Sunday, January 01, 2012


In our discussion of dalak דלק - "burn", I didn't mention one derivative - madlek מדלק. That's because you've probably never heard of it. It was Ben Yehuda's attempt to come up with a Hebrew term for "match" - as in a match used to start a fire. In his dictionary Ben Yehuda writes that the word is "used in Hebrew speech in the Land of Israel, and has already been used in newspapers and books."

I first found the word mentioned in this article in his newspaper, HaZvi, in 1897, as well as in this article in the newspaper HaMeliz by Dr. HaEtzioni1. Neither article explains what the word means, so it must have been in use for some time beforehand. In the same article, before using "madlek", HaEtzioni also writes "tzita" ציתה. This was the term suggested for "match" by Rabbi Zeev Yaabetz (1847-1924), based on the root צתת - "to kindle" (a related root is יצת). Another form found is tzitit צתית. (Klausner claims that this is based on Shabbat 119a - רבי זירא מצתת צתותי - Rabbi Zeira would "metzatat tzitutei" - light small sticks of wood.")

And these aren't the only suggested Hebrew translations for match following the development of the modern match in the 19th century (see the Wikipedia article for an interesting history of the match). The earliest ones were two word phrases, mentioning both the wood and the sulfur coating, such as etz-gofrit עץ-גפרית ("sulfur wood") or kesam megupar קיסם מגופר ("sulfur stick") - both used by Mendele Mocher Sforim in his early works -the latter in 1872. (Gofrit  גופרית - "sulfur" is found in Bereshit 19:24, and is cognate with the Akkadian kubritu, and Klein says that it is "probably a loan word from some non-semitic language." It is not related to gofer גופר - the wood used to make Noah's Ark in Bereshit 6:14, although Yaakov Etzion discusses a midrashic connection in his comprehensive article here.)

However, one of the changes from Hebrew of the Haskala to modern Hebrew was the replacement of two word phrases with single word ones (Reuven Sivan lists 57 of them in his essay "חליפות ותמורות בלשון ימינו" in Leshonenu L'Am 31:9-10, 1980). Other one word suggestions (besides madlek and tzita) included madlik מדליק, mav'er מבער, and alit אלית (by Eliahu Sapir, based on the Talmudic phrase in Tamid 29a - מציתים את האליתא).

But the word that stuck was gafrur גפרור,  gofrit. Sivan claims the word was coined by Mendele, and used in his revised 1909 edition of his book HaEmek HaBacha. I found gafrur used (again, without explanation) in this 1905 article in the newspaper HaZman. It is not clear to me if Mendele used, and perhaps popularized a word coined by someone else, or if the article in HaZman was using a word Mendele had coined, but Sivan only noted the later revision of the earlier book as an example.

Klein suggests that gafrur was coined "under the semantic influence of Yiddish שוועבעלע (=match), derived from שוועבל (=sulphur), or of German Schwefelholzchen (= lucifer match) from Schwefel (=sulphur)." This similarity might have helped its popularity.

But it wasn't a smooth road to its adoption. In a 1925 essay (האנארכיה הלשונות - "Linguistic Anarchy"), Klausner writes that different families in Jerusalem use different words for "match".  Agnon made fun of the number of options in his 1941 story לבית אבא (L'Beit Abba - "To Father's House"), where he had a character intentionally use the term gafrir גפריר, even though that was not one of the terms suggested. But in the end, gafrur was - how shall we say? - a perfect match...

1. It appears that this is Dr. Yehuda Holzman HaEtzioni (mentioned here). He was likely related to Shmuel Holzman, who purchased the land for Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in the 1930s, and named it after himself as well ("holz" in German and "etz" עץ in Hebrew both mean "wood".)