Sunday, January 18, 2015

korat ruach and kor ruach

Reader Gershon asked me about the meaning and origin of the phrase korat ruach קורת רוח. I thought this would be one of those easy and shorter posts I told myself I'd start writing when I renewed Balashon. But it turned out there was much more to the phrase than I thought.

The meaning of korat ruach is fairly simple - satisfaction, tranquility, or even bliss. But there's another very similar phrase - kor ruach קור רוח, meaning levelheadedness, and is associated with an unflappable person, who acts with composure in difficult circumstances. Kor means cold and ruach means spirit - so how did essentially identical phrases end up with different meanings?

Let's look at kor ruach first. This origin of this phrase is easier to understand. Someone who doesn't get heated up - a nonchalant person - will be more likely to maintain their composition. While Even Shoshan only provides modern examples of the term (and no origin), the phrase actually appears in Mishlei 17:27

חוֹשֵׂךְ אֲמָרָיו יוֹדֵעַ דָּעַת    וקר- (יְקַר-) רוּחַ אִישׁ תְּבוּנָה

The JPS translation is: "A knowledgeable man is sparing with his words; A man of understanding is reticent." Koren translates the second half as "a man of understanding is slow to anger." The difference between the two is whether they translate according to the kri (יקר - yakar) or ktiv (קר - kar). Yakar - literally "precious" - is something sparingly used, so "reticent" is appropriate. The ktivkar, means "cold", so "cold of spirit" fits "slow to anger". Ben Yehuda, in his entry for kar, mentions the phrase kar ruach, points out that although the phrase originates in this verse, the kri is probably the preferable reading - as it also fits better with the first half of the verse.

Korat ruach is a different story. We find it first in Avot 4:17 (or 4:22 in other editions) in the expression - יפה שעה אחת של קורת רוח בעולם הבא, מכל חיי העולם הזה - "Better one hour of bliss (korat ruach) in the World to Come than the whole life of this world." Rega Shel Ivrit says that it might be influenced in form from the biblical phrase morat ruach מורת רוח - meaning bitterness (of spirit), as found in Bereshit 26:35. There is a phrase similar to korat ruach found in the Yerushalmi (Berachot 7:4) - קרת נפשנו - korat nafshenu (from korat nefesh קורת נפש).

How did these phrases come to mean pleasure or satisfaction? Ben Yehuda in his entry for קרה discusses korat ruach, mentions that there are parallel phrases in Syriac and Arabic, and sends us to his entry for the hitpael form of the root קרר. In that section, we find a number of phrases describing someone who was נתקרר דעתו nitkarer daato - meaning that the heat of their anger had passed, and therefore they were happy again.

So kor ruach describes a person whose passion is cool, and korat ruach describes a state where the anger has cooled. I think we see here a linguistic phenomenon which has its roots in geography. In the Middle East (where Hebrew originated), heat is associated with anger and uncontrolled passion, whereas cold is a more positive state of calm. On the other hand, in the European language of English, cold has the negative connotations of distant and unemotional, but "warm" expresses affection and enthusiasm. I think it's not unlikely that each language gave a positive association with the more rare temperature in their climate, and found the more frequent one to be annoying and negative.

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