Thursday, February 26, 2009

ma pitom

The Hebrew slang phrase ma pitom מה פתאום is used to express surprise or incredulity:

מה פתאום אתה נוסע ליפן? - Mah pitom atah noseyah l'yapan - "Why in the world are you going to Japan!?"

A: Are you worried about traveling to Turkey?
B: Mah pitom! (Don't be silly!)

A: "You just stepped on my foot!"
B: Mah pitom! (No way!)
The proper response in this case is ken nachon כן נכון - "Yes you did!"
(Steg points out that this is the type of dialogue between God, Avraham and Sarah in Bereshit 18:10-15.)

What does this phrase mean? Literally, ma means "what", and pitom means "suddenly". However, "what suddenly" doesn't make much sense (in English or in Hebrew), so we need to find the origin of the phrase. Rosenthal writes that it is a loan translation (calque) from the Yiddish vos plutsem וואס פלוצעם and the Russian chego vdrug. I asked some Russian speaking friends about chego vdrug, and they told me that:

The best way to translate this phrase is probably "why all of a sudden" or "why now"
chego in this case is why
vdrug: at this moment, suddenly
So an original meaning of "Why suddenly" makes more sense. As far as the Yiddish, vos means "what" and plutsem is "suddenly". (It comes from the German plötzlich, meaning "sudden, abrupt" which derives from platzen, "burst". This is the source of the Yiddish word plotz - "to burst, explode - from strong emotion.) However, the meaning is clearly, "why suddenly". Professor Nissan Netzer (author of the book "Hebrew in Jeans - The Image of Hebrew Slang", which I'm currently enjoying) has confirmed to me that a better adaption into Hebrew would have been "lama pitom" למה פתאום.

Both English and Hebrew have many Yiddish calques. Many expressions in English, such as "get lost" or "enough already" are borrowed from Yiddish, and perhaps aren't recognizable as such today. Hebrew is even more influenced by Yiddish - Netzer fills pages 212-230 of his book with loan translations from Yiddish to Hebrew.

Clearly, "what" and "why" are closely related. "What for" means "why". After thinking about it for a bit, I think I found an English loan translation from Yiddish where they replaced "why" with "what" - Alfred E Newman's famous catch phrase in Mad Magazine - "What, me worry?" The creators of Mad Magazine were very much influenced by Yiddish, and I'm guessing that phrase really means "Why should I worry?".

It turns out that the founder of Mad Magazine, Harvey Kurtzman, went to Camp Nitgedayget - "Don't Worry" in Yiddish. In the book Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity through Satire, Joel Schechter writes :

Mad's motto, "What me worry? I read Mad," transformed the Yiddish summer camp's name into a formula for nationwide comic relief from pressures to conform during the 1950s. Paul Buhle reports that Kurtzman attended Camp Nitgedayget in the thirties; perhaps this Mad man's satire of consumer culture and American icons was influenced by his summer days at Camp Don't Worry - certainly by the name of the camp.
And if we look at one of Kurtzman's early Mad covers, perhaps he knew the phrase vos plutsem as well...

Friday, February 20, 2009


After discussing shaked and botnim, I thought it made sense to talk about the other biblical nut - the egoz אגוז. Like botnim, it only appears once in the Tanach, in Shir HaShirim 6:11 -

אֶל-גִּנַּת אֱגוֹז יָרַדְתִּי

This is generally translated as "I went down to the nut grove" but occasionally as "I went down to the walnut grove". And indeed, egoz can mean either "nut", or the more specific "walnut".

Like some of the other words we've looked at in Shir HaShirim, it is apparently of foreign origin. Klein writes:

Compare Aramaic אגוזא, אמגוזא, Arabic jauz, Ethiopian gauz. These words are probably borrowed from Persian gauz.
Even-Shoshan also adds the Armenian engoiz. There is also apparently a Ugaritic word 'rgz, which some scholars think may be related. This would make a Persian origin less likely.

In order to distinguish the walnut from other egozim (nuts), Modern Hebrew has two specific terms: egoz hamelech אגוז המלך - "the king's nut". This term has ancient origins - the Greeks called the walnut "basilicon", meaning "royal nut" (basileus meaning "king"); the species name is the Latin Juglans regia, of the same meaning.

It is also popularly called egoz moach אגוז מוח - "brain nut", due to the similarity between a walnut:

And the hemispheres of a brain:

(I don't think it has anything to do with the quote I've heard since I was a kid about the dinosaur Stegosaurus having a brain the size of a walnut.)

Other nuts also have egoz in their name:

  • coconut - אגוז הודו egoz hodu ("Indian nut"), אגוז קוקוס egoz kokus
  • pecan - אגוז פיקן egoz pecan
  • pine nut - אגוז צנובר egoz tsnobar
  • nux vomica - אגוז הקיא egoz haki
  • hazelnut - אגוז לוז egoz luz, אגוז אלסר egoz ilsar
  • brazil nut - אגוז ברזיל egoz brazil
I've seen that people mistakenly think that just egoz means "hazelnut" instead of "walnut". I have a feeling that this comes from the Israeli candy Egozi - a chocolate bar with a hazelnut filling.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Previously, we discussed shaked שקד - almond. While shaked appears in a number of verses, a different nut - botnim בוטנים -shows up only once, in Bereshit 43:11 -

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲבִיהֶם, אִם-כֵּן אֵפוֹא זֹאת עֲשׂוּ--קְחוּ מִזִּמְרַת הָאָרֶץ בִּכְלֵיכֶם, וְהוֹרִידוּ לָאִישׁ מִנְחָה: מְעַט צֳרִי, וּמְעַט דְּבַשׁ, נְכֹאת וָלֹט, בָּטְנִים וּשְׁקֵדִים.

Now for those of us familiar with modern Hebrew, we know botnim as peanuts. However, the English translation tells us a different story (I'm using the JPS, but all the English translations agree on this point):

Then their father Israel said to them, "If it must be so, do this: take some of the choice products of the land in your baggage, and carry them down as a gift for the man - some balm and some honey, gum, ladanum, pistachio nuts [botnim] and almonds.
So how did we get from pistachio nuts to peanuts? I found the answer in Yitzhak Avineri's book Yad Halashon (page 73). He points out that the word pistak appears in the Talmud (e.g. Gittin 59a, Yerushalmi Kilaim 27a) - either as פיסתק or פיסטק. This word was borrowed from the Greek, which also gives us the English word pistachio:

from It. pistacchio, from L. pistacium "pistachio nut," from Gk. pistakion, from pistake "pistachio tree," from Pers. pista "pistachio tree."
The pistachio is a nut that has been cultivated in the Middle East since ancient times; however, the peanut is native to South America. When it was brought back to Europe, each country gave the peanut a name in its own language. The Germans call the peanut erdnuss - literally "earth nut". And following this pattern, there are those that call the peanut egoz adama אגוז אדמה - "earth nut".

However, the French call the peanut pistache de terre - "earth pistachio". (They also call it cacahuète, arachide, and pois de terre. Not sure why they have so many names.) Following the French name, Hebrew originally had botnei adama בטני אדמה - "earth pistachio". However, pistachios were already being called fistuk פיסטוק - so the "adama" was dropped, and peanuts were just botnim. Avineri says this is also due to the fact that peanuts were much prevalent in Israel than pistachios (he wrote this piece in 1955; I'm not sure that's still true today.) He suggests the retronym botnei etz בטני עץ for pistachios, but is comfortable with the more foreign term of fistuk.

One interesting question is, what is the singular of botnim? I think most Israelis would say boten בוטן - like Ben Yehuda records it. However, since the word only appears once in the Bible, in plural form, it's not so easy to say. Klein and Even Shoshan have botne בָּטְנֶה for the the pistachio nut and botna בָּטְנָה for the pistachio tree (so the tree appears in the Mishna - Sheviit 7:5). Ben Yehuda also mentions this approach, as well as one that says that botna is both the name of the nut and the name of the tree.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


As I've pointed out before, I'm a big fan of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis. Well, in today's comic he presents another great pun:

However, unlike some puns which only deal with homophones, the words "influenza" and "influence" are actually related:

1743, borrowed during an outbreak of the disease in Europe, from It. influenza "influenza, epidemic," originally "visitation, influence (of the stars)," from M.L. influentia (see influence). Used in It. for diseases since at least 1504 (cf. influenza di febbre scarlattina "scarlet fever") on notion of astral or occult influence. The 1743 outbreak began in Italy. Often applied since mid-19c. to severe colds.
The Hebrew word for influenza, shapaat שפעת has a similar origin. From Klein:

Formed, under the influence of Italian influenca, from השפיע (= he influenced) according to the pattern פעלת, serving to form names of diseases ... The disease was called influenca because it was originally attributed to the influence of the stars.
The פעלת pattern that Klein mentions is described in this article (see here for original Hebrew) by Dalia Marx:

In the course of discussing various afflictions and the methods of their purification, parashat Tazria lists a number of diseases and bodily conditions: baheret ["white discoloration"] (13:4), tzarevet ["scar"] (13:23), sapahat ["swelling"](13:2), tzara'at ["leprosy"], karahat ["baldness of the top of the head"] (13:42), gabahat ["baldness of the sides of the head"] (13:42). These terms all share a common grammatical form: although some of the words vary from it slightly due to the presence of a guttural stop.

When spoken Hebrew awoke to life in the end of the nineteenth century it needed new words to describe new diseases. Rabbi Aharon Meir MaZIA, an ophthalmologist and aboriculturalist who chaired the Language Committee (which eventually became the Academy for the Hebrew Language) from 1926 until his death in 1930, composed a lexicon of medical and scientific terms.

In order to invent names for diseases that were never mentioned in classical Hebrew sources, MaZIA and others following him used the biblical form for disease names - , a form exemplified repeatedly in our parashiyot - in combination with new roots. For instance; rubella, a disease that causes redness of the skin, is called ademet [adom = red]. Hepatitis, which causes the eyes to acquire a yellow hue (we will come soon to Hebrew's new color-terms), is called tzahevet [tzahov = yellow]. Edema, the pathological retention of fluids in the body, is called batzeket [batzek = swollen]. Rabies, a viral disease often found in dogs is called kalevet [kelev = dog]. One who coughs [mishta'el] may be suffering from sha'elet [pertusis]. The term influenza originates from reference to the occult influence [hashpa'a] of the stars, and so it is called shapa'at. Many suffer tiredness [ayeifut] from jet-lag, or ya'efet, one of the more recent words to be invented by the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

Sometimes it took a while for a word to really enter the language; some never make it at all. For example, Eliezer Ben Yehudah, the greatest reviver of Hebrew, wished to call tuberculosis (a disease from which he personally suffered) genihat hadam ["groaning of the blood"], but the term shahefet - which follows the standard form for disease-names and is of biblical origin - ended up taking its place.

The vitality of Hebrew is evidenced by the way names for social ills are invented in accordance with the schema mentioned above. For instance: sahevet [taking too much time to execute an action, from sahev = to drag or carry with effort] and sagemet [megalomania of young officers, from sagam = second lieutenant]. Many public speakers are chronic suffers of daberet [loquaciousness, from dibbur = speech], or worse yet, barberet [speaking nonsense, from levarber = to babble].

Neither Klein nor Marx say exactly when shapaat entered modern Hebrew. In Ben Yehuda's dictionary, it says that the word is "found in literature and speech." He doesn't indicate that he coined it - and I've seen that description used for other modern words that I know he didn't coin.

I wrote to the Hebrew Language Academy asking if they knew when the word was first used. They pointed me to the following entry in Ben Yehuda's newspaper Hatzvi, from July 21, 1893.

He describes the outbreak of a disease called אינפלואינצה - influenza, which he later calls shapaat. In a footnote there, he notes that shapaat is "the Hebrew name, according to the naming pattern for diseases, for influenza, according to the meaning of that word." In the following issue, he mentions shapaat three times - each followed by influenza in parentheses.

What's strange for me here, is that most European languages weren't calling the disease influenza. As you can see here, in Russian, French and German (among others), it was called "grippe". Only in English and Italian was it called influenza - neither of which I'm guessing were well known by the Jews living in Palestine in 1893. So it doesn't seem likely that the average person called the disease "influenza" and therefore the name shapaat came somewhat naturally.

What's also strange about the word, is while it does seem to follow the pattern as the other diseases above, it's a much less understandable one. Ademet, tzahevet, kalevet - the connection between the condition and the name was very clear. But I doubt most non-linguists knew the centuries old etymology of influenza and therefore figured shapaat was a good name for the disease. Couldn't some aspect of the disease - which Ben Yehuda describes at length in the first article - been used to come up with a Hebrew term?

It's possible that the word didn't have the astronomical connotations, as discussed in Words of a Feather:

Originally, the word [influence] was used astrologically to describe power that flowed from the stars and controlled a person's destiny. In the centuries that followed, influence came to refer to the effect of nonastronomical forces such as alcohol ("under the influence") and germs (influenza, later clipped to flu) and especially financial power.
But it still seems like a strange choice. Maybe I'm missing something. Perhaps this was one of those stories lost to history, and there was a good reason for the name. If anyone knows more, please let me know...

One unusual etymology mentioned here (and rejected) is:

Influenza ... is a corruption of the Arabic word anfalanza. Anf in Arabic means nose and Al-anza means the goat. A coughing, drooling, nose-dripping goat is said to have anfalanza...
(This is actually a good example of the dropped nuns in Hebrew. Arabic has anf - Hebrew has אף af. Arabic has anza and Hebrew has עז ez.)

Maybe Pastis was hinting to this theory when he had Pig speak specifically to Goat (and notice his nose)...

Sunday, February 08, 2009


Today is Tu B'Shvat, and while it is the new year for all of the trees, it is very much associated with the almond tree. This is the time that the almond trees blossom, and therefore they star in Tu B'Shvat songs, including perhaps the most famous, Hashkediya Porachat.

The Hebrew Language Academy put out a page today discussing a number of Tu B'Shvat words. They mention that Levin Kipnis, the well known writer of children's literature, probably coined the word shkediya שקדיה in 1919. (I'm assuming they're referring to this song by Kipnis). They point out that originally, the word for the almond tree was shaked שקד - but the new word shkediya allowed a distinction between an almond (shaked) and an almond tree.

Hebrew also has a verb שקד - meaning "to work diligently, to labor, to strive". Is there a connection between the verb and the almond tree? Many sources make a connection. Klein, for example, points out that the original meaning of the verb was "to watch, wake", and the almond tree is "so called because it is the tree which flourishes ( = awakens) first."

Much earlier, this opinion was given by Rashi on Yirmiyahu 1:11-12 (and Rashi was likely influenced by midrashim such as Yerushalmi Taanit 4:5). The verse there has a play on words:

וַיְהִי דְבַר-ה' אֵלַי לֵאמֹר, מָה-אַתָּה רֹאֶה יִרְמְיָהוּ; וָאֹמַר, מַקֵּל שָׁקֵד אֲנִי רֹאֶה. יב וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֵלַי, הֵיטַבְתָּ לִרְאוֹת: כִּי-שֹׁקֵד אֲנִי עַל-דְּבָרִי, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.

The word of God came to me: "What do you see Yirmiyahu?" I replied, "I see a branch of an almond tree".

God said to me: "You have seen right, for I am watchful to bring my word to pass."

Rashi writes, "The almond tree hastens to blossom before all the other trees - so too will I hasten to perform my word."

So after the winter, the blossoming of the almond tree on Tu B'Shvat symbolizes the coming spring (and two months until Pesach). George Bush writes here about how this makes the almond tree a powerful symbol:

The mention of the almond-tree is not of infrequent occurrence in the Scriptures, and it would seem, from its peculiar physical properties, to be well adapted to stand among moral emblems as symbolical of that spiritual prosperity, thrift, vigor and early productiveness, which we naturally associate with our ideals of the operations of divine principles in the souls of the righteous.
However, not everyone agreed with the connection between the verb שקד and shaked as "almond tree". For example Ben Yehuda (or maybe Tur-Sinai, not sure who wrote the footnote) writes that shaked (the tree) does not appear in other Semitic languages aside from Akkadian (shiqdu), which doesn't share the verb שקד. Therefore the Hebrew shaked, and the Aramaic שקדא (or שגדא) borrowed the word from Akkadian, who probably got it from some other language.

Kaddari actually has shaked (the tree) in Phoenician, and the verb שקד in Punic (both mentioned on page 318 of this book.) So maybe Ben-Yehuda's dictionary is dated. But even if it's not - should this be a sign of concern? Shouldn't we assume that if the verse in Yirmiyahu ties the two together, that's enough?

We discussed this issue at length in the post on "ish and isha". The lesson there was that puns in the Bible do not need to indicate an etymological connection - and in fact can be more powerful when they don't. And in fact, the Rambam discusses the verse in Yirmiyahu in his section on prophetic allegory (Guide to the Perplexed, 2:43) -

Compare makkal shaked, "almond staff", of Jeremiah (i. 11-12). It was intended to indicate by the second meaning of shaked the prophecy, "For I will watch" (shoked), etc. which has no relation whatever to the staff or to almonds.
So whether or not there's an etymological connection, Yirmiyahu's audience got the message - God's punishment will be coming soon, like the blossoming of an almond tree.

But since this is a holiday, let's end on a positive note:

The famed "Gaon of Rogatchov" (Rabbi Joseph Rozen, 1858-1936) writes that inherent in G-d's warning to Jeremiah was a consolation. Almonds start off bitter and become sweet as they develop (in contrast to another kind of nut called luz that starts off sweet and becomes bitter). This is why the 21 days of Bein HaMetzarim are alluded to by the 21-day "staff of almond-wood": not only are we able to negate the bitterness of these days, but we are capable of turning their bitterness to sweetness, of transforming these days of mourning into days of rejoicing and gladness."

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


Today was Groundhog Day in America, and what better day for me to come out of my burrow. I wasn't sure if there was a Hebrew word for groundhog, but it turns out there is: marmita מרמיטה or marmuta מרמוטה. Now the groundhog (also known as the woodchuck, land beaver or whistlepig) is from the genus Marmota (which also includes other varieties of marmots). It would seem that the Hebrew derives from the Latin. That wouldn't leave much to write about.

However, Klein writes something very strange. He provides the following etymology for marmota:

Of uncertain origin. It is certainly not borrowed from Latin mus ( = mouse) and mons ( = mountain), nor related to French marmotte ( = marmot).

The first etymology that Klein rejects is precisely that given for marmot in the Wikipedia article:

The name marmot comes from French marmotte, from Old French marmotan, marmontaine, from Old Franco-Provençal, from Low Latin mures montani "mountain mouse", from Latin mures monti, from Classical Latin mures alpini "Alps mouse".
It is true that other sources give a different etymology for marmot:

French marmotte, from Old French, perhaps from marmotter, to mumble, probably of imitative origin.

Whatever the origin of "marmot" - is it really possible that the Hebrew word marmuta, which means groundhog - a type of marmot - isn't related to the word marmot or marmotte?

But what's even stranger here, is that Klein doesn't actually give a definition for the word! Preceding the etymology, where he usually gives the definition, all he writes is:

in שנת מרמוטה 'deep sleep'
What does that mean? We know groundhogs hibernate, so if this is a metaphor, it doesn't seem to sever the connection between marmuta and marmot.

If we go to Even-Shoshan, we get a slightly better picture. He identifies the marmita as a marmot (specifically the Arctomys Marmota). He then goes on to say that the word marmuta appears in midrashim, as part of the phrase sh'nat marmuta שנת מרמוטה or tardemat marmuta תרדמת מרמוטה. This literally means "sleep of marmuta", and it is the phrase that Klein mentioned earlier.

However, the word actually appears only once in the midrashim, in Bereshit Rabba 17:5 -

רב אמר: שלש תרדמות הן תרדמת שינה ותרדמת נבואה ותרדמת מרמיטה

There are three types of slumber (tardeima) - the slumber of sleep, the slumber of prophecy and the slumber of marmita.

Clearly, the sleep of marmita is the deepest type of sleep. But what does marmita mean? The various commentators on the midrash offer a number of suggestions. Jastrow says it is a corruption of the word מדממה and means "trance". Some say it is related to the Latin dormito - "to be sleeping" (as in "dormant"). The Arukh says it means like stone, like marble, as in the Latin marmor and Greek marmaros (from which "marble" derives). And some commentators make mention of an animal that hibernates.

While it is possible that more current research could identify the meaning of marmita in the midrash, it seems to me that we have a word that appears once and only once. And just like those hapax legomenons in Biblical Hebrew, we might be left guessing as to the original definition.

But whether it happened earlier or later, I think the association of marmita with marmot is a natural one - both in terms of the sound of the word, and the deep sleep.