Wednesday, October 18, 2006


We've recently discussed yad יד and kaf כף - two Hebrew words meaning "hand". Now lets look at another Semitic root meaning "(palm of the) hand". The Semitic Etymology database provides a number of related words:

  • Akkadian: rittu
  • Ugaritic: rḥt
  • Arabic: rāḥat
as well as many other Semitic languages that I've frankly never heard of.

The Arabic rahat developed into the English "racquet" (but not the unrelated "racket" meaning "noise"). From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c.1500, "device used in tennis, etc.," probably originally "tennis-like game played with open hand" (c.1385), from Fr. requette "racket, palm of the hand," perhaps via It. racchetta or Sp. raqueta, both from Arabic rahat, a form of raha "palm of the hand."
Klein points out that an early form of tennis was called in French "jeu de paume" - "game of the palm (of the hand.)"

What about Hebrew? We find one related word in the Tanach: rachat רחת in Yeshayahu 30:24. There it means "winnowing shovel". In modern Hebrew rachat means spatula, which goes along with Rashi's commentary on Yeshayahu. He offers the Old French pele, which in the related English "peel" means "a shovel-like tool used by bakers".

There is one issue that is not entirely clear to me. Klein connects rachat to the other Semitic cognates meaning "palm of the hand". That makes sense both in terms of the structure of the word, and also in regards to the similarity of shape between a winnowing shovel (a kind of pitchfork) and a hand.

However, Klein also follows the Radak (and later Jastrow and Steinberg) who claim that rachat is related to ruach רוח wind. This also makes sense, for winnowing means "to separate the chaff from (grain) by means of a current of air", and the English word winnow derives from "wind".

But I don't understand Klein's statement, where he says that the Semitic words for palm of the hand "probably derive from רוח ( = wind)." Other than perhaps waving, what is the connection between hands and wind?

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