Friday, April 23, 2010

artzot habrit

The relationship between the United States and Israel is in the news often lately, so I thought I'd take a look at the Hebrew term for the United States - artzot habrit ארצות הברית, frequently abbreviated as ארה"ב. Where does the term come from?

Rubik Rosenthal writes here that at the time of the renewal of the Hebrew language, a number of terms were used to translate "United States", including some that seem to be a more precise translation: מדינות מאוחדות and ארצות מאוחדות - medinot me'uchadot and artzot me'uchadot (me'uchadot means "united"). He claims that the "freer translation" artzot habrit was coined by Mendele Mocher Sforim in chapter 17 of his 1868 novel "The Fathers and Sons" (האבות והבנים):

כי עברו איי אמריקה וראו, וארצות-הברית שלחו והתבוננו מאד
The sentence is a paraphrase of Yirmiyahu 2:10 (thanks ADDeRabbi!) so it would mean something like: 

Just cross over to the isles of America and look, and send to artzot habrit and observe carefully
However, as this article writes, Mendele wasn't the first to use the term:

The United States is called "Lands of the Covenant" (Artzot Habrit) in Hebrew.

It is commonly thought that this name was given in order to avoid confusion with the Hebrew name for the United Nations.

IMRA asked Israel Radio's "Moment of Hebrew" program for the source of the name.

They find that the term appears in Hebrew papers as early as 1857 - in the Hamagid L'Israel weekly.
I searched the archives of Hamagid, and found the 1857 quote, along with many more before Mendele's novel was published. I have a number of conclusions:

1) Since the paper was only founded in 1857, it doesn't seem likely that the author or editor of Hamagid was the one to coin the phrase, particularly because its first use doesn't have any explanation as to the meaning.

2) I have read in a few locations (such as this one) that there's significance to the use of the word brit ברית - and that therefore the phrase should be translated as "Lands of the Covenant." That seems to me to be a bit of a stretch. First of all, the word artzot ארצות is used frequently in Hamagid with the meaning of "countries" or "states". And brit is used as well -  for "treaty". In the second use of the phrase artzot habrit, there is a parenthetical comment (in Yiddish) explaining the phrase as meaning literally, "the United States". So I don't think it was trying to be a more "free" translation, or to be one more laced with meaning.

3) It turns out that in 1859, the phrase artzot habrit is mentioned in Hamagid to describe an entirely different entity - the German Confederation:

So perhaps Artzot Habrit Shel America wasn't even the first use of the phrase.

There's one remaining curiosity about the term. We often find headlines like this in the newspaper:
This literally means, "The United States voted." However, the word artzot is plural, whereas the verb for "voted" - הצביע - is singular! This trend started in the 1950s (Hamagid and Mendele both refer to Artzot HaBrit as a plural), and it seriously bothered linguist Yitzhak Avineri (Yad Halashon, pg. 55). He claims this is due to influence from English ("United States" is singular), and is foreign to the spirit of Hebrew. However, despite all his efforts to turn back the tide, it was to no avail; artsot habrit is singular. By 1969, only seven years after Avineri's last column on the subject, another prominent linguist, Reuven Sivan writes that using artzot habrit in the singular is perfectly legitimate. He brings an example from Yirmiyahu 48:41, where a place called Keriyot, which should technically be a plural, is considered one place and referred to in the singular: נִלְכְּדָה הַקְּרִיּוֹת.

Without getting into politics, it would be nice if the only disagreement Israel had today with the United States was whether it should be considered a singular or plural...

Friday, April 16, 2010


Tomatoes are so ubiquitous in Israeli cuisine that you might think that the Hebrew word for them, agvania עגבניה, is as old as the language itself. But the word is much more recent, and the story is actually so interesting that the linguist Reuven Sivan wrote a booklet about it in 1971 for the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

He begins by pointing out that the tomato was first brought to Europe from its native South America in the 16th century, but the Europeans didn't eat it at first. Some thought that it might contain poison like many of its relatives in the nightshade family, or that it had aphrodisiac effects like its cousin the mandrake. So it was primarily used for decorative purposes until the 19th century. The Italians were the first Europeans to eat it extensively, and from there it spread throughout Europe and the Middle East. Philologos discusses in more detail about how Eastern Europe received the tomato later, with the Jews maintaining a high degree of suspicion about them. In fact, they called them "treyf apples" - as if they weren't kosher at all (this concern reappeared in more recent times). Sivan says that one of the reason for this title was a concern that they contained actual blood. There was no taboo against tomatoes in Eretz Yisrael, and he provides a number of entertaining stories about individuals (including rabbis) who came to Israel in the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century and had serious concerns about eating tomatoes, but the locals convinced them they were fine. Some of them later came back to Europe and either had to eat their new favorite food privately or were castigated for eating it in public.

How the tomato was viewed affected its name as well. While the English word "tomato" comes from the Aztec name, the European names tended to describe the fruit. As Philologos writes:

One of the tomato’s effects was thought to be aphrodisiac; thus, already in the 16th century we find it referred to in English as a “love apple,” a term echoed by the now equally archaic German Liebesapfel and French pomme d’amour. But the first-known botanical description of the tomato, published in Latin in 1544 by the Italian Piero Andrea Mattioli, called it, because of its yellowish-red color, not a “love apple” but a “golden apple,” malum aureum. ... Malum aureum was then translated into Italian as pomo d’oro, which became pomme d’or in French and passed from French into Polish as pomedor.
An alternate theory (which Sivan rejects) is that the tomato was first known in Italian as a "Moor apple" - pomo dei Mori " (they were brought from Africa), and then became "pomi d'amore" - "love apple", and finally "pomodoro" - "golden apple."

Whatever the origin, the name pomodoro became bandora in Arabic, and from here Ben Yehuda suggested giving the name badura בדורה as the Hebrew version. However, this was one of the linguistic battles that Ben Yehuda did not win. A different name was coined in 1886 by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Pines, and promoted by his son-in-law Dr. David Yellin. Instead of using a word like badura which ultimately had a non-Semitic origin, they preferred a Hebrew word that reflected the European "love apple" - agbanit עגבנית, which later shows up as agbaniya, and now as agvania. The root עגב means "to love, desire", is the root of the Hebrew name for syphilis agevet עגבת, and according to Klein, perhaps ugav עוגב - "flute" as well:

Probably derived from base עגב, hence literally meaning 'instrument of love', and so called in allusion to its insinuating tunes. 

Ben Yehuda found this rather vulgar, and tried unsuccessfully  to prevent its use, as Robert St. John describes in Tongue of the Prophets:

Generally the Ben Yehuda "army" won its word battles, and most of the father's creations or discoveries were accepted, but some few words were so completely rejected that as years went by the only people who ever used them were the lexicographer himself and members of his own family. One such word was the one he introduced for "tomato." The common word already in use was agbanit, from a root which meant "to love sensuously." Ben Yehuda felt that a better word was needed, so he went back to colloquial Arabic and coined the word badurah.

After it had been announced in the paper, "the army" received its marching orders. Henceforth, if any Ben Yehuda went into a shop to purchase this vegetable, he was to ask for a badurah, and if the shopkeeper seemed perplexed, he was to be given a little lesson in modern Hebrew and was to be introduced formally to badurah.

Such tactics generally succeeded, but after many years of proselytizing, the only shoppers in Jerusalem who ever called a tomato a badurah were members of the Ben Yehuda family.

Sivan notes that other, less "explicit" names were suggested at the time: sumkaniya סומקנייה (from sumak סומק - "red"), ahavaniya אהבנייה (from ahav אהב - "love") or tama תמה (not sure about this one, perhaps from תם - "perfect" or תמה - "amazed".) In any case, none of these were adopted either.

Sivan mentions that the tomato doesn't actually have any aphrodisiac properties. However, the European sailors were likely lacking in vitamin C, so eating the healthy tomato may have returned some of their strength, leading to their mistaken conclusion. In any case, we do see that both the fruit, and its Hebrew name agvaniya proved to be so seductive that they both won out over strong opposing forces...

Thursday, April 08, 2010


The Hebrew word for "spice" is tavlin תבלין, with the plural tavlinim תבלינים. This usage goes back to Talmudic times (e.g. Shabbat 119a, Nedarim 51a). However, this appears to be the result of a mistake, for originally the singular form for spice was tevel תבל, and the Aramaic form tavlin was the plural (In the Ben Yehuda dictionary, Tur-Sinai writes that the original reading was like the Sefardi tevalin, but the Ashkenazim read the word as tavlin.) This is clear from such sources as Beitza 14a, where tavlin is used as a plural: תבלין נדוכין.

Klein provides the following etymology:

Related to תבלא ( = spice, seasoning), Arabic tabil ( = coriander; spice, condiment, seasoning), tabbala, taubala (he spiced, seasoned). These nouns probably denoted originally a certain plant (compare Syriac תבלא - 'tordylium, hartwort, meadow saxifrage'), whence, with sense enlargement, 'any plant used for seasoning', whence 'spice' in general.
The Arabic word is the source of the salad tabbouleh (or tabouli) - meaning "little spicy".

Joseph Lowin, however, suggests a different origin here:
probably derives from an older, primary root, ב-ל-ל (bet, lamed, lamed), meaning "to mix." When you add spices to food you are creating a savory mixture; alternatively, many spices added to foods are in fact mixtures of different spices.
Both agree that the word tevel תבל, meaning "world" is not related.

We also find the verb form to spice - תבל. Ruth Almagor-Ramon writes that although tavlin overcame tevel as the singular noun for "spice" (after serious debate among linguists in the last century - see Yad Halashon p. 608), there's no reason to adopt תבלן as the verb. Similarly, metubal מתובל and not metublan מתובלן should be used for "spiced".

Mistaking a plural for a singular is perhaps more common in Modern Hebrew, where many words are borrowed from English, which uses "s" to indicate a plural. However, in Hebrew, the sound "s" has no such significance, so the plural of "jeans" becomes "jeansim", "brakes" becomes "brakesim" and "chips" becomes "chipsim". Another example is the word burekas בורקאס, the popular puff pastry. Modern Hebrew borrowed it from the Turkish börek (perhaps via Ladino), and again made the plural form a singular one - so the plural in Hebrew is now bourekasim. This leads English speaking immigrants to refer to one pastry as a bureka - which certainly doesn't work in Hebrew. There might even be some Hebrew linguists who would prefer this form, but as Stahl writes, it's not terribly relevant - for who can eat only one?