Sunday, February 12, 2017

chelek and chaklaut

A friend recently asked me a question about metathesis - the rearranging of letters in a word. Let's take a quick look at an example in Hebrew.

The word helek חלק - "part, portion" derives from the verb חלק - "to divide, share" (according to Klein). He does not connect this root to chalak חלק - "smooth", which he says is related to the Arabic halaqa "he made smooth" which is related to halaqa meaning "he created." Klein also mentions halaqa - "he measured, measured off" as a cognate of חלק meaning "to divide", but again, he doesn't connect the roots. Stahl, however, does connect them, saying that "he created" and "he measured" are related. And if I understand the footnote in Ben Yehuda correctly, he says that the meaning "smooth" could have evolved from a sense "to shave", which would have originally been "to cut, to divide." This sense - of shaving, making smooth - is the source of the halaka חלאקה - the Mizrahi version of the Ashkenazi upsherin,  the ceremony of the first haircut for three year old boys.

Chaklaut חקלאות - "agriculture" and chaklai חקלאי - "agricultural"/ "farmer" are modern Hebrew words coined by David Yellin, formed from the Aramaic words chakal חקל and chakla חקלא, both meaning "field." This Aramaic word is a metathesis of chelek - literally "a portion of land." We find chelek being used for a field in many places, such as Bereshit 33:19 - חלקת השדה chelkat hasadeh - "a portion of the field".

Monday, February 06, 2017

hasta and ad

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in the news recently, so I thought I'd take a look at the first word of his catchphrase, "Hasta la vista, baby". While hasta la vista is used to mean "see you later", the literal meaning in Spanish is "Until the (next) sighting." The word hasta, "until", has its origins in Arabic, coming from the Arabic word ḥattá (or hata) - also meaning "until."

I looked around for a Hebrew cognate to hatta, and if I understand these (1, 2, 3) books correctly, there is an unsurprising one - ad עד - "until" in Hebrew.

Klein says that ad, and its older form adei עדי, come from the root עדה, meaning "to pass by" (found in Iyov 28:8 and Mishlei 25:20). This is also the root of ad meaning "eternity", which Klein says literally means "progress in time".

Ad as "until" is found in a few other words:

  • Biladei בלעדי - "without, apart from". Klein says it is compounded of bal בל (=not) and adei עדי (= as far as, up to). That preposition is the source of the adjective biladi בלעדי - "exclusive"
  • Achshav עכשיו - "now". Klein says it is probably a contraction of "ad kshe'hu" עד כשהוא - literally, "until as it is".
  • Idkun עדכון - "update". This is from the root עדכן, which is a contraction of ad kan עד כאן - "until here, so far."

And lastly we have the word for a Purim carnival, עדלידע (or עדלאידע) adloyada. This is a contraction of the Aramaic phrase found in Megila 7b עד דלא ידע - "until he could not discern (between cursed Haman and blessed Mordechai)." This article describing the word's history says it may have been influenced by the Greek Olympiada - their word for the Olympic games, another kind of celebration.

Now to finish, Arnold has been in the news for contrasting himself to a leader who has been widely criticized. However, since this blog is not political, any parallels to the Purim story are entirely coincidental...

Saturday, January 28, 2017

kerach and kereach

It was frosty here this weekend, so I got to thinking - is there any connection between the homographs קרח kerach - "ice" and kereach - "bald"?

Even Shoshan discusses the verb root קרח (as found in Vayikra 21:5), and says that the meaning is "to pull out hair", and notes that in Arabic the cognate is qara'a - or קרע in Hebrew. In Hebrew this root means "to tear, rend." (Meshullam Klarberg writes here that only in modern Hebrew does kore'a mean to tear by hand, while in Biblical and Talmudic Hebrew it could also mean cutting with an implement.)

As far as kerach ("ice"), a footnote in the Ben Yehuda dictionary points out that the Syriac cognate primarily means "storm", and speculates that this might be a connection between the two meanings: a storm can tear the leaves off of trees (making them bald), and a storm can bring with it cold and snow.

Another theory is proposed by Gesenius, that the common root means "to make smooth", which applies both to ice and to a bald head. That might be a simpler suggestion, but his book was written in 1836, with far less exposure to research into related Semitic languages. So perhaps the evidence here leads to a more complicated conclusion.

What about the name Korach קורח, found first among the sons and leaders of Esav (Bereshit 36:5, 36:16) and most famously the Levite who led the rebellion against Moshe. \Daat Mikra (Bereshit 36:5) says that it probably means a bald man (which stands in contrast to the "hairy" name of Seir - also found in Esav's family).

This made me think: while certainly a bald man might get a nickname referring to his baldness, why would anyone name a baby that? Then of course, I remembered that my kids all entered life rather bald...

Monday, January 23, 2017

ketoret and nectar

The biblical word ketoret קטרת means "smoke, odor of sacrifice, incense." According to Klein, all of the forms of the verb קטר (meaning "to smoke, burn incense, etc.) derive from that noun, and literally mean "to produce ketoret." Most of the words with that root are directly connected to that meaning, such as mikteret מקטרת - "pipe", but other's aren't so clear. Let's take a look.

The only Biblical Hebrew word that may have a different meaning is keturot קטרות, found in Yechezkel 46:22. This word is an adjective describing courtyards. The Mishna (Midot 2:5) says it means "unroofed", and are connected to our root because without a roof, the smoke could escape. However, Radak and others say it means "connected", and this is based on the Aramaic meaning of קטר - "to bind". This meaning is found a few times in the Aramaic section of the Book of Daniel, and is cognate with the Hebrew  קשר - "to bind", as found in the word kesher - "connection".

A word related to ketoret, kitor קיטור - originally meant "thick smoke, vapor", and in modern Hebrew was adopted for the word "steam." The Hebrew word for locomotive, katar קטר, is connected to the idea of a steam engine, but actually has a more interesting story. Stahl, in his Arabic dictionary, describes how the founders of modern Hebrew were trying to come up with a word for "train." Ben Yehuda suggested kitor, and David Yellin offered katar. Katar had the advantage of both hinting to the steam of kitor, but more significantly was parallel to the Arabic word for train - qitar. This Arabic word originally meant a caravan of camels, and is related to the Aramaic sense of קטר we saw earlier - "to bind." In the end, however, the suggestion of Yechiel Michel Pines was accepted - rakevet רכבת, and katar came to mean just locomotive (not the entire train).

Another word that is possibly related to the sense of "bound" is koter קוטר - "diameter". Koter entered Hebrew in the Middle Ages and was borrowed from the Arabic qutr of the same meaning. The Arabic Etymology Dictionary has the following entry:

quttr : area; diameter [Sem q-tt-r (tie), Heb qotter, Syr qttar (fasten, tie), JNA qttr]

The Arabic qattara - "drip" is apparently related to the meaning of "smoke, incense"  (perhaps in the way the incense was prepared), and in light of this, the scholar Lothar Kopf (as quoted in Stahl) connects the two meanings "incense" and "to bind" as deriving from a common meaning "things that follow one another."

One theory says that the name of the country Qatar is also related:
The name "Qatar" may derive from the same Arabic root as qatura, which means "to exude." The word Qatura traces to the Arabic qatran meaning "tar" or "resin", which relates to the country's rich resources in petroleum and natural gas.

Lastly, and most surprising to me, is the English word "nectar". The Online Etymology Dictionary provides an unrelated etymology:

from Latin nectar, from Greek nektar, name of the drink of the gods, which is said to be a compound of nek- "death" (see necro-) + -tar "overcoming"

However, Klein thinks that the word ultimately has a Semitic origin:

nectar, n., the drink of the gods (Greek mythol.) -- L., fr. Gk. nektar, 'drink of the gods', esp. 'wine', which prob. derives fr. Heb. (yayin) niqtar, 'smoked (wine), perfumed (wine)', Niph'al ( = passive form) of the Sem. base q-t-r, 'to make sacrifices, smoke'; qitter and hiqtir, 'he made sacrifices, smoked', are Pi'el ( = intensive form), resp. Hiph'il ( = causative form) of the same base, whence also qetoreth, 'sweet smoke of sacrifice, incense', Talmudic and Targumic Aram. qitra, '(thick) smoke', Ethiop. qetare, 'incense'. From q-t-r, a collateral form of this base, derive Aram. qatara, 'it exhaled odor', (said esp. of roast meat), 'it smoked' (said of fire), qatar, 'vapor, smoke, aroma', Akkad. qutru, 'smoke', qutrinnu, 'incense offering'

We've seen the concept of perfumed and spiced wine before, when we discussed why ancient wine was always mixed with water. While nectar has a much more mild meaning today - "a sugary fluid secreted by plants" - for the Greeks it might have been much more powerful!

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"...