Monday, August 08, 2022

gazam and higzim

'When discussing hiflig, I mentioned that while one definition is "exaggerate", that's not a use common in Hebrew today. 

I've now given it a bit more thought, and I think the reason is perhaps the popularity of the word higzim הגזים for "exaggerate." With a word that pervasive, there wasn't need for a synonym, which left hiflig as "exaggerate" an archaic usage.

That got me wondering about higzim. It is the hifil form of the verb גזם. That verb, in its kal form, means "to cut", or more specifically "to prune, trim." (We've already noted that it fits the pattern of roots beginning with *גז meaning "to cut.") How did a root that means "to prune" (the process of shortening) come to mean "to exaggerate" - which is making something bigger than it really is?

Klein notes that in addition higzim meaning "to exaggerate", it also means "to threaten." While not in common use today, that sense is found in Talmudic Hebrew. Jastrow provides a few such cases in his entry. For example, he quotes Shevuot 46a:

עביד איניש דגזים וכ׳ a man frequently threatens mischief and does not do it. Ib. הכי נמי ג׳ וכ׳ .. in this case, too, he may have threatened and not done it.

The English Steinsaltz translation is slightly different than Jastrow's:

אלמא עביד איניש דגזים ולא עביד הכא נמי דגזים ולא עביד

Evidently, a person is prone to bluster without acting on his threat. Here, also, it could be that he was blustering about seizing collateral, but did not act on it.

The choice of "to bluster" as the translation of the Aramaic cognate גזים was a clever choice. Meaning "to talk or act with noisy swaggering threats" and "to utter with noisy self-assertiveness", it encompasses both the sense of "to threaten" and "to exaggerate." This is appropriate for the case above, where the person doesn't carry through with his threat.

But not every threat is a bluster. For example, the midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:6) refers to the story of Joseph and Potifar's wife, saying that if Joseph did not acquiesce to her request, she threatened to tell her her husband that Joseph assaulted her. And yet Joseph did not give in to her, despite what she threatened to do to him - שֶׁהָיְתָה מַגְזֶמֶת לַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ. And as we know from the biblical story - she did indeed tell her husband that Joseph assaulted her - she carried out her threat.

One word can't therefore contain all the meanings of higzim. So we need a different explanation as to the different meanings of the verb גזם. Klein provides just such an explanation. After providing an initial definition of גזם meaning "to cut down, hew down," in his explanation of the second meaning ("to exaggerate, to threaten"), he writes:

This base is prob. identical with גזם ᴵ. The phases of sense development prob. are: cut; ‘to speak in a cutting or sharp manner; to exaggerate; to threaten’.

It seems to me that "to threaten" probably preceded "to exaggerate", but his connecting of "to cut" and to speak in a "cutting or sharp manner" makes sense to me.  

Sunday, July 31, 2022

hiflig and muflag

A few months ago, we discussed the root peleg פלג. I noted the following:

The cognate פלג provides even more words. As with פלח, the root means "cleave, split, divide." Here are a sample of some of the words deriving from that root:

  • פִּלֵּג pileg - "to divide, separate"
  • הִפְלִיג hiflig - "to depart (by ship), to set sail"

Looking back, I don't think I gave enough attention to the form hiflig, and I didn't even mention the passive form - muflag מופלג. Let's look at them now.

Unlike pileg, these forms only appear in post-Biblical Hebrew. Klein provides a few different meanings:

        Hiph. - הִפֽלִיג 1 he separated (orig. ‘he divided’); 2 he went off (lit.: ‘he separated himself’); for sense development cp. Fren. partir (= to divide, separate), se partir (= to separate oneself, depart, leave); 3 he set sail; 4 he turned aside, diverted, put off; 5 he removed; 6 he exaggerated (lit. prob. meaning ‘he went too far’).
    — Hoph. - הֻפֽלַג 1 was diverted; 2 was removed.

For muflag he offers a few more:

 PBH 1 distant, remote. PBH 2 distinguished, excellent. NH 3 exaggerated.

However, there are many more meanings found in Talmudic and Rabbinic Hebrew. Jastrow lists the following (see the link for citations) for hiflig:

  • to part, go away
  • to go to sea
  • to rest from work, to pause
  • to divert, put off; to discard
  • to reject, disregard, discard
  • to decline from the road
  • to withdraw one's self, to be reserved, speak in indefinite and general terms
  • to differ
  • to go too far
And for muflag, Jastrow adds: removed, far, distinguished, special expert.

But Jastrow is only a dictionary of Talmudic and Midrashic Hebrew. The Ben-Yehuda dictionary, which goes all the way up to the early modern period, has even more. For example, it also includes:

  • to put off with fair words
  • to put aside
  • to separate oneself
  • to branch off, to step aside
  • to not mind, to not pay attention
  • to go astray
  • to go far
It also has "detached" for muflag. (I should note that the Ben-Yehuda dictionary has 6 (!) pages of examples of uses of these two roots, and they cover far more subtle differences than the translations I provided above).

What I find remarkable, is that with the root having so many meanings and connotations over the centuries, in modern Hebrew very few are still in use.

The dictionary web site Morfix only provides three definitions for hiflig:

to depart (by ship, boat); to sail; to exaggerate 
However, I don't recall hearing hiflig used in the sense "to exaggerate" in conversation in Israel. That could simply be an oversight on my part, but looking at the site Reverso, which takes its examples from a corpus of translated texts, I think I'm not so far off. For hiflig, Reverso only suggests the following: 

sailed, sail, sailing, shipped out, proceeded, departed

If we add the word שבח shevach - "praise" - to the phrase, then we find examples both in Medieval Hebrew and in Modern Hebrew of הפליג בשבח meaning "lavish praise (on someone/something)." Those examples don't imply exaggeration.

Regarding muflag, we see a similar phenomenon. Looking at the definition found in the various dictionaries, you might think that the common meaning was "exaggerated." That's particularly true if you consider some of the negative connotations of hiflig cited, like "to go astray", "to reject', and in particular, "to go too far", which Klein suggested was the origin of the meaning "exaggerated". 

But again, that's not really what we see in common use. Morfix does suggest "exaggerated", but the meanings listed are "grand" and "exalted". Reverso doesn't have "exaggerated" at all, instead offering:

superlative, ripe old, old age, great age, overdrive, superlatively, superfluous

I do recognize that "superfluous" isn't so far from "exaggerated", but I think the latter implies more conscious intent. A common use of muflag today is in the phrase gil muflag גיל מופלג (as seen in some of Reverso's suggestion), referring to someone very old.  So I think good translations of muflag could be "exceeding(ly great)" or "excessive", depending on the context. Sometimes it would reflect the earlier sense of "to go far" and other times "to go too far."

Sunday, July 24, 2022


A reader asked about the etymology of  אוֹלָר olar - "pen knife" - since Klein reports that the word is "of unknown origin." The more recent Even-Shoshan dictionary also does not provide the origin of the word.

The word olar appears for the first time in Mishnaic Hebrew, but appears in only a very few sources, making its history difficult to decipher.

The most prominent source is Mishna Kelim 12:8, which lists various utensils subject to ritual impurity. It begins by mentioning: הָאוֹלָר, וְהַקֻּלְמוֹס  - the olar and the kulmos. Since the latter is a "reed pen" (as we discussed here), the olar was understood to specifically refer to a penknife, since that kind of small knife was originally used for cutting the quills used for pens. Like the English word penknife, today olar refers to any kind of pocket knife, like the famous Swiss Army knife.

We also find the olar and the kulmos together in Tosefta Kelim BB 7:12, and that's pretty much it. The Historical Dictionary Project of the Academy of the Hebrew Language provides a few more mentions, but none shed light on the possible origin of the word. However, looking at the quotes mentioned there, we do find that some sources have the word spelled אוֹלָד olad, instead of olar

Jastrow prefers this spelling, and provides this definition:

a tool for hollowing out and cutting the writing reed (scalprum), a sort of pen-knife.

Following his general tendency to look for Semitic origins for Talmudic words, Jastrow suggests that olad comes from the roots ילד or ולד, presumably in the way that a fetus fills the abdominal cavity of a pregnant woman.

That suggestion seems farfetched to me. Yet putting his etymology aside, it's not clear which is the original word - olar or olad. Based on the similarity between the letters resh and dalet, it's understandable how such a rare word could have been the subject of a scribal error in either direction. But with no etymology, we can't really say which form should be preferred.

The question of olar vs olad became more intense during the dawn of modern Hebrew - I assume because the word was now entering the vernacular, and people needed to know how to say and write it. 

Bialik claimed that olad was the original form (which lead to an interesting conversation with Avineri), as did Kohut in his Arukh Hashalem. Tur-Sinai agreed that olad was probably the original form, but noted that since we don't know the etymology, there's no point in objecting to the popular form olar. And since olar is the way it appears in most printed editions of the Mishna, as well as in the later works of the Rambam (as pointed out by Melamed here) , that's what stuck.

So what about the etymology? The footnote to the olar entry in the Ben-Yehuda dictionary concedes that the source isn't known (which is likely what led Klein to the same conclusion). It notes that there were attempts to find a Greek source, but like Jastrow's Hebrew one, they are not convincing. It quotes Fleischer as saying that olar (or olad) is one of those words that entered Hebrew in the Mishnaic period that we simply don't know the etymology. Fleischer was commenting on Jacob Levy's dictionary of Talmudic terms (in German). Levy (page 40) proposes a Greek etymology, and then Fleischer later disagrees (page 279). Using Google Translate, Fleischer considers this one of the "numerous unsolved, maybe even unsolvable, etymological riddles of this mixed language." (German speakers are welcome to provide a better translation).

Nothing I found in more recent scholarship has presented a "new" etymology for olar.

If you read this far that might not be satisfying, and even frustrating. But I look at it as an opportunity. Perhaps one of you will be the one to crack the case!

Sunday, July 17, 2022


This is a short one, but I thought it was interesting.

The Hebrew word for helmet, kasda  קַסְדָּה (or in the Mishna, קַסְדָּא) comes from Latin. Here is Klein's etymology:

From L. cassis, gen. cassidis, which prob. stands for * kadh-tis, from IE * kadh– (= to guard, watch), whence also Old Eng. hōd, hood, haett (= hat).

While words like hood and hat may indeed be distantly cognate with kasda, I liked these closer cousins. 

The Latin cassida shows up in the name of a genus of tortoise beetles, whose shells do recall a helmet:

From Wikipedia / © Darius Baužys

It also appears in the name of of a family of large sea snails, the Cassidae, who are also known as "helmet snails":

How responsible of them to be wearing a kasda!

Monday, July 11, 2022

safsal and asla

One of the fun things when doing etymological research is discovering two related words, that you previously had no idea were connected, but once you look into it the connection makes a lot of sense.

That's the case with the words סַפְסָל safsal and אַסְלָה asla

Here's Klein's entry for safsal:

PBH bench, stool. [From L. sub-selliam (= bench, seat), through the medium of Gk. suphellion, formed from sub (= under; see סוּבּ◌), and sella, from the base of sedēre (= to sit)]

Having safsal derive from the Latin subsellium makes even more sense when you note that some manuscripts of the mishna vocalize the word as safsel

The Latin sella - "seat, chair" - also appears in asla (today "toilet" / "toilet bowl"). Again, here's Klein:

PBH (pl. אֲסָלוֹת, resp. אֲסֶלּוֹת) closet stool, lavatory seat. [L. sella (= seat, chair, stool), for sed-lā, from sedēre (= to sit). ... The אַ◌ in אַסְלָה is prosthetic.]

The same roots for these Hebrew words have also made their way into English. The verb sedere made its way into such words as sedentary, preside, and sedate. And if we go back to its Proto-Indo-European root, *sed, we get even more English words, including very common ones like sit, set, and chair

That same PIE root, via Greek, gave us one more very familiar Hebrew word - sanhedrin סנהדרין. Klein provides the background:

PBH 1 ‘Sanhedrin’ — the supreme Jewish court (סַנְהֶדְרִין גְּדוֹלָה) in the time of the Second Temple, consisting of 71 scholars. 2 one of the lesser courts with 23 members, called סַנְהֶדְרִין קְטַנָּה, lit.: ‘the small Sanhedrin’. [Gk. synedrion (= council, council chamber), lit.: ‘sitting together’, from syn (= with, together with), and edra (= a seat), which is cogn. with L. sedēre (= to sit).]

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives a similar etymology, but has the Greek hedra for "seat." 

All these words represent very different kinds of "seats", each with their own purpose. Since sitting is such a common experience, it shouldn't be surprising that it has led to so many words - expressing both the literal and symbolic expression of the action.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

falafel, pilpel, and pilpul

One of the foods most identified with Israel is falafel. While the food is ancient, the name is more recent - and derives from the Arabic falafil. There are a number of theories as to the etymology of falafil:

The most common suggestion I found was that the Arabic derives from the Persian word for "pepper", which in turn was borrowed from Sanskrit. This is likely due to how the falafel was spiced. 

Like Arabic, Hebrew also received their word for pepper - פִּלְפֵּל pilpel - in a similar fashion. Here's Klein's entry for pilpel:

Like Arab. fulful, filfil (= pepper) borrowed through Persian and Aram. mediation from Old I. pippalī́ (= berry, peppercorn), which is of imitative origin. Gk. peperi (whence L. piper) is of the same origin. L. piper was borrowed by many European languages.

Those European languages include English. Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for "pepper":

"dried berries of the pepper plant," Middle English peper, from Old English pipor, from an early West Germanic borrowing of Latin piper "pepper," from Greek piperi, probably (via Persian) from Middle Indic pippari, from Sanskrit pippali "long pepper." The Latin word is the source of German Pfeffer, Italian pepe, French poivre, Old Church Slavonic pipru, Lithuanian pipiras, Old Irish piobhar, Welsh pybyr, etc.

Application to fruits of the Capsicum family (unrelated, originally native of tropical America) is from 16c.

Other words deriving from the spice "pepper" include "peppermint", "pepperoni", and "pep" (as in "vigor, energy"). The Hungarian word "paprika", however, got its name from the New World sweet (bell) peppers.

The Hebrew pilpel is found in rabbinic literature, starting in the mishna. It also appears in the Aramaic form פִּלְפַּלְתָּא pilpalta, but with the same meaning. In modern Hebrew there was an attempt to establish the related פִּלְפֶּלֶת pilpelet as the word for bell peppers, leaving pilpel for the spice pepper. You'll still see pilpelet in dictionaries, but from my experience, Israelis use pilpel for both kinds of pepper, and don't use pilpelet at all.

One Hebrew word that many claim ultimately derives from the same Sanskrit root is פִּלְפּוּל pilpul. It is variously translated as "sharp analysis", "intense debate", or for those less charitable, "hairsplitting" or "sophistry." It is a method found in studying Talmud, where different texts, or passages in the same text, are closely analyzed, and conclusions are found from the contradictions between them. The sharpness of the debates has led to the theory that pilpul is related to pilpel (pepper). For example, here's the opening of the entry from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia for pilpul:

A method of Talmudic study. The word is derived from the verb "pilpel" (lit. "to spice," "to season," and in a metaphorical sense, "to dispute violently" [Tosef., B. B. vii. 5] or "cleverly" [Shab. 31a; B. M. 85b]). Since by such disputation the subject is in a way spiced and seasoned, the word has come to mean penetrating investigation, disputation, and drawing of conclusions, and is used especially to designate a method of studying the Law (Ab. vi. 5; Baraita; B. B. 145b; Tem. 16a; Ket. 103b; Yer. Ter. iv. 42d).

However, it then goes on to note that a different etymology derives from it from the Hebrew root פלל. This is the origin that Klein provides in his entry for the verb פלפל, meaning "to discuss, argue, debate":

Pilp. of base פלל. Whence also Syr. פַּל (= he sprinkled), corresponding to Heb. בְּלֵל, respectively בִּלֽבֵּל. There is no connection between the v. פלפל ᴵ and the n. פִּלְפֵּל (= pepper) as most scholars would have it.

(Interestingly, in his earlier CEDEL, Klein does write that pilpul derives from "he spiced, he seasoned" from which came the meaning "he argued, he debated, he disputed violently.")

As we've discussed before, the root פלל means both "to judge" and "to pray", and according to Klein, originally meant "to cut," and "to decide", which would presumably be his connection to the debates of pilpul

As often happens, Klein's Hebrew etymological dictionary relies on the Ben Yehuda dictionary, which also denies a connection between pilpul and pepper, and directs us to a 1935 essay by the linguist Hanoch Yelon. Yelon interprets the word תִּתַּפָּל in Shmuel II 22:27 as deriving from פלל, and meaning "to roll (over)" and so the root פלפל (in the sense of analysis) would mean to turn something from side to side while investigating it. This use is found in the midrash (Pesikta Rabbati 21:1) where we read of a warrior who   מפלפל בזיינו ומראה פנים לכל צד - "turned his sword about and made it face each direction." 

From this, and other examples he brings, Yelon is convinced the connection to pepper is only a folk-etymology. This folk-etymology may go back a long time (see for example this passage from Yoma 85b, which compares a good argument to spicy pepper), but most modern scholars accept that pilpul and pepper aren't related. However, they don't all agree with Yelon's etymology. For example, the Even-Shoshan dictionary says פלפל derives from בלבל, meaning "to confuse, to mix up", although it does give a similar definition of the original meaning of pilpul based on that etymology: "to turn something over and over."

Well, this analysis has gone on quite a bit, and I don't want to be accused of excessive pilpul, so we'll end it here...

Tuesday, June 21, 2022


There is no question that the name of the star Betelgeuse (the inspiration for the 1988 movie Beetlejuice) derives from Arabic. However, how it got that name is the subject of dispute. Let's review how different sources present the etymology, and how it might connect to any Hebrew words.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has a short entry for Betelgeuse:

alpha Orionis, bright reddish star in the right shoulder of Orion, 1515, from Arabic Ibt al Jauzah, traditionally said to mean "the Armpit of the Central One" (with this arm he holds his club aloft), but perhaps more accurately "Hand of al-Jauza (Orion)." Intermediary forms include Bed Elgueze, Beit Algueze.

However, this leaves many open questions. The Arabic 'ibT means "armpit", but why then would the term be "more accurately" be the "Hand of al-Jauza (Orion)", with hand being yad in Arabic (as in Hebrew). What is the role of these "intermediary forms": Bed ElguezeBeit Algueze, the latter of which would seem to indicate the Arabic word for house: bayt (again similar to the Hebrew beit)? And what is the meaning of Jauza? Why is it "the Central One" or "Orion"? And what is its etymology?

These questions are addressed in other sources, although without complete clarity. The Wiktionary entry for Betelgeuse attempts to tackle them:

Ultimately from an alteration of the Arabic يَد الجَوْزَاء‎ (yad al-jawzāʾ, “hand of the central one”), from يَد‎ (yad, “hand”) + جَوْزَاء‎ (jawzāʾ, “central one”).

Jawzā, ‘the central one’, initially referred to Gemini among the Arabs, but at some point they decided to refer to Orion by that name. During the Middle Ages the first character of the name, ’ (ي, with two underdots), was misread as a ’ (ب, with one underdot) when transliterating into Latin, and Yad al-Jauza became Bedalgeuze. This was then misinterpreted during the Renaissance as deriving from a corruption of an original Arabic form إِبْط الجَوْزَاء (ʾibṭ al-jawzāʾ, “armpit of the central one”). 

A similar explanation is found in the American Heritage dictionary:

The history of the curious star name Betelgeuse is a good example of how scholarly errors can creep into language. The story starts with the pre-Islamic Arabic astronomers, who called the star yad al-jawzā', "hand of the jawzā'." The jawzā' was their name for the constellation Gemini. After Greek astronomy became known to the Arabs, the word came to be applied to the constellation Orion as well. Some centuries later, when scribes writing in Medieval Latin tried to render the word, they misread the y as a b (the two corresponding Arabic letters are very similar when used as the first letter in a word), leading to the Medieval Latin form Bedalgeuze. In the Renaissance, another set of scholars trying to figure out the name interpreted the first syllable bed- as being derived from a putative Arabic word *bā meaning "armpit." This word did not exist; it would correctly have been ib. Nonetheless, the error stuck, and the resultant etymologically "improved" spelling Betelgeuse was borrowed into French as Bételgeuse, whence English Betelgeuse.

More details about how this came to be can be found in this article and in this one

We've now learned two more things. One, that there may have been a number of transcription and translations errors, leading from Yad al-Jauza to Bedalgeuze, which was then misunderstood as ʾibṭ al-jawzāʾ. (The Hebrew Wikipedia article for Betelgeuse notes that the transcription error may have led to the term being interpreted as Beit al-Jauza -- the house of Jauza).  Secondly, the term originally referred to the constellation Gemini, and only later came to refer to Orion.

Now let's turn to jawza - the "central" one. This etymology surprised me. Recall that the term originally referred to the constellation Gemini, "the twins." The Arabic term for Gemini is Jawza'. And the Arabic Etymological Dictionary has the following entry:

jauz : pair [zauj]

From this it would seem that jauz and zauj (also the Arabic word for "husband", one member of the pair), are related through metathesis. This would make them both cognate with the Hebrew zug זוג - also meaning "pair." To me this seems like a pretty obvious etymology: the constellation Gemini, the "twins", was called al-jauza, "the pair." But I haven't seen any sources that take this approach.

Rather, they all claim, as we've quoted above, that it derives from jawza meaning "central." Does that term have any Hebrew cognates?

From the Wiktionary entry for the Arabic root jwz, we see that as a verb it has a number of meanings, including "to cause to travel over, pass through" and "to carry through one's views." As a noun it can mean "main part" or "middle" - both giving us our "central." The connection between "passing through" and "central" is easy to understand - in general, one passes through the middle. The Arabic Etymological Dictionary adds that the verb jaza also means "to divide" (in addition to "go through, cross over, pass along.").

This verb does give us a connection to Hebrew. Stahl, in his Hebrew etymological dictionary of Arabic, notes that jaza, meaning "to divide, cut", is cognate to the Hebrew גזז - "to cut off, shear." Here's Klein's entry for גזז:

JAram. גְּזַז, Syr. גַּז, Arab. jazza (= he cut off, shore), Aram. גִּזָּא, Syr. גֶּזְּתָא (= wool), Akka. gizzu sha ṣēni (= sheep-shearing, wool). cp. the related base גזה.
I still think that the term might have originally meant "the twins/pair." But it's nice to know that even the accepted etymology has a possible Hebrew cognate as well.