Sunday, October 02, 2022

snif

I was recently asked about the etymology of the word סְנִיף snif  - meaning "branch," as in the branch of a bank or the local branch of a youth movement.

Klein provides some information. For snif, he writes:

PBH 1 attachment, addition. NH 2 branch of a school or of a business institution. [From סנף.] 

But in his entry for the root סנף, he doesn't have much to offer regarding the origin. He defines the verb as "to add, join, insert" (with some forms also meaning "to annex"), but leaves the etymology as "of uncertain origin." This is actually surprising, since he tends to rely heavily on the Ben Yehuda dictionary's etymologies. 

In this case the entry for סנף in Ben Yehuda suggest that סנף may be the ספעל (saf'el) verb form of the Hebrew root ענף, also meaning "branch." (Saf'el is similar to shaf'el, which we saw here, and is more likely to be found in words wtih Aramaic influence.) So the meaning would be "to cause to become a branch." Even-Shoshan expands on this, implying that the original form was סענף, but the ayin dropped out, leaving סנף.

In this essay, Yaakov Etsion notes that in Talmudic Hebrew, snif referred to wedges or beams that were attached to larger pieces. From there it was later borrowed into the more abstract sense of any type of attachment. And in the end, Etsion notes that it was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda himself who gave snif the modern meaning of "branch, affiliate."

 

Sunday, August 21, 2022

taar and morah

In the Tanakh, there are two words for razor for shaving. The more common one, תַּעַר ta'ar, is found in five verses: Bamidbar 6:5, 8:7; Yeshaya 7:20; Tehilim 52:4,  and Yechezkel 5:1. (In Yirmiyahu 36:23, it refers to a scribe's knife.) 

The less frequent word, מוֹרָה morah, only appears three times: Shoftim 13:5, 16:17; and Shmuel I 1:11. All of these mentions of morah refer to nazirites (Shimshon and Shmuel). 

The laws of the nazirite are found in Bamidbar, and that is where ta'ar appears. The phrasing of the verses is very similar. Bamidbar 6:5 says תַּעַר לֹא־יַעֲבֹר עַל־רֹאשׁוֹ "no razor [ta'ar] shall touch his head." Of both Shimshon and Shmuel the verses say וּמוֹרָה לֹא יַעֲלֶה עַל רֹאשׁוֹ "and no razor [morah] shall come on his head." This would seem to indicate that the two words are synonymous - referring to the same object, first in the law of the nazir, and then in the stories of two nazirites.

This understanding is reflected in the etymology of the two words. Many recent scholars say that they share a common origin. For example, Klein writes in his entry for morah:

Of uncertain origin; possibly contraction of מַעֲרָה, from ערה ᴵ (= to lay bare), whence תַּעַר (= razor).

The root ערה, "to lay bare, strip" (the source of arom ערום - "naked") therefore led to both words. Morah was a contraction (the ayin dropped out) of ma'areh (meaning an open, bare place - see Shoftim 20:33), and ta'ar was a different way the noun was formed.

Kaddari also accepts this theory, and expands it by noting the connection between the root גלח - "to shave" and גלה - "to uncover, expose."

This same root - "to reveal" - can explain another usage of ta'ar in the Tanakh. It can also mean "sheath (of a sword), scabbard" (Shmuel I 17:51; Shmuel II 20:8; Yirmiyahu 47:6; Yechezkel 21:8,9,10,35). As Klein points out:

Prob. from ערה ᴵ (= to lay bare, uncover), whence also Ugar. t‘rt (= sheath of a sword); hence of the same etymology as תַּעַר ᴵ.

Gesenius says that ta'ar as sheath, "perhaps so called from emptiness." 

Today, morah is almost never used for "razor" (probably because its other meaning, female teacher, is much more prevalent). Ta'ar is used for razor, although the phrase סַכִּין גִּלּוּחַ sakin giluach is also common. As far as sheath/scabbard, I guess I never had a reason to use the word, since the current word surprised me: נָדָן nadan. But it too is biblical, found in Divrei Hayamim I 21:27. However its origin is Persian (see a discussion here).

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

olar

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

kasda

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":

https://www.flickr.com/photos/budak/51362681871

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.