrow).

And as is mentioned in the Ben Yehuda dictionary, a connection between arrows and ketev as destruction can be found in the chapter of Tehilim (91:5-6) where ketev is mentioned:

You need not fear the terror by night, or the arrow that flies by day, the plague that stalks in the darkness, or the scourge (ketev) that ravages at noon.

Other Hebrew roots beginning with the letters קט that mean "cut" include קטם,  קטע, קטם, קטף, as well as the related words beginning with קצ (as we discussed here).

Kotev meaning "axis, pole", derives directly from the Arabic qutb, of the same meaning. Klein does not connect qutb - "axis" and qutbah - "arrow", and Ben Yehuda's comment suggests a possible connection but does not elaborate. I could imagine that the straightness of an arrow could lead to a connection with poles or a straight line like an axis. However, I haven't found confirmation of that. Perhaps one of you readers has a source that can help?

Saturday, September 10, 2016


What is the origin of the Hebrew slang word chupar צ'ופר meaning "bonus" or "perk"? Ruvik Rosenthal in his Hebrew slang dictionary offers two suggestions.

The first is that it derives from the Spanish word chupar, meaning "to suck", either via Ladino or perhaps directly from Spanish. He suggest that if this is the case, it might be found in a phrase like "para chuparse los dedos", which is Spanish for  "finger-licking good" (and in fact was used as the slogan for KFC). Chupar, which is of imitative origin (a sucking sound), is also found in the legendary monster, the chupacabra, which literally means "goat sucker."

The other suggestion is that is the Hebrew chupar comes from an altered version of the adjective meshupar משופר - improved. This supposedly began in the Israeli army before the Six Day War, where the soldiers were served manot krav meshuparot מנות קרב משופרות - "improved battle rations", which the soldiers shortened to mechuparot מצ'ופרות, and from that adjective the noun chupar arose.

Another related slang word that came out of the Israeli army is shaptzer שפצר. This root is a combination of שפר - "to improve" and שפץ - "to repair". Together, shaptzer means to repair and improve - i.e. "to renovate."

Sunday, August 07, 2016


The Hebrew word for waiter is meltzar  מלצר  (feminine meltzarit מלצרית). But Klein has the following definition and etymology:

guardian [Probably from Akkadian massaru (=guardian).]

The Akkadian massaru is probably cognate with the Hebrew root נצר, also meaning "to guard" (which we discussed here).

How did meltzar get from guardian to waiter?

The word only appears twice in Biblical Hebrew, both in the first chapter of the Book of Daniel. The book begins with the king of Babylon calling for some Israelites (including Daniel) for training, to eventually enter the king's service.

The king allotted daily rations to them from the king’s food and from the wine he drank. They were to be educated for three years, at the end of which they were to enter the king’s service. (verse 5)

Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the king’s food or the wine he drank, so he sought permission of the chief officer not to defile himself, and God disposed the chief officer to be kind and compassionate toward Daniel. The chief officer said to Daniel, “I fear that my lord the king, who allotted food and drink to you, will notice that you look out of sorts, unlike the other youths of your age—and you will put my life in jeopardy with the king.”    (verses 8-10)
We here (verse 11) see the first appearance of the word meltzar:
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר דָּנִיֵּ֖אל אֶל־הַמֶּלְצַ֑ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר מִנָּה֙ שַׂ֣ר הַסָּֽרִיסִ֔ים עַל־דָּנִיֵּ֣אל חֲנַנְיָ֔ה מִֽישָׁאֵ֖ל וַעֲזַרְיָֽה׃
Daniel replied to the guard [meltzar] whom the chief officer had put in charge of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah

And then we see the word once again in verse 16:

“Please test your servants for ten days, giving us legumes to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the youths who eat of the king’s food, and do with your servants as you see fit.” He agreed to this plan of theirs, and tested them for ten days. When the ten days were over, they looked better and healthier than all the youths who were eating of the king’s food. So the guard [meltzar] kept on removing their food, and the wine they were supposed to drink, and gave them legumes. (verses 12-16)

So since this guard was occupied with bringing and removing the food from Daniel and his friends, it's easy to understand how one might assume he was a waiter, not a guard. Rashi on verse 11 says that a meltzar is someone who organizes the portions of food and the dishes. He translates with a French word of which there are various versions. The scholar Moshe Katan says that Rashi most likely wrote מיישטר"א, which would make it a form of the Old French maistre - "master". That would make it related to the term maître d', which is an abbreviation of maître d'hôtel, meaning "the head of the house."

It is difficult to say if Rashi reflected this understanding of the word, or because of his influence made that the common meaning. Ben Yehuda defines the word as "steward", a person in charge of the affairs of the house, etc. This meaning contains both concepts presented in Rashi - someone who organizes the food (think of a steward or stewardess on an airplane), as well as master of the house.

However, as Elon Gilad writes here, Ben Yehuda did not want the word meltzar used for "waiter" in Modern Hebrew. He preferred dayal דייל (feminine dayelet דיילת). He coined dayal on the basis of the Talmudic Aramaic word dayala דיילא - "attendant", which in turn derives from the Greek word for slave or servant - doulos. Doulos is also the root of the English word doula, which literally means "female slave".

However, as happened on more than one occasion, Ben Yehuda's plans did not win out, and people continued referring to waiters as meltzarim. But his word dayal was eventually redeemed - when El Al airlines was founded in 1948, they needed a specialized word for someone attending to passengers - and so a few years later, dayal became the Hebrew word for steward. Quite the journey for these words!

Monday, August 01, 2016

nachash, nichush and nechoshet

Is there any connection between the Hebrew words nachash נחש - "snake", nichush ניחוש - "guess" and nechoshet נחושת - "copper"? They all appear to have the same root. However, it doesn't appear very likely that they are connected with each other. Let's take a closer look.

Nachash is the biblical word for snake, and Klein doesn't say much about its etymology other than that it is likely related to the Arabic word for serpent - "hanash". This is clearly an example of metathesis, but he doesn't say which form is likely the original form of the word. Horowitz, in How the Hebrew Language Grew, provides the following anecdote:

The little children were playing at the edge of the clearing in front of their house. Suddenly their mother, horror struck, saw a snake near them, with lifted head, poised to strike. She hissed out to them sharply the warning sound חש (chash) imitating the very hiss of the snake. The children heard. They understood and ran to safety.

From this warning syllable chash arose the Hebrew word for snake nachash.

It's a bit fanciful, but I think it's reasonable to claim that nachash might have onomatopoeic origins. Other words ending in -chash also relate to sounds, like lachash לחש - "whisper"and rachash רחש - "rustle".

Nichush (and the verb נחש) did not originally mean "guess". In biblical Hebrew it meant "divination" and was associated with magical practices. Only in modern Hebrew was it "secularized" to mean "guess." Klein points out that it is cognate with the Arabic nahisa and nahusa   - "was unlucky". The Arabic form entered Hebrew slang as nachs נחס - "unlucky" or "bad".

Regarding the etymology, Horowitz does connect nichush to nachash, saying that the divination was apparently done with snakes. However, Stahl, Klein and Kaddari all say that nichush is more likely related to lachash, since the diviners would whisper when reciting their incantations.  The BDB mentions a theory that nichush derives from nachash, but rejects it because Aramaic has nichush, but does not have nachash meaning snake.

Our last term is nechoshet which Klein translates as brass or copper (BDB adds bronze), and while he provides cognates in a number of other Semitic languages, he doesn't connect it to either nachash or nichush. One derivative of that word is nachush נחוש, which meant "brazen" in Biblical Hebrew, in the same way that the English word brazen derives from brass:

Old English bræsen "of brass," from bræs "brass" + -en. The figurative sense of "hardened in effrontery" is 1570s (in brazen-face), perhaps suggesting a face unable to show shame.

In modern Hebrew the word nachush does not always have the negative connotation, and instead can also mean "decisive, firm, steadfast."

If you're wondering about the phrase נחש נחושת - nachash nechoshet found in Bamidbar 21:9, referring to a "copper snake", please take a look at my post from a few years ago about ish and isha. What we have here is a play on words, a pun - not any proof of an etymological connection.

Sunday, July 24, 2016


What is the origin of the rabbinic word for "inn" - פונדק pundak?

Klein provides the following etymology:

From Greek pandakion, from pandokos (= innkeeper, host; literally 'all-receiving'), which is compounded of pan (= every), which is of uncertain origin, and dokos, which stands in gradational relationship to dekesthai ( = to receive), from IE base *dek-, *dok- (= to take, receive, accept; acceptable, becoming, good).

More common Greek transliterations are pandocheion and pandokeion.

Kutscher points out that the word entered into Arabic as well as fundaq, and in an interesting turn of events, Crusaders from Europe borrowed the word from Arabic back into European languages as either an inn or a storehouse. So this led to the Romanian fundac, the Italian fondaco, the Portuguese alfandega, and the Spanish fonda.

While it would have been an interesting connection, it does not appear that the surname Fonda is related to the Spanish word for tavern.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

kir, choma, kotel

There are three words in Hebrew for wall - kir קיר, choma חומה, and kotel כותל. What is the difference between them?

All three are biblical, although kotel appears only once (Shir Hashirim 2:9). Let's look at each.

Kir - this is the most common word for "wall" in Modern Hebrew. Ben Yehuda and Even-Shoshan say it might be related to kora קורה  - "beam". Klein says that it is perhaps related to the Akkadian qiru and Arabic qir, both meaning asphalt, and so the original meaning may have been "something paved or painted with asphalt."

Choma is generally used to describe the protective wall around a city. Klein's etymology reflects this sense, as he derives it from the root חמה, "to see, protect". That root is common in Aramaic, and is used in the declaration made when disowning any chametz before Pesach - כל חמירא .. דחמיתה ודלא חמיתה kol chamira ... d'chamitey u'dlo chamitey - "any chametz ... that I saw or did not see".

One interesting verse that uses both kir and choma is Yehoshua 2:15

וַתּוֹרִדֵ֥ם בַּחֶ֖בֶל בְּעַ֣ד הַֽחַלּ֑וֹן כִּ֤י בֵיתָהּ֙ בְּקִ֣יר הַֽחוֹמָ֔ה וּבַֽחוֹמָ֖ה הִ֥יא יוֹשָֽׁבֶת׃

This is the New JPS translation:

She let them down by a rope through the window—for her dwelling was at the outer side of the city wall (b'kir hachoma) and she lived in the actual wall (bachoma). 

That translation has kir meaning "side" and choma meaning "wall."  The JPS commentary on Bamidbar 35:4 expands on this idea and writes:

Hebrew kir, a rare word for a town wall. (The term elsewhere is homah.) It probably refers to the outside surface of the town wall (see kir ha-homah in Josh. 2:15).

Artscroll adjusts the phrasing slightly - "for her house was in a wall of the fortification, and she lived in the fortification." So in this case kir means wall, and choma means fortification. This fits the explanation of Daat Mikra on Yehoshua  2:15, who writes that in order to save on construction material it was common to include houses inside the city wall, and sometimes these houses would share their walls with the city walls.

Kotel likely has Aramaic origins, and Klein points out that the Aramaic cognate כתלא kutla is probably a loan word from the Akkadian kutallu - "back side". It was used frequently in rabbinic Hebrew, but in modern Hebrew it's generally reserved to describe the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount - the kotel hamaaravi הכותל המערבי.