Thursday, January 20, 2011


In honor of Tu B'Shvat, the Academy of the Hebrew Language posted a page about the Hebrew word for fruit: פרי - p'ri ( I prefer this spelling over pri, since it emphasizes the vocalized shva.  We also find a few instances of peri - with a segol - in Biblical Hebrew.)

They point out that in the Tanach, p'ri only appears as a collective noun (שם קיבוצי). This means that while it is in the singular form, it can refer to a group of more than one of the object. (See this page from Safa Ivrit, which gives many other examples of Biblical collective nouns. The question of whether a particular noun is a singular or a collective noun causes much debate among the commentators.) So the Biblical p'ri can either refer to an individual fruit or "fruit, produce" as a whole.

In Rabbinic Hebrew we first find the plural perot פירות. They quote the Mishna (Berachot 6:1) as showing the mix of the two forms:

על פֵּרות האילן הוא אומר: בורא פרי העץ.
On fruits (perot) of the tree (ilan), he blesses "borei p'ri ha'etz"

Although the rabbis spoke post-Biblical Hebrew, they generally used the Biblical forms of the word for the blessings. So here we have p'ri as the plural, as well as etz instead of ilan for "tree".

The Academy also writes that p'ri is related to the verb פרה, meaning "to be fruitful". This is better than Klein who writes that p'ri comes from פרה. For as Tur Sinai writes in his footnote to פרה, the verb actually derives from the noun, since the noun has many cognates in Semitic languages, where the verb does not.

Reader Shaul wrote to me:

What is the etymology of peri? Is it at all related to English "fruit," which ultimately derives from Latin "fructus" and Proto-Indo-European before that? 

The two words do not seem to be related. As the Online Etymology Dictionary (and others) point out, the Proto-Indo-European root is *bhrug, meaning "to enjoy", which is distant from p'ri meaning "fruit".

However, there are other possible candidates for related English words. For example, in the comments on our post about tapuach תפוח, we discuss the possibility of the Latin pirum (the origin of the English word "pear"), being related to p'ri (it is also discussed in this old book). Other English words possibly connected (although with plenty of theories to the contrary) include "berry", "bear" (as in bear fruit), and "fertile" (both from the PIE root *bher, which we've shown may be related to the Hebrew words apiryon אפריון and parnasa פרנסה.) See also this article, which tries to explain how many of these roots are connected, and also adds in the Hebrew יבול yevul, meaning "produce". But this is all just speculation. And as it's Tu B'Shvat - let's focus on the fruits of the Land of Israel!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Khartoum and hartumim

Reader Zvi writes:

With the impending partition of Sudan in the news lately, it would be interesting if you could address the multiple uses of the Hebrew word


In Exodus 7:11 and 7:22, it's the word used for the Egyptian magicians.

In modern Hebrew, it's used for the prow of a ship, an elephant's trunk, and a rocket nose cone

And it's also the name of the capital city of Sudan.

What, if anything, is the relationship between these?

Good question - I've been meaning to write about this for a while.

First of all, chartom חרטום meaning "beak, nose, trunk", as well as the borrowed meanings you mentioned, is, as Klein writes, "enlarged" from the Hebrew chotam חוטם, meaning "nose, snout".  (I discussed earlier the background to the more popular word for nose, af אף.)

The name of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, is certainly related, as described in Placenames of the World:

Founded in 1821 as an Egyptian army camp, the city has an Arabic name, from al-khurtum, a short form of ras al-khurtum, "end of an elephant's trunk," from ra's, "head," "end," al, "the," and khurtum, "trunk." The reference is to the narrow stretch of land here between the White Nile and Blue Nile.
But what about the hartumim חרטמים of Egypt? There are a number of theories. Ben Yehuda, in the footnote to his dictionary entry, writes that the etymology is unclear. He says that some derive from the root חרט, to engrave. Those that follow this theory claim it refers to their ability to write the hieroglyphics. He then quotes a theory that the word is related to chotam, "nose", because it was the practice of these sorcerers to speak through their nose. In the end, however, he says it is likely a word borrowed from Egyptian, even though no such word has been found yet. (Interestingly, Ibn Ezra in his commentary on Bereshit 41:8, says perhaps the word is from Aramaic or Egyptian. However, I'm not sure what form of Egyptian Ibn Ezra is referring to.)

I'm not sure when this footnote was written (although I believe most of the footnotes were written by Tur-Sinai, not Ben-Yehuda, so it could have been well after the latter's death in 1922). Driver makes the same comment in his 1900 commentary on the Book of Daniel - perhaps that influenced the dictionary footnote.

In any case, at some point since that was written, there have been such Egyptian inscriptions discovered, for we now find quotes such as in On the Reliability of the Old Testament:

The term for Pharoah's scholars or sages is hartummim, which goes back to the Egyptian term hery-tep, best translated "expert" and often found in the combination  kheri-hab hery-tep, which means "lector-priest and expert" and not simply "chief lector-priest" as was formerly thought
(A challenge to this theory is discussed in footnote 25 in this book.)

So while the hartumim and Khartoum both have Egyptian origins, it appears they are not connected. Now we need to see whether Sudan itself will stay connected...

Monday, January 10, 2011

segen and samal

In our post discussing sochen סוכן - "agent" - I wrote that it "is connected to segan סגן - in Biblical Hebrew a government prefect, and later in Rabbinic Hebrew a deputy." While segan as "deputy" (or "vice", as in "Vice President" - סגן נשיא) is still used in Modern Hebrew, it was adapted for army use as segen meaning "lieutenant." This is an appropriate translation, as lieutenant originally meant "one who takes the place of another."

Klausner (Ivrit Hachadasha U'Bayoteha, p. 191) thought that segen was the original pronunciation, not segan. Avineri (Yad Halashon, pgs. 403, 480) disagrees, writing that segen only appeared in piyutim, but segan was the prominent usage. He says that segen was adopted in the army either a) due to similarity to seren (see below), or b) to show that this was not specifically the position of a deputy, which segan indicated.

Another word created for the Israeli army was samal סמל - "sergeant".  However, the word was originally an acronym (including segen), as Klein writes:

Originally spelled סמ"ל and formed from the initials of the words סגן מחוץ למניין, corresponding to N.C.O. (= Non-Commissioned Officer); later the word סמל samal was regarded as a derivative of סמל semel.
The word semel here refers to the Biblical word (Devarim 4:16, Yechezkel 8:3,5, Divrei HaYamim II 33:7,15) meaning "image, likeness", and in modern Hebrew "symbol". Kutscher writes that this mistaken derivation was due to an assumption that samal was inspired by the rank "ensign", which derives from a French word meaning "symbol". However, Kutscher finds that the earliest usage was indeed the acronym, and points out that if we have such a hard time figuring out the etymology of words that were coined in our generation, we should be cautious about guessing the etymology of words that were first used thousands of years ago.

From semel we get the adjective simli סמלי - "symbolic" and the verb סמל - "to symbolize". However, neither the English words symbol nor similar are related to semel (they both have Indo-European origins, whereas semel is purely Semitic). However, it does appear to me that "symbol" has influenced the usage of semel in modern Hebrew.

Likewise, the word signon סגנון isn't related to segan. It was borrowed from the Greek signum meaning "sign", and originally meant "sign, ensign, banner", and later came to mean "style, form, way".

But just in case you think that no Hebrew army terms actually are related to Greek words - take a look at our old post on the word seren סרן - "captain". We see at least one theory that it is related to the Greek tyrannos...

Sunday, January 02, 2011


We previously discussed a number of words with the root סכן. One word that might seem missing in that discussion is sakin סכין - "knife". However, while this is how it is spelled in Rabbinic Hebrew, and the Aramaic cognate is סכינא, in Biblical Hebrew the word is spelled with a sin, not a samech - שכין. It appears only once, in Mishlei 23:2.

Klein points out that שכין derives from the base שכך, which he defines as "to be pointed, to transfix" (and is not related to the homographic root שכך meaning "to cover, lay over"). Two other unique Biblical words come from this root: sech שך - "thorn" (appears only in the plural, sikim שכים in Bamidbar 33:55), and suka שכה - "barb" (in Iyov 40:31). Also related is the post-Biblical sika סיכה - "pin, peg, brooch".

Chaim Rabin, in his article מילים זרות ("Foreign Words") in the Encyclopedia Mikrait, writes that sakin belongs to a group of words that entered Hebrew from Asian languages that were neither Semitic or Indo-European. He doesn't say where sakin came from, but points out that in the Lexicon of Hesychius, we find the Greek word συκινη meaning "sword". However, without any further information, and in light of the convincing etymology that Klein (and others) provide, I'm not so inclined to accept this theory.

Although the older dictionaries point out that sakin is a feminine noun, both Avineri (Yad Halashon, 420) and Sivan (Better Hebrew Usage, 232) point out that in Talmudic Hebrew we find that it appears both as masculine and feminine (and Avineri writes that Rashi and the Rambam use it in the masculine). Since the word "sounds" masculine, there is no reason to insist on it being feminine. However, Google still supports the dictionaries: 14,800 hits for "sakin gedola" סכין גדולה vs only 2,040 results for "sakin gadol" סכין גדול.