Monday, May 29, 2006


One of the theories as to the origin of the name of the continent Africa is from the Phoenician afar, which is identical to the Hebrew עפר. It will often be translated as "dust", but can also refer to "earth" or "soil". According to Take Our Word For It:

The -ica ending in those words comes from Latin -icus/-ica, and the Romans got that suffix from Greek -ikos, as in such words as komikos, grammatikos, and poetikos. The suffix -ikos was apparently one of the most frequently used in Greek, and it formed adjectives, making poetikos mean "in the manner of a poet". In general, -ikos meant "in the manner of", "pertaining to", or "of". Therefore, Africa, which came from Latin Africus, meant "of the Afro", the Afro being an ancient people of North Africa. Adrian Room, in Placenames of the World, suggests that Afro applied to the people of what is now Tunisia, and that the term derives from Arabic afar meaning "dust, earth", so that the Afro were etymologically "people of the desert".

I think that the authors are likely mistaken when they ascribe the origin to Arabic - I haven't seen that mentioned anywhere else.

Another meaning of afar is ashes. A word with similar sound and meaning is efer אפר, also "ashes". Klein writes:

According to Zimmern [Heinrich?], אפר is possibly a loan word from Akka. epiru(=earth, dust), hence properly identical with עפר (=dust).

Both efer and afar give root to the same color as well - עפור and אפור - afor, meaning gray. According to Steinberg, the gray color is where the Hebrew word for lead - עופרת oferet, gets its name.

When the founders of Modern Hebrew were looking for a word for "pencil" they looked at the European words bleistift (German) and mine de plomb (French) - both deriving from the original material used - lead. On this basis they (Ben Yehuda according to Stahl, Klausner according to Klein) coined the Hebrew word for pencil - iparon עפרון. I doubt either Ben Yehuda or Klausner would anticipate the urban legend known as Ani Iparon (quoted here, scroll down, and view the comments for more references.)

I have not seen anyone make a connection between afar and ofer עופר - meaning "young deer". The etymology of the town Ofra עופרה is also not clear - perhaps from one of the roots mentioned above. The Daat Mikra explains that the Arabs renamed Ofra as Taibe (from tov, good) because ofra means a demon in Arabic.

One name that certainly is not connected to afar is Oprah - as in Oprah Winfrey. She was given the name Orpah (Rut's sister-in-law) but it was mispronounced as Oprah, and the name stuck. So while the talk-show host may have her origins in Africa, her name and the continent's are not related.

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