Thursday, March 16, 2006


Well, Purim is over, and in my house that means it's time to start getting rid of the chametz. So in that vein, I'll try over the next couple of weeks to clear out some good chametz words.

Last year, Lethargic-Man wrote:

The Collins Concise English Dictionary gives the etymology of "pitta" as a Greek word for a cake; Jastrow's Dictionary of the Talmud (etc) gives פיתא pita as the Aramaic of Hebrew פת pat, a piece of bread (and the Encyclopaedia Judaica gives פַת becoming פִיתָה as an example of vowel transformation in Hebrew). The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology has nothing to say on the subject, neither does the Oxford English Dictionary (first edition).Can anyone resolve this conundrum and tell me whether the English word really does come from Hebrew, or Greek, or the Greek from the Hebrew, or whether we're looking at two unrelated words that just happen to sound the same and have similar meaning?

Well, I think I may be able to help. Stahl writes that פת pat appears in the Tanach and comes from the root פתת - meaning "to break into pieces, to crumble". This is the source of the modern Hebrew פתיתים petitim (small orzo-like pasta) and the Yemenite fried bread dish - fatut.

As far as pita, Stahl quotes David Gold, the editor of the Jewish Language Review and the University of Haifa. Gold claims that despite the common approach that pita comes from פיתא, there's more to the story. In Greek, the word pit meant "bran" as discussed here:

The two main variants of the Italian (and now international) term, pizza and pitta, correspond to two Greek names for 'bran bread', pētea and pētítēs, recorded by Hesychius, Latinized as *pittja and (with haplologic shortening) *pitta. The root morpheme is pit/pet 'bran'; the words are of Doric provenience and spread as Doricisms in southern Italy; the pizza was originally, in full accord with its Spartan Background, the poor man's bread.

Stahl goes on to claim that the Greek pitta was adopted by the Sefardic Jews living in Greece, and when they came to Israel, the Ashkenazi Jews adopted it as well. He says that pita should really be spelled in Hebrew with a "tet", but because people associated it with the Aramaic פיתא - the "tav" was used instead.

So when you eat your pita, think of pizza, not pat...

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