Monday, March 21, 2016


I recently discovered that the English word "artichoke" has a Semitic origin:

1530s, from articiocco, Northern Italian variant of Italian arcicioffo, from Old Spanish alcarchofa, from Arabic al-hursufa "artichoke."

Other sites give the original Arabic as al-karsufa, al-haršuf, or from the OED, a combination:

Italian regional (northern) articiocco (16th cent.), apparently < Spanish alcarchofa (1492; now usually alcachofa ) or its etymon Spanish Arabic al-ḵaršūfa < al- the + ḵaršūfa , regional variant (also ḵaršafa , ḵuršūfa ) of classical Arabic ḥaršafa (compare modern standard Arabic ḵuršūfa ), singular form corresponding to ḥaršaf , collective noun (compare modern standard Arabic ḵuršūf ), further etymology unknown.

Despite the ominous "further etymology unknown", I got curious - could there be a connection to a Hebrew word?

First of all, I should point out that the Jerusalem artichoke has nothing to do with Jerusalem. It gets its name from an alteration of the Italian girasole, meaning sunflower. (They are also called "sunchokes" - which is my preferred name for them.)

But what about the "original" artichoke? They do appear in Jewish tradition - potentially very far back. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God cursed them saying they would eat "thorns and thistles" קוֹץ וְדַרְדַּר - kotz and dardar. The midrash (Bereshit Rabba 20:10) identifies them with kinras קינרס and akavit עכבית, but isn't sure which Biblical word matches with which Talmudic one. The gemara in Beitza (34a) points out that they both require effort before they are edible, and Rashi on the verse in Bereshit explains that this is the nature of the curse.

Kinras is cognate with the Latin word cynara - the name of the genus, and the Greek kynára, which may be named for the island Kinaros, or maybe the island is named for the plant. Avshalom Kor here proposes an interesting theory that the Kinneret lake may be named for the artichokes that grew on its shore, and that the Greeks actually borrowed a Semitic word, כינר kinar, that was later reintroduced to Hebrew in Talmudic times as kinras.   .Kinras and akavit refer to artichokes and the related cardoon, both of which do require significant preparation to eat. In fact, the Rambam in his commentary on the Mishna (Uktzin 1:6), which mentions kinras (in some versions as kunras קונרס and even as kundas קונדס, but that seems to be a typographical error), gives the Arabic version as אלחרשף, and says that in the west, it is known as אלכ'רשף. These match up with the etymologies we saw above for artichoke.

In Modern Hebrew the official word for artichoke is churshaf (or charshof) חרשף (derived from the Arabic, and coined in the Middle Ages), but I've only seen "artichoke" ארטישוק used.

So while we can trace the concept of artichoke back to earlier periods, we still haven't answered my question about any Semitic cognates to harsaf. I have a possible lead, but I'm really not sure - and I welcome your input.

The Arabic Etymological Dictionary has the following entry:
hharshaf : fish scales [Akk arsuppu (carp)] Per charshaf borrowed from Ara

The Concise Dictionary of Akkadian has a similar entry, saying the Akkadian arsuppu and ersuppu can mean carp or carp scales, einkorn (wheat) or a kind of apple. (You can see the full entry here, but I couldn't find anything more helpful).

So could the original word refer to an item with scales or thorns? Both of those could apply to the artichoke.

And if that's the case - could this also be the origin of a Hebrew word - kartzef קרצף - "to scrape or scratch"?  Klein says that it's related to an Aramaic root with the same spelling, but the ultimate etymology is unknown.

And here's where it gets a little strange. There's a kind of thistle, the "blessed thistle", known in Hebrew as a kartzaf mevorach קרצף מבורך. I haven't been able to find out where or how this term entered Hebrew (in fact, it's not in any of my dictionaries). But perhaps this too makes a connection between kartzaf and artichoke?

And one more possible theory. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the following origin of cardoon:

1610s, from French cardon, from Provençal cardon, properly "thistle," from Late latin cardonem (nominative cardo "thistle," related to Latin carduus "thistle, artichoke"

And then going further back, in the entry for "harsh":

originally of texture, "hairy," 1530s, probably from Middle English harske "rough, coarse, sour" (c. 1300), a northern word of Scandinavian origin (compare Danish and Norwegian harsk "rancid, rank"), related to Middle Low German harsch "rough, raw," German harst "a rake;" perhaps from PIE root *kars- "to scrape, scratch, rub, card" (cognates: Lithuanian karsiu "to comb," Old Church Slavonic krasta, Russian korosta "to itch," Latin carduus "thistle," Sanskrit kasati "rubs, scratches").

So could this Indo-European root, *kars be related to kartzaf, which shares a meaning and a similar sound - and could either or both of them be related to the Arabic and Akkadian words we've found?

What do you all think?

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