Friday, April 20, 2007


Last night I had dinner in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, and it got me thinking about the foods available in the word talpiyot as well. One of the major theories about the origin of the word was that it was connected to the root לפפ - "to roll together, wrap, wind up, interlace". From this root we get a number of foods:

  • laffa לאפה- the large Iraqi pita that is "wrapped" around the food
  • luf לוף - a popular word for leek (although I believe the proper name is kreisha כרישה ) apparently from Arabic - and this seems to be the Rambam's opinion in his commentary to the Mishna (Peah 6:10, Shviit 5:2). Stahl writes that the leaves of the leek are wrapped around the center. (The famous Israeli army ration - loof - isn't related; it comes from the English "loaf".)
  • lefet לפת - turnip. Klein also provides the definition "vegetables eaten with bread". Jastrow seems to say that this meaning preceded that of turnip, and is related to the roots לפפ / לפת for the vegetables "cling" to the bread". From lefet we also get liftan לפתן - "relish" in Talmudic Hebrew - although I'm not sure why it has the meaning of "compote, stewed fruit" in Modern Hebrew.
What about the melafefon מלפפון- cucumber in Modern Hebrew? This one actually comes from Greek, not Hebrew. From Klein:

Greek melopepon (= melon), compounded of melon (= apple), and pepon ( = cooked by the sun, ripe, soft, sweet). The first element is related to malon (= apple), whence Latin malus (= apple tree), malus ( = apple); probably of Mediterranean origin. The second element is related to pessein, peptein ( = to soften, ripen, boil, cook) and
cognate with Latin coquere (= to cook.)
Take Our Word For It provides a similar etymology:

Melon is actually the Greek word for "apple". Our usage came about as a shortened form of melopepon (Greek, "melon", from melo- "apple" + pepon "gourd" ). The pepon component of melopepon went on to spawn its own words for melon-y plants. In Old French, it became pompion, "a pumpkin or melon" which went on to become pumpkin in English.

However, we have a much earlier source of the etymology. Jastrow quotes the Yerushalmi in Kilaim (1:2) that mentions that the word derives from Greek and is a compound of tapuach תפוח - "melon, apple" and avatiach אבטיח - "pepon, gourd ". Jastrow also vowelizes the word as מילפפון milpipon - which is closer to the original Greek than our pronunciation melafefon.

But wait, isn't melafefon "cucumber", not "melon"? Well, I thought I'd find the answer in the Ben-Yehuda dictionary, but to my great surprise - there was no entry! I still have no official reason for its abscence, but this article by Reuven Sivan might give us a clue.

In it he writes (my translation):

In 1895 the researcher and linguist A.M. Luntz wrote in his "Luach Eretz Yisrael" about melafefon, and was referring to what we call melafefon (cucumber) ... Years later the Vaad HaLashon was very angry about this and claimed that the melafefon in the Talmud is a melon, and the cucumber should be called by its Biblical name - kishu קישוא (from Bamidbar 11:5 - זָכַרְנוּ, אֶת-הַדָּגָה, אֲשֶׁר-נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם, חִנָּם; אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים, וְאֵת הָאֲבַטִּחִים, וְאֶת-הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת-הַבְּצָלִים, וְאֶת-הַשּׁוּמִים. "We remember the ... cucumbers (kishuim) ... that we ate in Egypt") and what we today call kishu (zucchini squash) ... should be called kishot קישות or kishu-bishul קישוא-בישול. Much confusion reigned over this issue in Hebrew literature, and the author Y.D. Berkowitz who wrote a story called "Kishuim Chamutzim" ("Pickled Cucumbers") had to rename it "Melafefonim Chamutzim" in light of the victory of the "incorrect" meaning of the word melafefon.

So perhaps Ben-Yehuda did not give the word melafefon its own entry because he would have had to concede its modern usage. Or maybe he just forgot...

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