Thursday, October 15, 2009


Today I heard on the news a word I wasn't too familiar with: kalgas קלגס. The dictionary definition is "soldier", but the connotation seems to always be a brutal, thuggish soldier. It certainly sounded like it was not of Semitic origin, and Klein confirms that:

soldier, warrior (mostly used in the plural קלגסים). [Latin caliga (= heavy military shoe), whence figurative 'military service'. Related to calx (=heel), calcar (=spur), calceus (=shoe).]

Klein, as well as most sources I checked, doesn't connect calx as "heel" to the Latin calx meaning "lime, pebble", which is the source of such words as calcium and calculation. However, this site suggests that perhaps

The Latin word for heel is calx, calcis. Here we must take another short digression, because the Latin word for lime is also calx. The Century tells us that the underlying Latin means "small stone," and perhaps that is the connection between "lime" and the "heel." Lime, or chalk, begins as a small stone that is eroded while the heel bone can appear, to the eye, as if stone-shaped. The Latin word for shoe is calceus, or something that goes over the heel.
In any case, caliga - the Roman sandals, secured with nails (which made quite a bit of noise) - were apparently frightening enough to give their name to the Roman soldiers in general (pictures here). For example, the Mishna (Sota 8:1) interprets part of the verse of Devarim 20:3 - "Let not your heart faint; fear not, nor be alarmed" - as saying not to fear the noise of the (enemy) troops - שפעת הקלגסין. The notorious Roman emperor Caligula also got his name from those shoes - his name mean "little (soldier's) boot", because as a child he accompanied his father, a general, in military campaigns.

You may have noticed that we don't have many words from the Talmudic period that derive from Latin; far more come from Greek. On the face of it, that seems strange: at the time of the Mishna and later, the Romans were in control of the Land of Israel, not the Greeks. However, Hellenistic culture continued to have significant impact even in the Roman empire, and Greek remained the literary language and lingua franca in the region. The Romans did not enforce their language on conquered areas, so it should not be such a surprise that Latin did not enter Talmudic Hebrew. In fact, a large portion of the words that did enter Hebrew, are related to the military - such as gardom גרדום - "gallows", ligyon לגיון - "legion", pigyon פגיון - "dagger", and of course, kalgas.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Sukkot was last week, and we just put away the last part of our sukkah. So it seems like a good time to finish one last sukkot related word.

During the holiday, we took a tour of the Herodion fortress. The guide told us to meet at the בודקה budke - the little cabin/shack/hut up the hill (the proper Hebrew word is beitan ביתן). I pointed out that maybe the word means "little booth" - since the (originally Russian) suffix "-ke" is used as a diminutive in Yiddish. He hadn't thought of that before, and liked the idea.

However, I was wrong.

While a few web sites propose an English origin of the term, almost all the sources I saw say the whole word entered Hebrew from Yiddish (where the spelling was בודקע). There is an issue for debate, however. Does the Yiddish come from the German bude (or bode) meaning "small house" - which is cognate with the English word "booth" (and according to some - but not all - "abode")? Or does it derive from the Russian будка budka with the same meaning?

Since most Central and Eastern European languages have some cognate to this root, I think it will probably be difficult to prove the origin one way or another. One thing I am a little more certain about is the preferred spelling. Both Even Shoshan and Rosenthal provide budke before butke בותקה - which is how I had previously assumed the word was spelled. However, since both Russian and German use "d" and not "t" - I think the spelling (and pronunciaton) budke is somewhat more authentic.

And now - I can finally file budke away!

Friday, October 09, 2009


On Hoshana Rabbah there is a custom to greet people with the Aramaic expression פתקא טבא pitka tava - for which the Hebrew equivalent is פתק טוב petek tov. In Modern Hebrew petek means note (or the piece of paper the note is written on), so the phrase would mean "good note". What does that mean?

Well, it turns out that the original meaning of petek wasn't "note", but "lot" or "ballot". Klein gives the following etymology:

from Greek pittakion (=tablet for writing on, label, ticket; votive tablet; list of members of an association), which is of uncertain, possibly Thracian origin
(Ben Yehuda points out that while petek is certainly of a Greek origin, there is also a Semitic root פתק meaning "to break, split", and this verb could have become associated with the Greek word, as the Hebrew word for "lot", goral גורל, also originally meant a "small (broken) stone".)

Arabic has a cognate term (also deriving from the Greek) - bitaqa, meaning "ticket". Latin also borrowed the Greek for their pittacium, meaning "label, plaster, patch", which gave us the English word petechia, meaning a skin eruption caused by a minor hemorrhage. The Spanish word pedazo, meaning "piece", also comes from the Latin.

As explained on this site, the Greek pittakion meant "an imperial administrative order in the form of a letter." This seems to be an appropriate understanding of the term for Hoshana Rabbah, as described here:

In the Talmud, Hoshana Rabbah is referred to as a day when everyone comes to the synagogue. Its special character was emphasized during the time of the geonim, who saw it as the day in which each human being receives from heaven a note on which his fate is registered. And so there are those who greet each other on this day with the Aramaic blessing a pitka tava, or in Yiddish gut kveitl.
Since this is a relatively late custom, it is possible that the Yiddish term preceded the Aramaic one. The Yiddish word kvittel is used to describe a written petition of a hasid to his rebbe, as well as the notes placed in the Western Wall. The Yiddish word derives from the German quittung - "receipt". Quittung is cognate to the English "quittance" - meaning

1. Release from a debt, an obligation, or a penalty.
2. A document or receipt certifying such release.
Quittance, in turn, is related to the words "quit", "acquit", "quite" and "quiet" - all reflecting a sense of "free (from war, debts), clear, calm, resting". Together, they sound like a great blessing for all my readers!