Monday, July 15, 2019


Last time we talked about the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. This time, we'll discuss a neighboring island: Rhodes.

Rhodes is likely the source of the biblical sea people, sons of Yavan (Greece) known as the Rodanim רודנים, as mentioned in Divrei Hayamim I 1:7. (The parallel text in Bereshit 10:4 lists them as the Dodanim דודנים, but various ancient translates translate that verse with Rodanim.)  And what is the origin of the name Rhodes?

There are a few proposed etymologies, all of which may have some connection to Hebrew.

The Online Etymology Dictionary presents three theories. The first two claim that it derives from:

Greek Rhodos, perhaps from rhodon "rose," or rhoia "pomegranate"

Rhodon as rose is cognate with the Hebrew vered ורד as we discussed earlier, quoting Klein:

Aramaic ורדא, borrowed from Iranian *wrda, whence Greek rodon, whence Latin rosa (=rose)

This article mentions a suggestion that rhoia derives from the Hebrew word for pomegranate, rimmon רימון.

So both of these have a Hebrew connection. In the first one, the Hebrew and Greek have a common ancestor, and in the second the Greek may derive from the Hebrew.

However the Online Etymology Dictionary goes on to make an additional suggestion:

but "more likely" [Room, Adrian, Place Names of the World] from a pre-Greek name, from Phoenician erod "snake," for the serpents which were said to have anciently infested the island.
Phoenician is a Semitic language, very close to Hebrew, however I could not find a Hebrew (or Aramaic) cognate to erod as snake. (Other spellings include hrʿd , rhad  and *ʔar(a)w- ).  Perhaps one of you can?

*** Update ***

Two helpful readers found what might very well be a Hebrew cognate for the Phoenician erod. This is the post-biblical ערוד (alternatively vocalized as arod or arvad/arwad). It appears in Talmudic literature as a snake (or another reptile) as in Berachot 33a and Chullin 127a). This arod should not be confused with the arod of biblical Hebrew (Iyov 39:5), which is an African wild donkey. I haven't found any significant research about the etymology of arvad/arod meaning snake, but it's certainly possible that it is related to the Semitic cognates I mentioned earlier. Great job!

Sunday, July 07, 2019

copper, Cyprus, cypress and gopher

Sometimes it feels like tracking the etymologies of words is like a centuries long game of telephone. Let me show you what I mean.

Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary for the word "copper":

late Old English coper, from Proto-Germanic *kupar (source also of Middle Dutch koper, Old Norse koparr, Old High German kupfar), from Late Latin cuprum, contraction of Latin Cyprium (aes) "Cyprian (metal)," after Greek Kyprios "Cyprus"

So copper comes from Cyprus (both linguistically and physically). Where does the name Cyprus come from?

large eastern Mediterranean island, late 14c., Cipre, Cipres, from Latinized form of Greek Kypros "land of cypress trees"

Cyprus/cypress. Fair enough. So what is the etymology of cypress? Here we get to a Hebrew connection:

from Old French cipres (12c., Modern French cyprès), from Late Latin cypressus, from Latin cupressus, from Greek kyparissos, probably from an unknown pre-Greek Mediterranean language. Perhaps it is related to Hebrew gopher, name of the tree whose wood was used to make the ark (Genesis vi.14).

Here we probably have arrived at almost the end of the line. Klein doesn't have much to offer as to the origin of gofer גפר:

m.n. ‘gopher’ (a kind of wood of which Noah’s ark was made). [Of unknown origin. Perhaps related to Akka. giparu.]

Sarna, in his JPS commentary on the one appearance of gofer (Bereshit 6:14), writes:

Many modern scholars prefer the cypress both because of a similarity in sound to the Hebrew and because it was widely used in shipbuilding in ancient times, due to its resistance to rot.

Giparu meant a kind of reed in Akkadian. It's unclear to me how a word for a reed became the word for a tree - unless both were used to build boats (compare the ark of Noah to the ark of baby Moses.) But I guess that's the nature of telephone - the further you go along, the harder it is to figure out what the original message was...

Monday, July 01, 2019

mekhir and mechira

Last time we discussed two homographs - words written the same, with different pronunciations. Now I'd like to talk about two roots that are homophones - same pronunciation, but different spelling: mekhir מחיר and mechira מכירה.

Actually, they only appear to have the same pronunciation to those speaking Hebrew influenced by the Ashkenazic tradition, where the letters khet (ח) and chaf (כ) sound the same. In the Sefardic and Yemenite pronunciations, the two letters have distinct sounds. However, since the words have similar meanings - mekhir is "price" and mechira is "sale" - to many Hebrew speakers a common etymology might seem possible. However, as in our previous discussion, the two roots aren't connected.

Klein (and others) note that both have cognates in Akkadian.

This is what he writes about מכר - "to sell" (the root of the word mechira):

Aram.-Syr. מֽכַר (= he married; properly: bought as a wife), Ugar. mkr (= tradesman), Akka. makkūru, namkūru (= possession), tamkaru (= tradesman)

He adds that the  Akkadian tamkaru is the source of tagar תגר - a post-biblical word for merchant or trader:

Together with Aram. תַּגָּר, תַּגָּרָא, Syr. תַּגָּרָא, תַּאגָּרָא, Arab. tājir (of s.m.), borrowed from Akka. tamgāru, tamkāru (of s.m.), which itself is traceable to מכר (= to sell)
And here is his entry for mekhir:

מְחִיר m.n. price, hire. [Prob. a loan word from Akka. maḫīru (= purchase price), which derives from maḥām (= to receive, get, buy).] 

He writes that it is related to the word mohar מוהר - "dowry."

Stahl (in his Arabic Etymological Dictionary) suggests that this Akkadian root is also the source of the Hebrew root מור - "to change", which gives us the words hamara המרה - "exchange" and temura תמורה - "substitution".