Sunday, December 20, 2020


A number of years ago, I discussed the root סכן and the relate words misken, sakana and sochen. One of the words I mentioned was מסוכן mesukan:

The familiar word sakana סכנה - "danger" does not appear in the Tanach (it appears frequently in Rabbinic Hebrew). But it does appear as a nifal verb once in Kohelet 10:9  יסכן - "will be harmed". In Rabbinic Hebrew we find the piel form, meaning "to expose to danger". Derivatives include sikun סיכון - "risk" and misukan מסוכן - which in the Talmud meant "in danger" but by Medieval Hebrew meant "dangerous".

Recently, I realized that I never actually explained why the meaning of mesukan would change from "endangered" to "dangerous." 

Not knowing the answer, I looked in my books and my online sources, and couldn't find any real discussion of the topic. So I did something I haven't done for a while - I wrote to the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Anyone can submit a question here (in Hebrew), and they're very generous with their time and provide comprehensive answers.

A few days later, I got an answer, which I will summarize here.

The word mesukan appears in the "passive" form in Talmudic literature. For example we find a בהמה מסוכנת behema mesukenet - a sick animal, in danger of dying, in the mishna (Beitza 3:3). In the Tosefta ( Toharot 6:7) there is mention of a sick person, referred to as mesukan. In this  literature, only people or animals are called mesukan.

Around the beginning of the 12th century, the meaning of mesukan expanded, and began to refer to things that can affect people, and as such took on the meaning of "dangerous." Rashi (Avoda Zara 28a) describes an injury as being mesukan, and Ibn Ezra (on Devarim 21:8) talks about roads that are mesukan

However, this new meaning was not used to refer to people or animals. When applied to them, mesukan still meant "endangered."

At the end of the 18th century, the meaning of mesukan expanded further. It began to be applied to animals, and then eventually to people as well. In modern usage, the sense of "endangered" has almost completely disappeared, and only "dangerous" remains.

This change in meaning can be seen in how it appears in dictionaries. In the Ben Yehuda dictionary (1928-1929), mesukan has both definitions, with "endangered" coming before "dangerous." In later dictionaries, such as Even Shoshan (1951), the order is reversed, reflecting the change in usage.

What was the reason for this semantic shift?

Two suggestions were offered.

One is a natural, internal development in the language, where passive verbs take on an active meaning. Examples given were the word זכור in Tehilim 103:14 (he "remembers" in the active sense), נשוי in Bava Batra 79a (a tree actively bearing fruit), and also the phrase mekubal ani מקובל אני - "I have accepted."

While these occurrences happened earlier, perhaps the change in mesukan followed the same process.

The second suggestion was influence from Arabic, where the similar word makufun can mean both "frightened" and "scary."

So perhaps one, or both, of those two pushed the word mesukan into the modern meaning of "dangerous."

No comments: