Wednesday, February 15, 2006

brouhaha and copacetic

While I view etymology as a window into Jewish and world history, there are those who feel that if a language is the primal source for other languages, it somehow indicates that the same nation/culture is has primacy over all others. This was actually how the Nazis adopted the term Aryan, based on the linguistic view that there was a primary language with that same name.

Now I have no doubt that Hebrew is one of the most ancient languages, and has contributed an incredible amount to the world's language pool. But I don't think that we need to show that every English word comes somehow from Hebrew to justify our place in history. A number of years ago, I read an article that had a list of English words that came from Hebrew, and it was ridiculous, to put it frankly.

However, there are some words that real linguists claim to derive from Hebrew. And yet, I still have a hard time buying it. Here are two:

Brouhaha - When I was a kid, a friend and I heard this word for the first time, and couldn't stop laughing every time we said it. Only much later did I read that there is a theory (also here and here) that it came from the greeting "Baruch HaBa" at the beginning of a wedding. Supposedly the non-Jews saw such a ruckus at the wedding and associated it with the phrase "baruch haba". They quote the Italian word barruccaba as having a similar origin. I don't know - having been to many Jewish weddings, it never seemed like the reciting of Baruch HaBa was particularly rambunctious. Maybe they really knew how to party back in the Middle Ages...

Copacetic - Growing up in San Francisco, you get used to seeing and hearing strange things. I remember a man standing in the middle of the street shouting "I'm not going anywhere until I get a copacetic reality!" Copacetic means - excellent, satisfactory, going just right. There are no shortage of possible origins for this word (look at 1, 2, 3, 4). Anyone of them could be OK, but the ones I have the biggest problem with are those that claim it comes from "kol b'seder" or "kol b'tzedek". As some of the letter writers in Safire's first On Language book pointed out, hakol b'seder is Hebrew, not Yiddish and wouldn't have been spoken by Jewish immigrants in the South in the turn of the century. (Klein says the Hebrew phrase "hakol b'seder" derives from the Yiddish ס'איז אלץ אין ארדענונג - from the German Alles in Ordnung). And kol b'tzedek (which actually sounds more like copacetic) - well, no one says that! (See also here.)

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