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...

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