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!

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