Tuesday, February 28, 2006

tachposet

With Purim not far away, it's time for the the annual event: the search for costumes for the kids. But this time there's an etymological search as well: Is there a connection between חיפוש chipus - search and תחפושת tachposet - costume?

It turns out there is. The root חפש (or in Aramaic חפס) means to search or to dig. In Biblical Hebrew we find the root also meaning to disguise oneself - but only in the hitpael (reflexive) form - התחפש hit'chapes. One example is in Shmuel 1, 28:8, where it describes how King Saul "disguised himself (התחפש) and wore different clothes." Yehuda Kiel, in his commentary Da'at Mikra, explains that the root is from חיפוש chipus - search: he made others search for him (the reflexive.)

Only later did the word develop into a non-reflexive form - לחפש l'chapes (to disguise someone) or תחפושת tachposet - costume.

Monday, February 27, 2006

butz

The rabbis discussed how Purim and Yom Kippur are similar - they even use the play on words that Yom Kippur is Yom HaKippurim - כ-פורים - like Purim. While the lots are the most obvious connection, from reading the mishnayot of Yoma, I've seen another. Both Yoma and Esther mention the fabrics of the priestly garments. One that particularly caught my eye was the term for fine linen, בוץ -butz. How could such special fabric share the same name as the Hebrew word for mud - בוץ - botz?

Lets look at the word butz (linen). It originates from a Semitic root meaning white, and that also led to the word for egg - beitza ביצה. When Eliezer ben Yehuda was looking for a word for the metal zinc, he chose אבץ - avatz. He based it on the Aramaic word אבצא, which referred to tin. However since there already was a Hebrew word for tin (בדיל - b'dil), Ben Yehuda utilized the meaning of "white metal" to associate zinc with avatz.
Interestingly, an English word for linen, byssus, made its way from the Hebrew word butz.

On the other hand, Klein explains that the word botz, meaning mud or silt, derives from בצץ - to exude, and is related to the Akkadian word for sand, basu. The Hebrew word for swamp, בצה - bitza, is related to botz as well.

What about בצבץ - bitzbetz - to exude? Here we have a machloket (disagreement) between two major scholars. On the one hand, Klein in his Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, claims that bitzbetz is related to bitza, swamp, in the way that mud oozes out of a swamp. However, today I picked up a wonderful new book, Motza HaMilim, by Avraham Stahl. Stahl writes that bitzbetz means to shine, and derives from the "white" of linen and eggs.

Who was right? Far be it from me to decide. But maybe one of the readers has some additional information?

megillah

In a couple of weeks we will be reading from Megilat Esther. Where does the word megila - מגילה - (scroll) originate?

The origin is from the Hebrew root גלל - GLL - to roll. Other words from this same root include gal גל - wave, galgal גלגל - wheel, and גליל galil - district. What we call the Galil (the Galilee), a large area in the northern part of Israel, was originally called "Galil HaGoyim" (Isiah 8:23) - the district of nations, apparently because many tribes and small nations lived there.

Klein points out that English has a similar development: The Latin word volumen (meaning a roll, a book, and the source of our "volume") derives from volvere (meaning "to roll" and the source of our "revolve".) Volume meaning bulk derives from the "bulk or size of a book."

The concept that a book or scroll is noted for its size is the source of an expression in English - "the whole megillah." Originating with the Yiddish phrase gantse megillah, it meant a large complicated story. It still has that meaning in modern Hebrew (although Rosenthal claims that the slang term derives from Ladino, not Yiddish). In English it has now come also to mean "the whole nine yards", or even just excitement in general.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

adar

This morning the upcoming month of Adar was announced. The original names of the Hebrew months were numerical starting with the month of Pesach, so Adar was known simply as the twelfth month. But during the Babylonian exile, the Jews began adopting the Babylonian names, and later, according to the rabbis, the "names of the months went up (made aliya) from Babylonia." These are the names we are all familiar with today.

What is the meaning of the name Adar? There are two primary theories. Jastrow claims that it derives from an Assyrian word - adaru -meaning cloudy or dark. I suppose this is connected to the fact that Adar falls during winter.

A more popular theory is that Adar comes from the Akkadian word iddar, meaning threshing floor. It's unclear why Adar would be associated with a threshing floor, but one guess is that this was the month that the threshing floors were prepared for the upcoming spring harvest.

While Jastrow doesn't suggest an iddar - Adar connection, he does give some interesting possible origins to the word iddar. He translates it as a "place cut off, circle...whence threshing place, barn". The word אידר would then derive from the root dor - דור - meaning to go around in a circle. Dor is the root of many Hebrew words, most notably cadur - כדור - "like a circle." Due to the substitution of Z for D in Hebrew and the related languages (for example נדר and נזר), we can add a few more words - zira זירה (arena) and zer זר - wreath.

According to this site, the Biblical place name Adoraim also derives from the same root - threshing floor. Adoraim was several kilometers south of Hebron, and the name is preserved in the Arab town of Dura.

One place name that certainly doesn't come from the month of Adar is the town of Har Adar. Har Adar was originally a British radar station, and had the name "Radar Hill" (Givat Haradar). When the town was built, the name transformed from ha-radar to Har Adar.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

istenis

Here's a word that I've come across a few times this week - istenis (alternatively transliterated as istnis, istinis and istanis.) - איסטניס (or אסטניס). It means a person who is (overly) sensitive, squeamish and finicky. It usually is refering to a person who is particularly sensitive about his bathing or eating needs, and the rabbis often allowed leniencies on his behalf. For example, people in mourning are not allowed to bathe, but an istenis has permission.

What is the origin of this unusual sounding word? It comes from the Greek asthenes (weak), from a (=not) and sthenos (=strong). The root sthenos is used in a number of medical terms, but to most of us is familiar from the word calisthenics -- kallos "beauty" + sthenos "strength."

Going back further, there are those that connect it to the Indo-European root segh, the root of such strong words as hectic, schema, and persevere. Certainly not the qualities of an istenis.

mosaic

I recently discussed how pesifas פסיפס - mosaic - isn't connected to the words payis or piyus. A commenter wanted to know more about the development of the word pesifas. I wrote that "Pesifas comes from the Greek psephos, meaning pebble. Interestingly, the word for the study of elections, psephology, comes from the same root, since they would count pebbles when voting."

However, what about the English word mosaic? Any connection to Moses?

Take Our Word For It gives the following explanation:


This word means, etymologically, "of the muses". It comes from Greek mouseion "of the muses". In medieval Latin it was changed to musaicus/mosaicus and passed via Italian mosaico and French mosaique into English as mosaic. The Indo-European root from which mosaic, muse, museum, and music derive is men- "to think". Different forms of the Indo-European root refer to different states of mind and kinds of thought (some other derivatives are mind, mental and amnesia). Mosaic is an entirely different word, etymologically and otherwise, from Mosaic with a capital M which means "of Moses".


The Word Detective gives a bit more background on the Muses:
The root of "mosaic" is the Medieval Latin "musaicum," meaning "work of the Muses," itself ultimately from the Latin "Musa," or "Muse." In Greek mythology, the Muses, as I'm sure we all recall, were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. The Muses were (and still are, at least metaphorically)regarded as the inspiration of all art and music.The logical connection between the Muses and mosaic artwork is a bit uncertain, but it may be that Medieval mosaics were so often dedicated to the muses that the form and the inspiration became inextricably associated. Or it may be that ancient temples dedicated to the Muses ("mouseion" in Greek, source of our modern "museum") were often decorated with mosaic murals.
So it would seem that there's no connection between Moses and mosaics.
However...
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in his commentary, The Living Torah, has this note about Moses's name:
Other ancient sources claim that Moses' name was preserved among the Gentiles as the legendary Musaeus, teacher of Orpheus, from whom the Muses obtained their name (Artapanus, in Eusebius, Preparatio Evangelica 9:27).
I'm not sure how likely that is, but I suppose it does leave some room for a possible connection...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

yishar koach

I recently received an email from Ruth Almagor-Ramon, the editor of Kol Yisrael’s program
Rega shel Ivrit. She wished me "Yishar Koah" on this blog. That's quite an honor - so I figured the best way to repay her would be to write an entry on that phrase.

Yishar Koah, or Yasher Koach, יישר כח means congratulations. My cousin, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, writes about it here:

When congratulating someone who has had the merit of performing a mitzvah or other worthy task in Shul, we say Yasher Koach, or the shortened form of Shkoach.The words literally mean, "May your strength be firm". The first reference is in the Talmud (Shabbat 87a), quoted in Rashi's concluding commentary on the Torah. When Hashem refers to the first tablets of the Decalogue which Moses broke, He mentions asher shibarta - the tablets which you broke. In a play on the word asher, our Rabbis explain that it was as if Hashem was saying to Moses, Yasher Koach for breaking the tablets! Moses here received Divine appreciation for the way in which he reacted to the nation's worship of the Golden Calf.Yasher Koach was originally intended to be used exclusively for one who had read from the Torah. Scholars explain that in ancient times, the Torah scroll was held upright during its reading so that those surrounding it could follow as it was being read (in pre-printing press days, Synagogues did not have many Chumashim). With this in mind, Sephardi communities made Sifrei Torah in cylindrical cases, which were self-standing. In Ashkenazi Synagogues, however, the Ba'al Koreh required a lot of strength to keep the Torah scroll upright while he was reading from it and often he was helped by those standing alongside him. We can now understand why he, in particular, was blessed with Yasher Koach - may your strength be firm!

Eliezer Segal also explains the history of the phrase here, and points out the irony that while we use the phrase to wish strength for those holding the Torah, the original midrash refers to a case where the Torah was thrown down.

Monday, February 20, 2006

payis and piyus

In the following Mishna that I learned (Yoma 2:2), there was a very familiar word - פיס payis, meaning lottery (more about words related to lottery in a few weeks.) A similarly sounding and spelled word is פיוס piyus - conciliation. Are the two related?

According to Klein, not only are they unrelated, they are associated with opposite meanings.

Let's start with payis. The definition of payis is a lot, an allotted portion. The literal meaning was "broken piece" - assumedly that's how they made the lots. The word derives from the base פסס (a collateral form of פצץ). What other words come from this root?

פס - pas = strip
פסה - pisa = piece
פספס - fisfes - originally crumbed or separated, now means to miss (a bus, a lecture, etc.)
(Not related - אפס - efes = zero, פסיפס - pesifas = mosaic)

What about piyus? Klein explains that it is borrowed from the Greek peisis meaning persuasion, from the Indo-European base bheidh (or bhidh). That same base led to the Latin word fidere (to trust or confide in.) What English words derive from this root? Bid, federation, faith, confidence, fiduciary, fidelity, fiance, affidavit, and many more.

So while payis is connected to breaking apart, piyus is related to coming together.

By matter of complete coincidence, English has two words that also sound similar with the same opposite meanings, and even sound like our payis/piyus : piece and peace. But there's no connection between any of the four.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

matz'bia

I started a new masechet of Mishna today, and found the origin of a very topical word in Israel these days.

The first Mishna of the second chapter of Yoma discusses which kohanim would perform certain parts of the Yom Kippur service. If two kohanim competed for the same task, whoever got there earliest would have the privilege. But if they both got there at the same time:

הממונה אומר להן הצביעו

"The administrator would say to them 'put out a finger' (hatzbiu)".

The kohanim would stick one or two fingers out, and the administrator would then choose between those who stuck their fingers out. Why did they stick their fingers out, the gemara asks? Because it is prohibited to count Jews (who were promised to be uncountable), so they counted their fingers instead.

The verb hatzbiu comes from etzba אצבע - finger. This of course, led to the modern Hebrew term to vote - l'hatz'bia.

I had previously thought that perhaps the origin of l'hatzbia as voting came from צבע tzeva - color. I guess I connected it with the way the Iraqis and Afghans voted in their first election - by dipping their fingers in ink.

schmooze and shul

I guess a better title would be "don't schmooze in shul".

As I've mentioned before, I don't know a lot about Yiddish. But many Yiddish words have entered Jewish English, or English in general. It's interesting to analyze their etymologies, since Yiddish derives from two separate languages families - Hebrew, which I speak in Israel, and German, which is related to my native tongue, English.

Let's look at two common Yiddish words.

Schmooze (or shmooze) - this one comes from Hebrew. The Hebrew word for rumors, שמועות shmu'ot, led to the Ashkenazi pronunciation schmues, which led to our schmooze - to chat.

Shul (or schul or schule) - as in synagogue, comes from the German word schuol, which is also the source of our English word school. According to this site, the association of synagogue and school goes back to Roman times - children were often taught in the same building as the synagogue.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

chotenet and chamot

In this week's parsha, Yitro is referred to as the choten חותן of Moshe - his father-in-law. In proper Hebrew, there is are different terms for the husband's parents and the wife's parents. Until I started writing this - I could never remember which was which. When I would refer to my inlaws in Hebrew, I would avoid the issue by saying "my wife's mother" or "my wife's father". But now I have a public forum and I need to know what's what.

Safa-Ivrit does a good job of explaining the issue. To summarize - choten and chotenet חותנת are the wife's parents, and cham חם and chamot חמות are the husband's parents. The site offers this tip to remember which is which - the choten and chotenet marry off - mechatnim מחתנים - their daughter, and the cham and chamot welcome their new daughter-in-law warmly - b'chom בחום.
Chamot has the same structure as achot אחות - sister. So while it sounds plural, it's really singular. (So the joke about שפך חמתך (shfoch chamat'cha) being an excuse to throw your mother-in-law out of the house during the seder doesn't work - it would need to be שפך חמותך - shfoch chamot'cha.)

In any case, if you do mix it up, you don't need to worry much. Even in the time of the Talmud, there were cases where the distinction was blurred.

Now everyone agrees that the word for son-in-law is chatan. However, years ago I came across a pamphlet that was trying to show how Jastrow's dictionary was not a serious work. (Perhaps it was this one by Shlomo Alter Halperin? I really don't recall.) The only proof that I remember was from Jastrow's definition of chatan, where he writes: "connection, son-in-law; bride-groom". The author of the pamphlet claimed that Jastrow was including a Yiddishism, apparently as a joke. I didn't understand the argument then - and I certainly have trouble now, not having seen it in print in years. Do any of the readers have the pamphlet, or otherwise understand the argument?

yotzei dofen and rachamim

It's interesting to compare how words and phrases develop in two different languages.

Let's look at the surgery used to deliver a fetus via the abdominal wall.

In English it's known as a Cesarean section. That term derives from the legend that Julius Caesar was born in that fashion. In modern Hebrew it is also known as a נִתּוּחַ קֵיסָרִי, but the Mishnaic term was yotzei dofen יוצא דופן (lit. "go out from the wall.") That term is now used in Hebrew for exceptional or abnormal.

Another more stark difference relates to words that derive from the term for womb. The English word hysterical derives from the Greek term for womb, for it was felt that the neurotic condition was caused by disturbances in the womb. Contrast that with the Hebrew word rachamim, mercy, which derives from the Hebrew word for womb, rechem.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

brouhaha and copacetic

While I view etymology as a window into Jewish and world history, there are those who feel that if a language is the primal source for other languages, it somehow indicates that the same nation/culture is has primacy over all others. This was actually how the Nazis adopted the term Aryan, based on the linguistic view that there was a primary language with that same name.

Now I have no doubt that Hebrew is one of the most ancient languages, and has contributed an incredible amount to the world's language pool. But I don't think that we need to show that every English word comes somehow from Hebrew to justify our place in history. A number of years ago, I read an article that had a list of English words that came from Hebrew, and it was ridiculous, to put it frankly.

However, there are some words that real linguists claim to derive from Hebrew. And yet, I still have a hard time buying it. Here are two:

Brouhaha - When I was a kid, a friend and I heard this word for the first time, and couldn't stop laughing everytime we said it. Only much later did I read that there is a theory (also here and here )that it came from the greeting "Baruch HaBa" at the beginning of a wedding. Supposedly the non-Jews saw such a ruckus at the wedding and associated it with the phrase "baruch haba". They quote the Italian word barruccaba as having a similar origin. I don't know - having been to many Jewish weddings, it never seemed like the reciting of Baruch HaBa was particularly rambunctious. Maybe they really knew how to party back in the Middle Ages...

Copacetic - Growing up in San Francisco, you get used to seeing and hearing strange things. I remember a man standing in the middle of the street shouting "I'm not going anywhere until I get a copacetic reality!" Copacetic means - excellent, satisfactory, going just right. There are no shortage of possible origins for this word (look at 1, 2, 3, 4). Anyone of them could be OK, but the ones I have the biggest problem with are those that claim it comes from "kol b'seder" or "kol b'tzedek". As some of the letter writes in Safire's first On Language book pointed out, hakol b'seder is Hebrew, not Yiddish and wouldn't have been spoken by Jewish immigrants in the South in the turn of the century. (Klein says the Hebrew phrase "hakol b'seder" derives from the Yiddish ס'איז אלץ אין ארדענונג - from the German Alles in Ordnung). And kol b'tzedek (which actually sounds more like copacetic) - well, no one says that! (See also here.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

asimon

Here's a way to tell how long someone has been in Israel (or how old they are). Ask them if they know what an asimon is. Well, for those that don't recall, they were tokens for pay phones that were used until the early 1990s. They were later replaced by phone cards (which are still in use today), and now of course are overshadowed by the cell phone.

They looked like this:












What's the origin of the word? Well it originally meant uncoined metal. The first mishna of the fourth chapter of Bava Metzia states that "uncoined metal (אסימון) acquires coined metal (מטבע)". The gemara (47b) goes on to ask: What IS ASIMON? Said Rab: Coins that are presented as tokens at the baths.

According to Klein, the root is the Greek word asemos. A= not, without, and sema = sign, token (as in Hebrew siman, and the english semantics.) So while originally the difference between a coin and an asimon was the token had no sign (symbol) at all, it was later used to indicate a token that could not be used as money.

What is left of the asimon today? Well, besides in the boxes of coin collectors, and this Shlock Rock song, we have the phrase "yarad lo ha'asimon" or "nafal lo ha'asimon" - which means "he finally understood it." This phrase came to us from the English "the penny dropped" - which has a similar meaning. They both describe how the machine/phone wouldn't start working until the coin/token had dropped.

Monday, February 13, 2006

charsina

This is in honor of my cousin who is currently visiting China.

Did you know that the Hebrew word for Chinaware or porcelain, חרסינה - charsina comes from the Hebrew words חרס cheres (earthenware) and סין Sin (China)? Well, maybe you did, but I didn't.

You can read more about it in the Ynet Encylcopedia (in Hebrew). That article also references the origin of the word porcelain (here in English). Maybe not for our younger readers.

And in case you were wondering, the Yiddish phrase "Hak mir nisht ken tshaynik" doesn't have a China connection, depsite how I heard it as a kid ("don't hock me to China.). The literal translation is "Don't knock me a teakettle", which according to Michael Wex's new book Born to Kvetch means ""you don't have to shut up completely, but I'd really appreciate it if you'd stop rattling on about the same damned thing all the time." I first figured that perhaps tshaynik meant tea kettle because it was made of porcelain, but according to this site, it comes from the Polish/Russian word for tea, chai. Chai derives from the same Chinese word for tea that gave us the English word for tea (as well as for most other Western languages.)

For those interested, here's further discussion about tshaynik and China.

waradi

Slang is one of the most difficult things to remain current on, especially for a new immigrant. I've been in Israel for nearly ten years, but have never fully caught up on all the slang here. Now some of the slang I can figure out on my own. Much new Israeli slang comes from English, and even when it's pronounced with a strong accent, I can still figure out what סו פאר סו גוד means. Another main source of Israeli slang is Yiddish. Not only were my parents born in the US, but my grandparents as well. So I didn't hear almost any Yiddish growing up. But some Yiddish has entered the American slang lexicon, so it isn't a far stretch to realize that l'najez has the same meaning as "to nudge".

The other main source of Israeli slang is Arabic. Here's a language I didn't hear at all growing up, and my exposure to it hasn't grown much since moving here. When I worked in an English speaking environment, I didn't hear much Arabic based slang either. But when I started working in an all-Israeli company, I would hear it all the time, and never understood what they were talking about. Some of it I picked up over time, but until I found Rubik Rosenthal's Dictionary of Israeli Slang I never knew the origins of the phrases. Now after all these years - I finally understand what my coworkers were saying.

One phrase which originated in Arabic that I learned the meaning of via Rubik's book is ya waradi. This exclamation was popularized by the character Omleta on last year's season of the hit TV show Eretz Nehederet. What I found interesting about the listing of the phrase in the slang dictionary is that the origin is actually in Italian. Ya Waradi, according to Rosenthal, seems to mean "Watch out!". And the source is the Italian word guardia.

What's the connection between waradi and guardia? Well, it turns out there's a connection between W and G in English as well. As explained here, the German language had a W sound that didn't have a match in Romance languages, and was subsituted with G. English is a combination of both language families, and therefore has words beginning with both letters: guarantee/warranty, guerrilla/war, guile/wile, and of course our guard/ward(en).

Sunday, February 12, 2006

amarkal

I carry around a pocket Kehati mishna in order to have something to learn in my downtime. I often find interesting words there, particularly ones that I find used in modern Hebrew as well. From time to time, I’ll share here words that I find there.

Today I was studying
Masechet Shekalim, Perek 5, Mishna 2. The Mishna mentions that there must be seven אמרכ(ו)לין – amarkalin – to supervise the finances in the Temple. Common translations are officers, trustees or supervisors. I’m familiar with the term from my work in a government ministry in Israel, where the office managers were called amarkalim.

What’s the origin of the word? Klein claims it is probably a Persian loan word, which is supported
here. Jastrow seems to claim that it comes from the word melech (king), and the lamed was replaced with a resh. This type of switch is not uncommon in Hebrew – sharsheret/shalshelet, as well as many other languages (it’s particularly evident in Japanese, where the sounds for L and R are closely related.)

The rabbis give a different explanation. Rabbi Yehuda in the
Tosefta for Shekalim (2:15) and Rav Hisda in Horayiot 13a, explain the origin as “מר על הכל” – he who commands all. That was certainly the case of the amarkalim where I worked!

One word that it does not seem to be connected to is מרכלת – markolet, meaning market place. That word has an origin in the Bible – Yechezkel 27:24. The source for markolet is רכל, to trade, and is connected to the word for gossip, רכילות – rechilut. When I first moved here I often got makolet (grocery) and markolet mixed up, but haven’t heard the term markolet
much recently.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

tiras

I enjoy food. (Does anyone not?) I think it's likely that food will be a common topic for posts here, particularly since names for food have an interesting way of passing from one language to another.

Today we'll start with the Hebrew word for corn, tiras.

The grain we call corn was first discovered by Europeans in Central America. So why then do some older translation of the Bible translate dagan as corn? See Genesis 27:28 - "plenty of corn and wine".

Well, originally corn meant any grain - which matches well the Hebrew word for grain, dagan. When the settlers to the New World found a crop grown by the Indians - which they called maize (the scientific term is Zea mays.) Europeans still use that term. The British also called maize Indian corn, but the new immigrants to America called it simply "corn." (Read more here.)

Once corn became almost exclusively identified with maize, the Bible translators began to use the word "grain" for dagan. This confusion also had halachic consequences, particularly for those of us Ashkenazi Jews who don't eat corn on Pesach. How did this come about? Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech explains in Kitniyos in the Modern World:


The cornucopia of new foods from the New World brought new items – such as maize and potatoes – to the fore. Both quickly became staple foodstuffs in the Old World, and although clearly not technically legumes, the question arose as to whether they should nevertheless be included in the category of Kitniyos. As it turns out, maize is generally considered to be Kitniyos whereas potatoes are not. Interestingly, the etymology of the names of these foods may give us some insight into this dichotomy. While the common name for maize (from the Tahino word “mahis”) is “corn” – and in the United States this usage is quite clear –the origin of the word “corn” is something quite different. The word “corn” can be traced back to the ancient Indo-European word “grn”, which literally meant a small nugget. In German, this word became “korn” and in Latin it became “grain”, both of which include any edible grass seed. In practice, these terms refer to whatever the predominant grain happens to be in a given country. In the Americas, it referred to maize. In Scotland, it referred to oats, and in Germany it referred to wheat or rye. Indeed, old English translations of Pharaoh’s insomniac premonitions refer to "seven sheaves of corn". Columbus had not yet discovered America during the time of Pharaoh, so Pharaoh was clearly not dreaming of corn on the cob. The "corn" to which he referred was rather one of the five grains. Yiddish speakers are similarly prone to this confusion, since they often use the term "Korn" to refer to grain. It seems, however, that the popularity of corn – and its resulting assumption of this sobriquet – was sufficient for the minhag of Kitniyos to extend to this new “grain”. Potatoes, on the other hand, were never regarded by people as a grain, and therefore generally considered to have escaped the Kitniyos categorization. [It is interesting to note that the Chaye Adam was of the opinion that potatoes should indeed be considered Kitniyos. Much to our general relief, however, this opinion was definitely not accepted.]


So now the question remains. Why did the Jews in Europe adopt the term tiras for maize/corn?

Rabbi Ernest Klein, in his "Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language" (which I'll be referring to often), has an interesting history:

In the Bible תירס is the name of one of the sons of Japhet. Far and forced is the way in which this proper name came to denote 'maize' or 'corn'. The Talmud renders תירס by בית תרייקי. In the period of the Haskalah (1750-1880) it became customary to identify תרייקי - merely because of the similarity in sound between תרייקי and תורקיה - with Turkey. Furthermore, since maize is called in many languages 'Turkish wheat' (cp. e.g. Ger. turkischer Weizen - whence Yiddish Terkische weiz - It. granturco, Hungarian torokbuza, etc.) תירס was and still is used to denote maize in Hebrew. The identification of תירס with maize on the basis of the above reasoning cannot be accepted. Before all בית תרייקי cannot be identical with Turkey, because the Babylonian Talmud was concluded about the end of the fifth century and the Talmud Yerushalmi, in which תירס is rendered by תרקא, was concluded even earlier, whereas the Turks appear in history for the first time in the thirteenth century. Furthermore, the Biblical name generally used for Turkey is תוגרמה (the modern name is טורקיה). In consideration of all this I suggest to call maize in Hebrew either חטת-טורקיה or חטת-תוגרמה, i.e. 'Turkish wheat', which are a simple loan translation of Ger. turkischer Weizen, etc.


Unfortunately, Klein, who passed away in 1983, did not succeed in his fight for a new Hebrew name for maize. However, the childrens song "bim, bam, bam, tiras cham" would certainly have less rhythm as "bim, bam, bam, chitat turkiya chama"...

Friday, February 10, 2006

first things first

I've always loved language. Back around 5th grade, a friend bought me William Safire's first book in the On Language series. I found it fascinating then, and I still love his columns now.

The main difference between Safire and myself is that he actually knows about language, whereas I'm just an amateur. But I think through this blog I can share some interesting things I've found, and hopefully learn a lot along the way.

I started learning about Judaism as a teenager, and so many concepts that others take for granted were somewhat new to me. I also moved to Israel from the States, and so had to learn not only the language, but the slang, abbreviations, technical terms and more. Judaism and Hebrew will be the main focus of what I'm writing about.

The title of the blog - Balashon - is a combination of the Hebrew word for detective, balash, and language, lashon.

I have quite a few resources available to draw from, but I will really appreciate any ideas for things to research. And of course, I welcome criticism, suggestions, etc.

Looking forward to exploring the Hebrew language with you!