Friday, November 18, 2011


The word tag תג has some new popular usages: tag mechir תג מחיר - the "price tag" reprisal attacks carried out by extremists in Israel, and "tagging" photographs in Facebook - known in Hebrew as tiyug תיוג. A reader asked - is there a connection between the English word "tag" and the Hebrew one?

The answer is "well, maybe, maybe not".

Let's look first at the Hebrew word tag. Meaning "crown", it is first found in Talmudic Hebrew (also used for the "crowns" on tops of Hebrew letters) - and is borrowed from the Aramaic תגא taga. Taga is related to the Arabic taj, and both were borrowed from the Persian word taj of the same meaning (as appears in the famous Indian building Taj Mahal - the "crown of palaces"). Klein writes that the Persian word comes from the Indo-European base *steg meaning "to encircle, crown". In Greek this root gives us the word stephein (to surround, encircle, wreath), which is the origin of the name Stephen (meaning crown).

The English word "tag" has an entirely different origin. The Online Etymology Dictionary has the following entry:

"small hanging piece," c.1400, perhaps from a Scandinavian source (cf. Norw. tagg "point, prong," Swed. tagg "prickle, thorn") cognate with tack. Meaning "label" is first recorded 1835; sense of "automobile license plate" is recorded from 1935, originally underworld slang. Meaning "an epithet, popular designation" is recorded from 1961, hence slang verb meaning "to write graffiti in public places" (1990). The verb meaning "to furnish with a tag" is from mid-15c. To tag along is first recorded 1900.
So no connection between the two terms. So why was I hesitant earlier?

Because today in addition to the meaning crown, the Hebrew tag also has the same meaning in the word in English - "badge, label". (There is also the related word mutag מותג meaning "trademark, brand"). To me it seems crystal clear that this sense of the word is borrowed from the English. However both Klein and Even Shoshan, while providing the definition "badge" only mention the "taga" etymology. Stahl (in his Arabic/Hebrew etymological dictionary) goes so far as to say that the Hebrew tag used for labels on merchandise and army uniforms comes from the meaning "little crowns". (Mordechai Rosen his new book Sipurei Milim also has a full entry on tag and mutag with no mention of the English word "tag").

So if all these experts are correct, then there is no connection between any of the meanings of tag in Hebrew and "tag" in English. But I'm rather doubtful. Do any you have more information? Tag - you're it!

Friday, November 04, 2011


In our discussion of the word shelet שלט, we said that Targum Yonatan on Divrei Hayamim translated שלטים as "shields". The word used in his translation is תריסין - terisin, or in the singular, tris תריס.

Klein writes that tris as shield comes from the Greek thyreos, meaning shield, which in turn derives from the Greek thyra - "door". (Going back to the Indo-European root, Klein shows that thyra is cognate with the English word "door" as well.) However, the connection between thyreos and thyra is strange to me. He writes that thyreos is a "stone put against the door". I don't see how that means shield.

I have an easier time understanding the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary for "thyroid", which also derives from thyreos:

1690s (in ref. to both the cartilage and the gland), from Gk. thyreoiedes "shield-shaped" (in khondros thyreoiedes "shield-shaped cartilage," used by Galen to describe the "Adam's apple" in the throat), from thyreos "oblong, door-shaped shield" (from thyra "door") + -eides "form, shape." The noun, short for thyroid gland, is recorded from 1849.
The Hebrew word for thyroid reflects this origin as well - בלוטת התריס balutat hatris.

Another meaning of tris - and unlike shield, this one is still used in modern Hebrew - is "shutter, blind". Here Klein points out that it comes from the Greek thyris - "window", which in turn also derive from thyra - "door".

We also have a verb that derives from tris - התריס - "to contradict, oppose". Klein is not clear about which sense - shield or shutter - led to this verb. First he has an entry for התריס meaning "he shielded, protected", and then figuratively meaning "he protested against, contradicted, debated." His second entry for התריס is defined as "to contradict, oppose", but the etymology is given as "denominated from תריס (=shutter)".

In his dictionary, Even Shoshan agrees with the former, and says it derives from shield, but doesn't explain why. He does, however, say that the great debaters known as baalei terisin בעלי תריסין (mentioned in Berachot 27b), knew how to argue in the "wars of Torah". (According to Rashi; the Aruch says they were literally soldiers). So perhaps this military imagery - Jastrow calls them the "shield bearers" - led to the connection between tris as shield and hitris התריס as "to contradict, oppose".

Yaakov Etsion in this article suggests that perhaps the development went like this: these were people who were willing to shield and defend themselves, and not give in to others. From here the concept progressed to those who took the offensive, and contradicted others when necessary.

Perhaps therefore this is an early version of the adage "The best defense is a good offense". But as comedian Norm Macdonald noted, "The second best defense is a good defense"...