Tuesday, March 11, 2008


A reader asked what the connection is between the English word "cinnamon" and the Hebrew kinamon (or qinamon) קינמון.

Well, the English word comes from the Greek kinnamomon, which in turn was borrowed from the Hebrew / Phoenician. This etymology is rather old - the famous Greek historian Herodotus mentions it here, in discussing spices from Arabia:

Still more wonderful is the mode in which they collect the cinnamon. Where the wood grows, and what country produces it, they cannot tell- only some, following probability, relate that it comes from the country in which Bacchus was brought up. Great birds, they say, bring the sticks which we Greeks, taking the word from the Phoenicians, call cinnamon, and carry them up into the air to make their nests.
I had assumed that Hebrew and Phoenician were similar enough to simply share the word kinamon. However, Philologos writes that the Phoenicians probably borrowed the word from Hebrew:

The Greeks indeed had no clear idea of what the source of cinnamon was. Herodotus, according to whom the Greek word kinnamomon was borrowed from Phoenician traders, knew only that the latter purchased it from “the Arabians,” who “do not know where it comes from and what country produces it.” In the same breath, however, he then fancifully related that these same “Arabians,” by whom he presumably meant the Nabateans living in what is today Israel’s Negev and southern Jordan, collected the spice from the nests of large carrion-eating birds built of cinnamon bark and mud on “mountain precipices… which no man can climb.”

Phoenician, the West Semitic language of the seafaring peoples living along the Mediterranean coast north of Palestine, was closely related to Hebrew, and since Hebrew kinnamon occurs in the Bible while no parallel Phoenician text has survived, Hebrew is commonly given as the word’s source. Indeed, since cinnamon probably reached the Phoenicians from the Nabateans via a land route crossing Palestine, it is just as likely that the word entered Phoenician from Hebrew as the other way around.
So now the question needs to be asked: Where did the Hebrew word kinamon come from? Klein curtly notes that it is a "word of foreign origin".

One etymology mentioned here, suggests that:

English cinnamon, German Zimt, Lithuanian cinamonas, Belarusian cynamon [цынамон], Serbocroatian cimet [цимет], Yiddish tsimering [צימערינג] and Armenian ginamon [կինամոն] all derive from Latin cinnamomum, which was in turn a loan from Greek kinnamomon [κιννάμωμον]. The Greek had borrowed the word from a Semitic tongue, cf. Old Hebrew kinamom [קנמון] and Aramaic qunimun [ܩܘܢܝܡܘܢ]. However, these words can hardly be native Semitic, and their further origin is not known; it has been suggested that they ultimately stem from early Malaysian language and are thus related to modern Indonesian kayu manis “sweet wood” (although this is a problematic assumption).
The Malaysian origin is supposedly mentioned in the BDB - unfortunately, I no longer have access to that book. Can anyone confirm?

In the article I quoted above, Philologos rejects this theory:

For one thing, cinnamon, which is prepared from the bark of the young branches of an Asiatic tree, seems to have reached the Mediterranean world in ancient times not from Malaysia or Malay-speaking Indonesia but rather from China, in which it was known as kwei, and Sri Lanka, in whose native Singhalese language it is called kurundu. And for another thing, no other Eastern or Central Asian language listed by Katzer has a word resembling either kayu manis or “cinnamon” — which is qurfa in Arabic, darchin in Persian, durusita in Sanskrit, tuj in Gujarati, ilavangam in Tamil, op cheuy in Thai, chek tum phka loeng in Khmer, yuhk gwai in Cantonese, rou gui in Mandarin and so on. Even if the ancient Greeks had gotten their cinnamon from Malay speakers, it would have had to pass through many other hands on its way to them; how, then, would a Malay word for “cinnamon” have reached them without leaving its imprint anywhere else?
That makes sense to me, and in fact, most sources that quote the Malaysian theory go on to reject it.

In the end of the article, Philologos (can I call you Phil?) sticks with his theory that "our English word 'cinnamon' can be etymologically traced back no further than Hebrew kinamon."

However, I think that one of the points he made could actually help us find an earlier source. He mentioned that cinnamon originated in China. Kaddari writes that Loew (Die Flora der Juden II:107) rejects the suggestion that kinamon derived from the root קנה (reed) or קנמ as suggested by Delitzsch (as well as Jastrow and Gesenius.) Instead, he feels that the word refers to China - "Kina" in Hungarian (Wikipedia points out that it is so spelled in many Northern and Eastern European languages - Swedish, Norwegian, Hungarian, Danish, Bosnian, Serbian etc.)

I don't have access to Loew's works and couldn't read them in their original German even if I did. (If anyone out there can do both - please tell me!). But I'm guessing that he was influenced by this article by
W. Desborough Cooley from 1849.

Cooley discusses the Chinese origin of the spice:

But we cannot suppose the Chinese to have been equally heedless of the riches scattered by nature over their hills, or remiss in turning such advantages to account; and indeed there is good reason for presuming that they were the earliest dealers in this spice. The Persian name for cinnamon is Darchini, which signifies Chinese wood; and as this name has been adopted in the languages of India with little or no change, it is evident that the article so called arrived in the latter country by the overland route, or through Persia.
He then goes on to take apart suggested etymologies (some of which we've seen before):

The Hebrew word kinamon is said by some to be derived from the Arabic verb kanima, to have a strong or foul smell - a derivation the flagrant absurdity of which is inconsistent with the fundamental laws of language.


But again, we are told that cinnamomum is derived from the Malayan kashiomanis, which signifies sweet wood. Now, to say nothing of the torture and mutilation necessary to change the latter word into the former, what can be more ridiculous than to seek the derivation of a word used on the shores of the Mediterranean 3000 years ago, in the Malayan, which we know only as a modern language ? Or how did this solitary Malayan term find its may into Phoenicia, without leaving a trace of its passage through India, Persia, or Arabia?


Cinnamomum. cardamomum and costamomum are apparently compound words, denoting so many species of amomum ... With respect to the first syllable of this name, Dr. Vincent supposed it to he derived from keneh (קנה), a cane, pipe, or tube, as if kinamomum signified pipe-amomum. But to this it may be objected, that the name in question, to whatever language it belongs, ought to serve the ends of language, by marking distinctly the object so named, but cinnamon appears to have been brought to market in early times in unpeeled twigs; and if, on the other hand, it were peeled off, then it had the rolled and tubular form in common with
cassia, so that in neither case could it have been appropriately called pipe-amomum.


An ingenious, and by no means unlikely, explanation of the fables in which the origin of cinnamon was involved by the early Greek writers, who relate that it was taken from the nests of birds, which had collected it in unknown regions, is suggested by Bochart. He supposes that the Greeks were deceived by some popular Phoenician etymology playing on the word קנן (kinnen), to build a nest. The fable, in short, originated in a quasi derivation, and proves at once the antiquity of the word, and the foreign origin of its first and disputed element.

And then he offers what he believes to be the most convincing etymology:

The only explanation then of the word cinnamon which does not savour of arbitrary etymological fancies, and which accords strictly with the principles regulating the formation of words, is that which considers it as meaning simply Chinese amomum or spice, and thus differing only by a slight and natural modification from the Persian name darchini, under which the spice in question was probably received by the Hebrews and Phoenicians.

While it might seem far to get from China to the Land of Israel, it should be noted that the word kinamon appears only three times in the Bible. Once (Shmot 30:23), is referring one of the spices in the incense, that was used in the Temple. The other two quotes - Shir HaShirim 4:14 and Mishlei 7:17 - are both from books attributed to Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon), who was certainly known for trading with distant lands...

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