Thursday, June 14, 2007


It's a good thing that I live in the age of computers. Had I tried writing this stuff in a time where I would need to write by hand - no one would have been able to decipher my handwriting. Usually, my unclear handwriting is only a problem to a small group of people who need to suffer it. But in the past, when everything was handwritten, the impact of an unclear letter could be very significant in determining the meaning of a word. And occasionally, a misspelling could alter the word itself.

That's what we find with the word listim ליסטים (or לסטים). In Talmudic Hebrew we find the word meaning "robber, bandit". According to Avshalom Kor (Yofi Shel Ivrit, ch 32), the word originally was ליסטיס leisteis - from the Greek leistes or lestes meaning "robber".

The Greek lestes does not appear in any common English words, but appears in a number of scientific animal names, usually as a suffix, meaning "predator". For example:

Over time, the final samech of ליסטיס was incorrectly identified as a final mem, and the word began to be spelled ליסטים. I should point out that Steinsaltz writes that listim was an abbreviated form of listesim ליסטסים. However, Kor's view seems to be more widely accepted, and he brings other examples of samech / final mem mix-ups.

It seems that from here, listim came to be identified as a plural due to the -im ending. While I couldn't find an example of a person being referred to as a listi לסטי (as in Ben-Yehuda's dictionary), we do find cases where listim meant plural. Perhaps the most famous was quoted in Rashi's commentary on the first verse of the Torah - לסטים אתם - "You are robbers!".

From this word we find a number of derivatives: לסטם - "to rob" and listiut לסטיות - robbery. But my favorite has to be a word I found in Jastrow, quoting Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabba on Shir HaShirim 6:4. It is the word for a "robbers' retreat, den": ליסטירין - listerine! While the mouthwash Listerine is not connected etymologically (it was named for Joseph Lister, whose surname did not come from our Greek word), one of my favorite comedians, Mitch Hedberg, shows the predatory nature of Listerine:

When you put Listerine in your mouth, it hurts. Germs do not go quietly!

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