Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Let's look at the news outside of the Middle East. Did you know it is monsoon season in India? Now of course there is a Semitic etymological connection. What is it?

The American Heritage Dictionary gives the following etymology:

Obsolete Dutch monssoen, from Portuguese monção, from Arabic mawsim, season, from wasama, to mark

That seems like a reasonable etymology. But from there, it links to the Semitic root "wsm" and writes:

To be(come) fitting, suitable. 1a. mazuma, from Medieval Hebrew mezumman, fixed currency, from Mishnaic Hebrew mezumman, fixed, passive participle of zimmen, to arrange, arrange a meal, invite, denominative from Hebrew zeman, appointed time, season, from Aramaic zeman, time; b. Sivan, from Hebrew sîwan, a month name. Both a and b from Akkadian simanu, season, time, name of a month corresponding to parts of May and June, from (w)asamu, to be(come), fitting, suitable. 2. monsoon, from Arabic mawsim, season, from wasama, to mark, wasuma, to be(come)beautiful

This is a bit of a balagan, to say the least! While mezuman and Sivan are connected to the Hebrew root זמן, what does wasamu have to do with it? Unless I can find a better explanation, I'll assume that the editors of the dictionary made a mistake.

Does wasama have a Hebrew cognate? It seems to be connected to the word for "name", שם shem. As Robert R. Ratcliffe writes here:

The CA verb yasimu/wasama "mark, distinguish" was possibly derived at an earlier period from a noun meaning "name" (CA /ism/) which can be reconstructed as a two-consonant stem for both Proto-Semitic and Proto-Afroasiatic.

After listing cognates for shem in other Semitic languages, Klein writes the following:

Some scholars connect the above names with Arab. wasama (= he branded cattle,
stamped, marked, branded), wasm (= branding cattle, stamp, mark, brand).

We see a sign of this root in the Aramaic and Hebrew word for "wart, mole, mark" = shuma שומא/ שומה (see Niddah 46a, Ketubot 75a). Jastrow also connects this meaning of shuma to the sense of שום, meaning "to value, estimate" and the source of the word shamai שמאי - assessor. Klein, however, says that sense of שום comes from a different Semitic root, meaning "to buy".

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