Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kri and Ktiv - Game #6

Over the next several days, I'm going to be using my allocated "Balashon" time to better organize my sources. This should hopefully result in more interesting and robust posts.

In the meantime, I'm bumping this Kri and Ktiv game, since I never got any guesses...

So give it a shot!
a) just as bad
b) Yaakov hit it

A belated congratulations to Omer for his solution of Game #5. He even put his own difficult challenge in the comments!

Monday, October 22, 2007


When I first lived in Israel in the early 1990s, it wasn't that easy to make an international phone call. You had to often speak to an operator, and then you would get put on hold, with a recording in a number of different languages - Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Amharic and English (if I remember correctly). The only word that I remember from the recording was the Arabic word for "thank you" - shukran.

Now, all these years later, I started wondering - does shukran have a Hebrew cognate? Indeed it does. Stahl writes that shukran is related to the Hebrew word שכר sachar, meaning wages or reward. The verb שכר means "to hire, rent", and Klein also shows the connection to Arabic:

Phoenician שכר (=to hire), Ugaritic shkr (= to let out on hire, let), Arabic shakara (he rewarded, thanked), Ethiopian shekar ( = hired)
The name of the singer Shakira is also related, as it comes from the Arabic meaning grateful or thankful.

Continuing with the etymology of שכר, Ben Yehuda suggests that perhaps it was originally the shafel form of the Aramaic אגר or the Hebrew כרה. The root אגר means "to hire", and is familiar to us from the Mishnaic phrase לפום צערא אגרא - "according to the suffering is the reward." According to Klein, this is the root of the word אגרה agra - the fee for government services in Israel, and may also be the source of the word אגורה agora - a coin, now meaning one hundredth of a shekel.

The root כרה means "to buy, trade", and is related to the Arabic kara - "he let for hire".

One more root that may be connected is חכר, meaning "to lease". Klein writes that it is probably related to שכר.

Knowing that shukran is related to שכר may help me (and others) with a common mixup that English speakers have when speaking Hebrew. In English, "rent" is one of those rare verbs that can be used in more than one direction - he rented the apartment to a tenant, he rented the car from the company. In Hebrew however, the verbs are clearly different לשכור is to "rent from", whereas להשכיר is to "rent to". Knowing that shukran meant to give thanks - i.e. to give reward - makes it easier for me to remember that the verb לשכור means to give reward, to give payment.

I can think of one other English verb that has this same phenomenon - "to nurse". A mother nurses a child, a child nurses from a mother. And again in Hebrew, there are two different verbs - ינק and הניקה. And here too, I've heard English speakers get them mixed up when speaking Hebrew. Can anyone think of other examples? Shukran in advance...

Friday, October 19, 2007


I recently received a great gift (thanks!) - the unabridged Even-Shoshan dictionary, which includes etymologies. Flipping through it, I found something interesting.

I noticed the entry for pargit פרגית - meaning "young / spring chicken", also rendered poussin, pullet or Cornish game hen. (In Israeli restaurants, it means dark meat from the thigh of the chicken - particularly boneless chunks.) It said it likely comes from the Greek pterix (pterygos) meaning wing. When I saw that, the first word that came into my head was "pterodactyl", the extinct flying reptile. An interesting association, as long as it's etymological, not culinary!

My instinct about the etymology of pterodactyl turned out to be right:

from Fr. ptérodactyle (1821), from the Mod.L. genus name, from Gk. pteron "wing" (from PIE base *pet- "fly;") + daktylos "finger"
There are a number of other words containing derivatives of pteron, including helicopter:

From Gk. helix (gen. helikos) "spiral" + pteron "wing"
The word pargit appears in Berachot 39a, where Rashi translates it as perdriz - the Old French word for partridge, and in fact, the source for the English word partridge as well.

It also is found in Tosefta Bava Metzia 6:5, parallel to the word efroach אפרוח meaning "chick". I haven't been able to find any difference between the two terms - perhaps it's an issue of age.

Jastrow tries to connect the two words, by saying that pargit derives from the verb פרג, meaning "to break through, sprout". The root פרח has the same meaning, from where he derives efroach. I assume here that Jastrow would include פרג and פרח together with a number of other roots beginning with פר that mean "to separate" or "to break out", such as פרץ, פרד, פרה, פרס and פרש.

However, first of all, it is not agreed by all that the somewhat obscure root פרג means "to sprout". Klein, for example, offers "worsened"; Ben Yehuda has "to be quite changed."

Secondly, as we've seen, Ben-Shoshan gave pargit a Greek etymology. He followed Ben-Yehuda, who disagreed with the majority of the researchers, including Loew, who said pargit had a Semitic origin.

Whether or not pargit and efroach are related, they both share an additional meaning - "a young woman". Pargit has the sense of an innocent, naive young woman.

On the other hand, the slang term frecha, is the Arabic cognate of efroach, also means a young woman, but with a different connotation. Haaretz gives this definition:

Mega-coutured female characterized by stiletto heels and language to match. Protective coloration provided by blinding if precision-executed patterns on nails of fingers and toes.
The slang term generally refers to Sefardic women, perhaps influenced by the North African Jewish name Frecha, which derives from the Arabic word farcha, meaning "joy".

English too has the term "chick" meaning "young woman", and in British slang "bird" as well. I wonder what causes these associations?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


You may have noticed an unusual word in my previous post. I quoted Yeshayahu 54:12 -

וּשְׁעָרַיִךְ לְאַבְנֵי אֶקְדָּח

and provided the JPS translation:

"Your gates of precious stones (avnei ekdach)"

But if you're familiar with modern Hebrew, you would know that ekdach means "pistol, revolver". So what's the connection?

First, let's look at the biblical word, which only appears in this verse. The exact identity of the stone is not know, and so the JPS offers "precious stones." However, Targum Yonatan translates it as avnei gmar - and we have seen before that gmar means "coal" in Aramaic. Following the Targum, Rashi explains the word to be carbuncle, and that is offered by many other translations. Carbuncle is an obsolete word meaning "red precious stone", and gets its name from the "Latin carbunculus, small glowing ember, carbuncle, diminutive of carbō, carbōn-, coal". (Interestingly, carbuncle also means an infection of the skin, as does anthrax, which is also the Greek word meaning "coal".)

Klein says ekdach has a similar etymology to carbuncle:

Literally probably meaning 'flashing or sparkling stone' and derived from קדח (= to kindle). Compare Arabic qaddahah (= fire steel, fire iron).

The root קדח also means "to bore, to drill", and Klein feels that the meaning "to kindle" originally meant "to make fire by rubbing".

As far as ekdach meaning "revolver", this was a coinage of Ben Yehuda. In his dictionary, he says it means a weapon which shoots (fires) using firepower, which he derived from the root קדח - "to kindle, to burn". Based on this, Klein translates Ben-Yehuda's intention as "firearm".

However, lets look at the article where Ben Yehuda made his original suggestion (an article in his newspaper Hatzvi, 1896. The original can be viewed here, page 3.) He discusses there possible Hebrew words for "firearm" and rejects the term used at the time k'nei roveh קנה רובה, which Klein translates as "bowman's barrel". He says it sounds terrible in Hebrew, and would be difficult to make a plural of, conjugate, etc. David Yellin suggested shortening the word to roveh רובה, but Ben-Yehuda rejected that as well, for roveh should be the shooter, not the gun. (In the end, Modern Hebrew did adopt roveh for "rifle".)

Then he points out that many European languages have a word for a gun "in which a flint fixed in the hammer produces a spark that ignites the charge" - a flintlock in English. He therefore goes back to the stone ekdach, which based on Arabic, he connects to "flint". He points out that even if the actual stone referred to in Yeshayahu is identified, the word isn't commonly used, so there shouldn't be a problem appropriating the old word for a new meaning.

So if you like, when you hear the word ekdach, you can think of The Flintstones...

Friday, October 12, 2007

open sesame and sisma

On the Hebrewts mailing list, the following question was asked:

Could there be any connection between the word "Sisma" (a password) and the phrase, "open sesame?"
Should the word "Sisma" be spelled with an Aleph or a Heh?
What language did the word Sisma come from?

Let's first look at the word sisma. Surprisingly, I could only find one reference to it in all pre-modern Hebrew literature. It appears in Midrash Shmuel, a relatively late midrash (perhaps compiled around 1050), in the following quote:

אלולי שעשו סיסמא ביניהון
"unless they had agreed upon certain signals between themselves" (Jastrow's translation, who feels that the word is a plural - "fixed signals")

The word appears here with an alef at the end. I don't know when the word began to be used again in Hebrew - Ben Yehuda makes no mention of it in his dictionary, most likely because he viewed it as being a foreign (Greek) word. Whoever did reintroduce this word in to Hebrew, besides having a real knack for finding obscure words, chose to spell it with a heh at the end: סיסמה, and that is the spelling you will find in current Hebrew dictionaries. In modern Hebrew it also carries the meaning of "slogan, motto", in addition to the older sense of "signal, password".

As far as the etymology, Klein writes the following:

Greek syssemon (=signal), formed from Greek syn (=with, together with) and sema (=sign).
He points out that is related to the word siman סימן, also meaning "sign, signal" and deriving from Greek sema.

Now while the English word "sesame" does sound similar to the Hebrew word sisma, they are not related. Sesame has the following etymology:

c.1440, probably from M.Fr. sisame, from L. sesamum (nom. sesama), from Gk. sesamon (Doric sasamon) "seed or fruit of the sesame plant," via Phoenician from Late Babylonian *shawash-shammu (cf. Assyrian shamash-shammu "sesame," lit. "oil-seed")

The Hebrew word for sesame, שומשום, also was borrowed from the Akkadian (Assyrian). How is the word pronounced? Ask the average Israeli, and they'll likely tell you sumsum. However, all the dictionaries, and vocalized editions of the mishna have shumshum. (For those readers who weekly recite Bameh Madlikin - have you noticed that the siddur has shemen shumshumin?)

Why the disparity between the official spelling and the "street" pronunciation? I don't believe that it comes from the Israeli version of Sesame Street - רחוב סומסום - Rechov Sumsum, deliberately spelled with a samech. The pronunciation predates the show by many years, and the name of the show reflects popular usage. (I assume the spelling was changed to make it easier for younger viewers. Having a sin / shin might have been too confusing.)

Rather, the pronunciation was likely influenced by a foreign language. Perhaps it came from the European languages, which as we noted derived from Greek (who did not have a "sh" sound, e.g. Shmuel -> Samuel). But I think it is more likely that modern Hebrew was influenced by the Arabic rendition of the word: simsim. As we've seen before, the Hebrew shin becomes "s" in Arabic (shalom -> salam).

And the Arabic simsim is the root of our phrase "open sesame". The phrase iftah ya-simsim was used to open a cave in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. (If you know the phrase as "Open Sez Me", you probably watched Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves, which can be viewed here. He says the line at 14:39.)

What is the meaning of the phrase? There are a number of theories as to why simsim would have been the word used as the charm to open the gate. Perhaps the most interesting theory to me was presented by regular Balashon commenter Moshe M, who wrote to me that in addition to sesame, simsim can mean in Arabic "gate" (although it's a rare literary word). He heard this from Prof. Jonas C. Greenfield. Therefore the phrase meant "Open O Gate". (Ali Baba's own brother did not understand this apparently, and when he couldn't remember simsim, he tried guessing other foods, trying "Open barley", "Open wheat", and "Open chick-pea").

In this article, Greenfield shows us a Hebrew cognate for simsim meaning "gate". In Yishayahu 54:12, we find a difficult term:

וְשַׂמְתִּי כַּדְכֹד שִׁמְשֹׁתַיִךְ, וּשְׁעָרַיִךְ לְאַבְנֵי אֶקְדָּח; וְכָל-גְּבוּלֵךְ, לְאַבְנֵי-חֵפֶץ.

The JPS (new) translates it as follows:

"I will make your battlements of rubies,
Your gates of precious stones,
The whole encircling wall of gems"

The question is the translation of the word shimshotayich שמשותיך, offered by the JPS as "battlements". This seems to be the opinion of Rashi, quoting Midrash Tehilim, based on Tehilim 84:12. However, Radak, and Menachem as quoted by Rashi, say that shimsha שמשה here means "a solid, translucent piece, placed in the window, that lets the sun in". This is its meaning in modern Hebrew as well - "windowpane".

However, Greenfield writes that shimsha here means "gates" as well, which is parallel to shaar שער "gate", found in the second section of the verse.

I'll conclude with the observations about sesame by comedian Mitch Hedberg. (Warning: Contains mild language).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Treppenwitz has a hilarious post about the Israeli fear of being a freier (sucker, chump), and how he got even at the supermarket.

What is the origin of this slang term?

There are a few theories.

Rosenthal (entry פראייר) says it comes from the German freier, meaning "suitor, bachelor". He says that the word went from German to Yiddish, where it came to be viewed negatively, "a person lacking social and financial confidence", and eventually came to mean "a person easy to deceive, take advantage of."

A commenter on this Haaretz article explained the development this way:

As with much modern Hebrew slang, `freier` is derived from Yiddish where it originally meant a "suitor" (it`s still used that way in Alsatian Yiddish) but came to mean the "customer of a prostitute." and eventually just a `sucker`.

Others say that it derives from the German word freiherr - a title of nobility. The Wikipedia article for Fraier has the following explanation (the English entry was a too literal translation of the Hebrew one, so I've adjusted it for clarity):

It is possible that the word was chosen because of the prominent German tone of the word, in order to suggest the local stereotype that the Israeli Jews that originated from Germany were too [accepting] of authority, [sticking] to firm and formal rules [at the expense] of flexibility, [quick-wittedness] and improvisation.

Another theory, presented by a linguist friend of mine, says that:

It's from Russian criminal slang, from Yiddish. The Jewish mafias in Odessa called non-criminals freiers. It's Yiddish for "free-ones". From the Jewish gangs it made its way into general Russian culture. It's mentioned in The Gulag Archipelago, where it is noted that the criminals in the gulag called the political prisoners freiers. But I was told that it's use is much wider than that; i.e. not just for non-criminal prisoners, but for all non-criminal classes in society.
So we have three very different etymologies here. My personal wish? That Israelis would worry more about the origin of the word, and less about how to avoid being one...

Monday, October 08, 2007


We're in the shmitta (sabbatical) year, so let's talk about a word related to it. According to the Torah, all debts are canceled in the shmitta year. However, Hillel the Elder made an enactment that would allow loans to be collected. This would help both the rich (who would get their loans repaid) and the poor (who would be more likely to have money lent to them). The document publicizing this enactment is called a prosbul (or prozbul) - פרוזבול (also occasionally פרוסבול).

What is the origin of this word? There is a discussion about this in the gemara (Gittin 36b-37a):

מאי פרוסבול אמר רב חסדא פרוס בולי ובוטי בולי אלו עשירים דכתיב (ויקרא כו) ושברתי את גאון עוזכם ותני רב יוסף אלו בולאות שביהודה בוטי אלו העניים דכתיב (דברים טו) העבט תעביטנו אמר ליה רבא ללעוזא מאי פרוסבול א"ל פורסא דמילתא

"What is (the meaning of ) prosbul? R. Hisda says: Pros (an enactment of) buli and buti. Buli means the rich, as it is written, 'And I will break the pride of your power' (Vayikra 26:19). And R. Joseph explained: These are the bula'ot (city councils) in Judah. Buti means the poor, as it is written, 'You shalt surely lend him sufficient [ha'avet העבט is similar to buti בוטי] ' (Devarim 15:8). Raba asked a certain foreigner [who spoke Greek, Soncino suggests "linguist"] 'What is the meaning of prosbul?' He replied: 'The pursa (enactment) of the matter.'"

So we see here that while the Rabbis felt it was important to learn moral lessons by drashot that found Hebrew words in foreign terms, they also knew when to ask foreign linguists what the words actually meant.

Even now, we don't know exactly what prosbul meant in Greek. Klein writes:

Probably shortened from pros boule bouleuton ( = before the assembly of the councilors), from pros (= toward, to, against, before, in presence of), dative of boule (= counsel, deliberation, assembly) and general plural of bouleutes (= councilor), from bouleuein ( = to take counsel), from boule.
The boule mentioned here is the same as in the gemara (although clearly the overall etymology is different.) The lower house of the modern Greek legislature is known as the Boule.

Steinsaltz (and others) also offer the Greek word prosbole, meaning the delivery, transfer in a sale.