Monday, February 08, 2021

mafia and hiftzir

There are many theories as to the etymology of the word "mafia." One of the leading ones says it comes from the Arabic marfud - "rejected":

1875, from Italian Mafia "Sicilian secret society of criminals" (the prevailing sense outside Sicily), earlier, "spirit of hostility to the law and its ministers." A member is a mafioso (1870), fem. mafiosa, plural mafiosi, and this may be the older word in this sense. Arabic is often cited as the ultimate source (the Arabs ruled Sicily for more than two centuries in the Middle Ages), but which Arabic word is a matter of disagreement.

The immediate source of mafioso, then, would be 19c. Sicilian mafiusu, "signifying a bully, arrogant but also fearless, enterprising, and proud" [Gambetta], who favors as the Arabic source an adjective from marfud "rejected."

According to this sourcemarfud ("rejected") became the Sicilian marpiuni ("swindler") and from there to mafiusu

As often happens when I read etymologies of English words with Semitic roots, I wonder if there is a cognate in Hebrew. Well, this is one I would never have expected.


To find a Hebrew word related to marfud, we need to look a seemingly unrelated Hebrew root: פצר. It appears in the Bible seven times - six of which are in the kal form - patzar. In all of those cases it means "to implore, to beg earnestly." Modern Hebrew uses the hifil form of the verb, hiftzir, to mean "implore" as well. Klein writes that it is a secondary form of the root פרץ - "to push, to break through." That root can also mean "to spread, to extend."

This sense of "spreading, extension" is how classic commentators understood the use of פצר in its seventh use, in Shmuel I 15:23. The prophet Shmuel is castigating Shaul, the king, and says:

כִּי חַטַּאת־קֶסֶם מֶרִי וְאָוֶן וּתְרָפִים הַפְצַר

This is a notoriously difficult phrase to explain. It ends with the words utrafim haftzar (our root). Rashi says it means "an addition", and in that light, ArtScroll translates the phrase as:

"For rebelliousness is like the sin of sorcery, and verbosity [haftzar] is like the iniquity of idolatry"

However, modern translations, like the JPS have a different interpretation. They offer:

"For rebellion is like the sin of divination; defiance [haftzar], like the iniquity of teraphim"

Translating haftzar as "defiance" provides symmetry with the first half of the phrase, where everyone agrees that meri means "rebelliousness." And there is linguistic support for this translation as well. 

David Yellin wrote in an essay, "Forgotten Meanings of Hebrew Roots in the Bible" (published here, and quoted by Stahl in his etymological dictionary of Arabic) that this use of the root פצר is unrelated to the other six, and based on cognates with other Semitic languages should be translated as "defiance." One of those cognates is the Arabic rafad - "to reject," which is the source of our word marfud above. 

How did he get from fatzar to rafad? Through a number of phonetic shifts. First of all, the Hebrew tz sound can become d in Arabic (for example the Hebrew רמץ remetz becomes ramida in Arabic, the source of the month Ramadan.) And then through metathesis, fadar became rafad.


Quite a journey, no? So how can you remember that "mafia" and fatzar are cognate? Just think of a mafioso imploring someone to not be defiant...

Sunday, January 24, 2021


A Spanish word that has entered English slang is loco - "crazy." The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following origin:

"mad, crazy," 1844, American English, from Spanish loco (adj.) "insane," of uncertain origin, perhaps from Arabic lauqa, fem. of 'alwaq "fool, crazy person."

The American Heritage Dictionary goes a bit further in their entry for the Semitic root lwq:

 Arabic root, to soften. loco, perhaps from Arabic lawqā, feminine singular of alwaq, bent, foolish, from lāqa, to soften.

Could this Arabic root have a Hebrew cognate? I believe there might be one.

Post-biblical Hebrew has the root לקה, meaning "to strike, to flog." The biblical equivalent is נכה - "to best, strike." The root לקה gives us the noun מלקות malkut (sometimes pronounced malkot) for "punishment by lashes," whereas the root נכה provides מכה maka, in plural מכות makkot. This last word is the name of the Talmudic tractate Makkot, which deals with the laws of punishment by lashes, and within it frequently uses the synonym malkot. (For more on the confusion between the two terms, see here.)

However, this is not the only meaning of לקה. Klein offers the following meanings: "to be stricken, be smitten, be flogged, be scourged; to be affected with disease; to be eclipsed." (This last meaning gives us the Hebrew term for "eclipse" - ליקוי likui.) 

In his Arukh HaShalem, Kohut writes that the essence of the root means "to be softened, beaten," and mentions the Arabic root that means "to soften." So it seems we have our cognate. As proof, The Arukh (the dictionary published about 800 years earlier upon which Kohut wrote his supplement) quotes a Talmudic passage (Yevamot 80b), which mentions someone who has שער לקוי se'ar lakui. The Arukh says that means he has "soft hair" (and Rashi agrees in his commentary.)

For some reason, there are many fast food restaurants called El Pollo Loco, including Israeli equivalents. While they say it means "crazy chicken," I think "softened chicken" actually sounds more appetizing...

Sunday, January 17, 2021


The word for gerbil, the small rodent, has Semitic origins:

1849, gerbile, from French gerbille, from Modern Latin Gerbillus, the genus name, from gerbo, from Arabic yarbu. Earlier English form, jarbuah (1660s), was directly from Arabic.

Another rodent that I hadn't heard of before also gets its name from the same Arabic word - the jerboa. They aren't from the same genus or even family, but because both are small desert rodents, the Arabic name was also used:

small desert rodent, 1660s, Modern Latin, from Arabic jarbu "flesh of the loins," also the name of a small jumping rodent of North Africa. So called for the strong muscles of its hind legs.

The Arabic Etymological Dictionary finds cognates in other Semitic languages:

yarbu‘ : a rodent, jerboa [Akkadian arrabu, Syriac yarbu‘a, Ebla arrabu]

Is there also a connection to any Hebrew words? 

One possibility is that it's related to akhbar עכבר - "mouse." We discussed akhbar a few years ago, relying on the theory that it derives from the root כבר - "great." Those that connect yarbu to akhbar take a different route. I found that theory mentioned here, here, and here. While they don't map it out directly, my understanding is that the "kh/k" sound dropped out (perhaps easier to imagine knowing that it was also pronounced/spelled agbaru in Akkadian, since the g sound gets swallowed in the b sound), and then through metathesis it became arrabu

And while the Online Etymology Dictionary says the name of the rodent came from the strong leg muscles, the first source (an essay by Prof. Richard Steiner) posits that the root first meant "mouse" and then later meant "muscle," particularly the Achilles tendon, or hamstring. He points out that in other languages we also find the word for muscles deriving from the word for mouse, including English:

"contractible animal tissue consisting of bundles of fibers," late 14c., "a muscle of the body," from Latin musculus "a muscle," literally "a little mouse," diminutive of mus "mouse".

So called because the shape and movement of some muscles (notably biceps) were thought to resemble mice. The analogy was made in Greek, too, where mys is both "mouse" and "muscle," and its combining form gives the medical prefix myo-. Compare also Old Church Slavonic mysi "mouse," mysica "arm;" German Maus "mouse; muscle," Arabic 'adalah "muscle," 'adal "field mouse;" Cornish logodenfer "calf of the leg," literally "mouse of the leg." 

Steiner then goes on to suggest that other Hebrew words for muscle might derive from the same root, including ekev עקב - "heel" and arkuv ערקוב - "knee joint, hock."

There is another small rodent, which like the gerbil, is often kept as a pet - the hamster. The word hamster doesn't have a Semitic etymology, but the hamsters we're familiar with today do have a connection to Israel. In 1930 in Jerusalem, the zoologist Israel Aharoni successfully bred a pair of Syrian hamsters, and the hamster pets found today worldwide are descendants of his efforts.

Monday, January 04, 2021

etzel, atzil and asli

According to Klein, the Hebrew preposition etzel אצל means "by the side of, beside, near." Milon Morfix (a more recent resource) offers "at; in the possession of; for; (literary) near, close to."  As this article by the Hebrew Language Academy points out, the word is found in Biblical sources, with additional meanings added in the Talmudic and Medieval periods. Today, according to the article, the main usage is to describe something in the area or possession of a person. 

So if you were to say that a meeting was in Esther's house, you'd say it was babayit shel Ester בבית של אסתר. But if you wanted to say the meeting was "by Esther", you'd say it was etsel Ester אצל אסתר.

Klein says that etzel actually means "side," deriving from the root אצל meaning "lay aside, set apart, reserve, emanate." That root is used today in the hifil form he'etzil האציל - "to delegate" as in the phrase ha'atzal samchuyot האצלת סמכויות - "delegation of authority."

Klein further connects the root to a Semitic root meaning "root, origin, source." The Hebrew word atzil - אציל - "nobleman, aristocrat" derives from here, originally meaning "firmly rooted." Another meaning of atzil - not frequently used in Modern Hebrew - is "joint (of the arm, elbow)", also related to the sense of "side."

Arabic also has cognates, which include 'asil - "of noble origin", coming from asl - "root, origin." This gives us the word asli, which in Arabic means "original." It has been borrowed into Israeli slang with the sense of genuine or authentic, and is often found describing food products.

Sunday, December 27, 2020


The Hebrew root pakad פקד has many meanings. Some of them seem to be opposites. For example, a mifkad מפקד is a census, where those present are counted. But someone absent is nifkad נפקד (like an AWOL soldier.) What's the story with this root?

Edward Horowitz, in his book How the Hebrew Language Grew, addresses this question (page 56):

Anyone who has studied the Bible in Hebrew or who has even only a fair familiarity with it will remember coming across the word pakad very often. It actually occurs several hundreds of times and in many seemingly unrelated senses. It would be worthwhile to tie them all together.

The root pakad has the large general senses of "to give one's attention to." From this large general meaning there have developed many specialized senses. These simply specify in detail various ways of giving one's attention.

Thus pakad means:

  1. to attend to
  2. to observe
  3. to remember
  4. to seek, and sometimes to seek in vain, i.e. to need, to miss
  5. to visit, and sometimes to visit in an evil sense, i.e. to punish, usually divine punishment
  6. to number
  7. to put someone in charge, to appoint
The nifal [nifkad] picks up three of these senses, and means: 1) was appointed, 2) was visited upon, 3) was sought vainly, i.e. missed. The hifil [hifkid] has the meaning to appoint, and to to entrust or deposit. The hitpael [hitpaked] means "was numbered."

There are a number of nouns that come from this formidable list:

  • pekuda פקודה - visitation, numbering
  • pakid פקיד - overseer, officer
  • pikud פיקוד - a precept, because it means something appointed to be done, a charge
  • pikadon פקדון - something entrusted, a deposit
  • mifkad מפקד - numbering or mustering, appointment
  • tafkid תפקיד - function
A modern language cannot possibly use just one single word in these many important different senses and yet remain sharp, clear and exact. It just because of this very rich development that pakad [in the kal form] is today a beggar word; hardly anyone uses it in ordinary conversation. This word reveals the truth of the rabbinic dictum "If you grasp too much, you grasp nothing."

The hifil though, is frequently used in the sense of "to entrust." Pekuda - command, pakid - officer, and pikadon - a deposit - are also in active use.

Horowitz's book was published in 1960, so some of the meanings of the words he mentioned have changed in more recent Hebrew. For example, pakid now usually means "clerk," pikud means "command" in the military sense (like the Home Front Command - Pikud HaOref  פיקוד העורף), and tafkid usually means "role, position, task." Another military term is mifaked מפקד - "commander."

While providing many of the same meanings, Klein suggests a different etymology. He says the original meaning was probably "to miss." In English the verb "to miss" can mean both "to fail to hit" and "to long for someone." The first sense is reflected in nifkad - "not present," but that same soldier is also being looked for, perhaps longed for, and that provides many of the other meanings, where pakad means "to attend to, to visit, to observe." From there the other meanings of "to appoint," "to number," and "to command" developed.

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."

Sunday, December 06, 2020

gambit and ganav

Here's one I wouldn't have ever thought of. 

"Gambit" is a ploy or strategy, used to gain an advantage.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says the origin is in Latin:

"chess opening in which a pawn or piece is risked for advantage later," 1650s, gambett, from Italian gambetto, literally "a tripping up" (as a trick in wrestling), from gamba "leg," from Late Latin gamba (see gambol (n.)). Applied to chess openings in Spanish in 1561 by Ruy Lopez, who traced it to the Italian word, but the form in Spanish generally was gambito, which led to French gambit, which has influenced the English spelling of the word. Broader sense of "opening move meant to gain advantage" in English is recorded from 1855.

However, others suggest a Semitic origin. For example, Klein writes:

French, from Spanish gambito, from Arabic janbi, 'lateral', from janb, 'side' (whence janaba, 'he put aside'), which is relate to Aramaic-Syriac gabh, gabba, 'side', Hebrew ganabh, Aram.-Syr. genabh, 'he stole', literally 'he put aside', Heb. gannabh, 'thief'.

While Klein doesn't mention it here, Kaddari does say that ganav גנב can also mean "to put aside, remove." In fact, he lists this meaning as the first entry in his dictionary, indicating that this is the original meaning, as found in this verse:

יִהְיוּ כְּתֶבֶן לִפְנֵי־רוּחַ וּכְמֹץ גְּנָבַתּוּ סוּפָה׃

Let them become like straw in the wind, like chaff carried off [genavto] by a storm. (Iyov 21:18)

This book goes one step further, and says that the Hebrew word for "back" - גב gav also derives from the same root, because the back is "still a half of the body."  Klein, however, says that gav comes from a different root - גבב, meaning "something curved."