Wednesday, July 18, 2007


At my son's birthday party last week, I noticed that he and his friends were playing the game Ga-ga. I used to love that game as a kid in my Jewish summer camps in the States, but it was interesting to watch a group of Israelis play. Naturally, I had to interrupt their game to discuss the etymology. Would they know what Hebrew word the game came from? I certainly wouldn't have known when I was their age...

Rosenthal confirms the theory put forth in the Wikipedia article that the Hebrew name gaga געגע is a duplication of the imperative גע "touch!" (or perhaps better "hit!"). The game was apparently imported to Jewish camps in English speaking countries by Israeli visitors.

The game Ga-ga is not related to the identically spelled געגע - a verb meaning "to long, to yearn". This verb derives from the word געגועים ga'agu'im - "longing, yearning". Klein writes that this word is "probably derived from געה ( = he cried, wailed, wept.)" The verb געה means "to moo, low, bleat", and Jastrow says the meaning "homesickness, longing" is "as the cow lows after her calf".

We find the term ga'agu'im in the Talmud (Shabbat 66b) where it discusses a son who longs for his father - בן שיש לו געגועין על אביו. Rashi translates the term as ברמור"ט, which Steinsaltz says comes from the Old French bramore, meaning "great love".

Now I have found one more location where the term גע גע ga ga shows up, and it is not clear whether it is a relative of the game or of longing.

In the apocryphal Book of Ben Sira, we find the following verse (13:22) -

עשיר מדבר ועזריו רבים ודברוי צכוערים מופים
דל נמוט גע גע ושא ודבר משכיל ואין לו מקום

Now first of all, it should be mentioned that there are a number of different versions of the Ben Sira text in Hebrew, and I do not know which one is the most accurate. One of the ones I found, I believe older than the one quoted above, does not have the same text. But from what I can tell, this version is today considered the most legitimate.

Also, I don't know much about English translations of Ben-Sira, but this one seems to be decent:

When a rich man is fallen, he hath many helpers: he speaketh things not to be spoken, and yet men justify him: the poor man slipped, and yet they rebuked him too; he spake wisely, and could have no place.
The translation for גע גע is "they rebuked him". What's the connection? Ben Yehuda writes that the word ga גע here is an exclamation of disrespect and contempt. He offers the following translations (no languages given, but the idea seems clear): "pfui, fi, fie". He says that this is similar to the Talmudic קעקע - the onomatopoeic "to cackle" as found in Kiddushin 31a. He quotes an English translation "hoot", which is both an animal sound, and indicates derision as well. While he doesn't say it explicitly, it would seem to be related to the mooing sound which led to ga'agu'a.

However, Klausner, in his book HaIvrit HaChadasha U'Ba'ayoteha rejects this approach. He says that גע here means "to arrive" (the verb הגיע "arrive" is the hifil of the verb נגע "touch"). The meaning of גע גע ושא is therefore "Go to your place, and take what you have with you, because we don't want you and your things." He says he doesn't understand how Smend came up with the translation "Pfui".

So in summary, looking back I guess I do long for ga-ga and summer camp. But if I'm honest with myself, I think that probably Ben-Sira's advice was true then too. Certainly the rich and popular were more likely to get support when they fell, even in a game of ga-ga...

Monday, July 16, 2007


Tonight my son and daughter had a little fight. She came to me saying that he called her "kookoo" קוקו (crazy) - he claimed he only said she had a kookoo (a ponytail). I wasn't terribly interested in their bickering, but the linguistic question got me wondering - are the two words related?

Rosenthal told me that they indeed are. Kookoo meaning "crazy" is found in English as well - cuckoo, as in the bird. The Online Etymology Dictionary reports:

c.1240, from O.Fr. cucu, echoic of the male bird's mating cry (cf. Gk. kokkyx, L. cuculus, Skt. kokilas). Slang sense of "crazy" (adj.) is Amer.Eng. 1918, but noun meaning "stupid person" is first recorded 1581, perhaps from the bird's unvarying, oft-repeated call.

The English words "kook" and "kooky" are apparently also derived from the cuckoo.

In regards to the imitative origin of the name of the bird, Klein points out that the Talmud also mentions a bird with a very similar name: קוקיתא kukyata (spelled קקואתא in the Vilna edition of Hullin 63a). The identity of this bird is unknown, but its name also likely comes from the sound it makes.

Rosenthal also writes that the slang term kookoo for "ponytail" also may come from cuckoo, due to the extension of the tail feathers:

Rosenthal has a third entry for kookoo in his dictionary: the game of peek-a-boo. While there are those who think the game might be connected to the cuckoo clock, Rosenthal writes that it derives from the German gucken - to peek. In other German dialects it is pronounced "kucken" (as well as Yiddish) - which makes the connection to kookoo not such a stretch. In Low German and Dutch we find the related word kieken, which the Online Etymology Dictionary connects to the English words "peek" and "peep":

The words peek, keek, and peep all were used with more or less the same meaning 14c.-15c.; perhaps the ultimate source was M.Du. kieken.

Knowing all this also helps us understand that the surname of Israel's first chief rabbi - Rav Kook - isn't related to the bird, but rather comes from the German / Yiddish word meaning "to look".

Friday, July 13, 2007


Growing up in San Francisco, we used to have a joke about our neighbors to the south:
"What's the difference between Los Angeles and yogurt? Yogurt has an active culture..."
(when I googled this, I found the same joke about the American Bar Association, Canada, New Zealand, Portland, Texas ... )

Would the same joke work in Hebrew? Not exactly, but we'll examine why.

Let's first take a look at the etymology of the English word "culture". From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1440, "the tilling of land," from L. cultura, from pp. stem of colere "tend, guard, cultivate, till". The figurative sense of "cultivation through education" is first attested 1510. Meaning "the intellectual side of civilization" is from 1805; that of "collective customs and achievements of a people" is from 1867.
We see here the development of the meaning, from gardening to education to civilization - the meaning we are most familiar with today. The Hebrew word for culture - תרבות tarbut - underwent a similar, but independent, development.

The word only appears once in the Bible, in this week's parasha (Matot). Moshe Rabeinu is castigating the tribes of Reuven and Gad, saying that their interest in settling the eastern side of the Jordan is like the sin of the spies a generation before. He says to them (Bamidbar 32:14) -

וְהִנֵּה קַמְתֶּם, תַּחַת אֲבֹתֵיכֶם--תַּרְבּוּת, אֲנָשִׁים חַטָּאִים
The JPS translates as follows: "And now you, a breed (tarbut) of sinful men, have replaced your fathers". Milgrom adds the following note:
Tarbut, from the root r-b-h רבה, "increase," is related to tarbit " (monetary) interest." Like the other nominal form marbit (I Sam 2:33), it carries a derogatory connotation (Ehrlich). Alternatively, it may derive from rav (root r-b-b רבב), "mighty," yielding the rendering "a force" (Meyuhas).

Kaddari, on the other hand, says that the word is related to the Akkadian tarbutu - which he translates as chanich חניך. I assume this means "student", and is therefore similar to the translation of Onkelos, תלמידי גובריא חיביא - "students of sinful men". (The idea being that the tribes of Reuven and Gad were followers of their fathers, the spies.)

In Rabbinic Hebrew, we see tarbut in general being related to education and training. For example, in the Mishna in the first chapter of Bava Kama (15b), we find tamed wild animals being called בני תרבות "bnei tarbut". Both Ehrlich's etymology and Kaddari's fit here - the animals were either grown (raised) in the human's house, or educated there.

But in general, in Rabbinic Hebrew we still find tarbut having a negative connotation, in such phrases as תרבות רעה tarbut ra'ah - "bad manners, depravity".

However, by medieval times, we find examples of tarbut being used in a positive sense, closer to today's meaning of "culture". For example, Rashi on Horayot 12a, s.v. דמתא mentions תרבות יפה - "tarbut yafe". Rabbeinu Gershon (Tamid 27b) discusses the tarbut of Persia, and how it is more modest than the tarbut of Rome. It does seem to mean "manners" in these examples, but in a general enough sense that it can apply to a civilization as a whole.

Early modern Hebrew continued to use the word kultura קולטורה for culture, particularly during the debates over the nature of Zionist culture in the early days of the movement. I'm not sure when tarbut took over as the more popular word, but Ben-Yehuda does seem to push the use of tarbut in his dictionary.

So today tarbut means culture - in almost all its forms. It can mean civilization (tarbut sinit - Chinese culture), manners (a "cultured person" is meturbat מתורבת), and artistic activity ("Let's go to the ballet and get some tarbut").

But the one sense that it doesn't really have to day is that of a culture of microbes - like in yogurt. What's the word for that in Hebrew? Tarbit תרבית - which we saw Milgrom say earlier means "interest". But with modern Hebrew using ribit ריבית for interest, tarbit was freed up for that kind of culture.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


What do angels and cabbages have in common?

Well, they both share the Hebrew word kruv כרוב, but except for Jastrow - who provides the unconvincing shared etymology "round" - no one says they share a common root.

For kruv as the Biblical word meaning "angel" - recognized clearly in the English word "cherub" - Klein provides the following etymology:

Related to Akkadian karabu (= to bless), karibu ( = one who blesses), epithet of the bull-colossus, and to ברך (= to bless)
Klein also writes that the words griffin and gryphon may be related:

[Klein] suggests a Sem. source, "through the medium of the Hittites," and cites Heb. kerubh "a winged angel," Akkad. karibu, epithet of the bull-colossus
The Jewish Encyclopedia provides some additional theories:

Following Lenormant's suggestions, Friedrich Delitzsch connected the Hebrew with the Assyrian "kirubu" = "shedu" (the name of the winged bull). Against this combination see Feuchtwang, in "Zeitschrift für Assyriologie," etc., i. 68 et seq.; Teloni, ib. vi. 124 et seq.; Budge, in "The Expositor," April and May, 1885. Later on, Delitzsch ("Assyrisches Handwörterbuch," p. 352) connected it with the Assyrian "karubu" (great, mighty); so, also, Karppe, in "Journal Asiatique," July-Aug., 1897, pp. 91-93. Haupt, in Toy, "Ezekiel" ("S. B. O. T."), Hebrew text, p. 56, line 11, says: "The name may be Babylonian; it does not mean 'powerful,' however, but 'propitious' (synonym 'damḳu')." For the original conception of the Babylonian cherubim see Haupt's notes on the English translation of Ezekiel, pp. 181-184 ("S. B. O. T."), and the abstract of Haupt's paper on "Cherubim and Seraphim," in the "Bulletins of the Twelfth International Congress of Orientalists," No. 18, p. 9, Rome, 1899. See also Haupt, in Paterson, "Numbers" ("S. B. O. T."), p. 46: "The stem of is the Assyrian 'karâbu' (= be propitious, bless), which is nothing but a transposition of the Hebrew .ברך" Dillmann, Duff, and others still favor the connection with γρύψ ("gryphus" = the Hindu "Garuda.")

Kruv meaning cabbage entered Hebrew in Talmudic times. Ben-Yehuda introduced the related kruvit כרובית - cauliflower. As to the etymology of kruv (cabbage), Klein writes:

Together with Aramaic כרובא, כרבא, Syrian כרבא, borrowed from Greek krambe, which is related to krambos ( = dry shriveling), kromboyn (= to roast), and cognate with Old German hrimfan, rimfan ( = to contract, wrinkle), Old English hrympel (= wrinkle)
The English word "rumple" derives from hrympel.

From the Greek word krambe, we get the following expression: "dis krambe thanatos" meaning:

Cabbage, twice over, is death; repetition is tedious

Latin (in which crambe also means cabbage) has a similar phrase: "Crambe bis Cocta", meaning "cabbage boiled twice" - a subject hacked out.

These expressions led to the name of a game - "crambo" which is:

a word game in which one team says a rhyme or rhyming line for a word or line given by the other team

While I can't find any Biblical or Talmudic texts where it is unclear whether kruv refers to an angel or a cabbage, I did find one modern example. On the Hebrew version of Sesame Street, Rechov Sumsum, the Hebrew name for the Grover character is "Kruvi". The Muppet Wiki discusses the etymology:

Kruvi (most likely "small cabbage", although possibly "little angel", "cherub")

I never really thought about it before, but Grover's head is kind of cabbage shaped...

Friday, July 06, 2007

rashut and reshut

In his book Yofi Shel Ivrit (chapter 31), Avshalom Kor points out a distinction I had never really paid attention to before: the difference between rashut רָשׁוּת and reshut רְשׁוּת.

Reshut (with a shva) means "permission". It comes from the root רשה meaning "to authorize, permit, allow". It is related to the word rishayon רשיון - "license". Reshut hadibur רשות הדיבור - "permission to speak".

(with a kamatz) means "authority". For example, the Postal Authority is rashut hadoar רשות הדואר, and the Broadcasting Authority is rashut hashidur רשות השידור. Kor writes that rashut comes from the word rosh ראש - "head". Klein agrees, and writes that the word is "probably a shortened spelling for rashut with an alef - ראשות". Today rashut with an alef means "chairmanship" and rashut without an alef means "authority". Kor gives the following example:

הרשות המחוקקת ברשאותו של ברק בן אבינועם

"The legislative authority (rashut without an alef) is under the chairmanship (rashut with an alef) of Barak ben Avinoam".

However, Klein also adds that:

Several scholars and lexicographers derive rashut רשות from base רשה ( = to empower, authorize).

But Kor writes that there are some sources that use the word ראשות (with an alef) instead of רשות rashut for "authority" - so I'm not sure which etymology is correct. Ben Yehuda writes that the meanings of the two words - reshut and rashut - are so similar, and the sounds are very close that it is impossible to seperate them (and therefore determine the precise etymology.)

Whether rashut and reshut are related or not, there certainly are cases where it is not clear which word is intended (particularly in non-vowelized texts.) For example, in the Mishna Moed Katan 3:3, we find the term אגרות של רשות. Kehati points out that the commentaries disagree whether it should be read igrot shel rashut or igrot shel reshut. Similarly, in the Talmud, Eruvin 41b, the term והרשות appears. Rabbeinu Chananel says it means "authority", but Rashi says it might have other explanations, and it is difficult to say.

What about רשות היחיד and רשות הציבור - private domain and public domain? Should it be rashut hayachid and rashut hatzibur OR reshut hayachid and reshut hatzibur? Kor explains that the correct form here is reshut. In the private domain - only the individual has permission to act, whereas in the public domain the entire public can do as they please.

One more "rashut" word that Kor doesn't mention is rashut רשות - "poverty", coming from rash רש - "beggar".

Sunday, July 01, 2007


Sometimes I find a such an obvious connection between a Hebrew word and a foreign one that I'm really surprised I didn't notice it earlier.

The Hebrew word navat נווט, means "navigator", and the verb נוט means "to navigate". I imagine by now you notice the "nav" in both the Hebrew and English words, but I never paid attention to it.

And indeed the Hebrew נווט derives from the Greek nautes - "seaman, sailor", which in turn comes from the Greek naus - "ship". Naus is related to the Latin navis, of the same meaning. From the Greek and Latin we get a number of familiar English words:

Hebrew adopted the Greek word already in Talmudic times. For example, the Midrash in Bereshit Rabba 12:12, quotes the verse from Yishayahu (42:5) - בּוֹרֵא הַשָּׁמַיִם וְנוֹטֵיהֶם
"Who created the heavens and stretched them out (v'noteihem)".

But the midrash reads the verse as follows: בורא השמים ונווטיהם - "He created the heavens and her sailors (v'navteihem)".