Monday, March 23, 2015

nitzul, hatzala and hitnatzlut

In Israel's last election cycle, there was much mention of the word hitnatzel התנצל - to apologize. This is the hitpael form of the root נצל. In its other forms, the root has very different meanings. The piel form nitzel ניצל, means "to exploit" or "to utilize". And the hifil form, hitzil הציל, means "to rescue, save". Considering how loaded with emotions those words are, it's understandable the desire to make a connection. For example, in this blog post, Avidan Freedman writes:

And if the word for apologizing (lehitnatzel) wasn't a reflexive form of the word for ‘taking advantage of’ (lenatzel), implying that someone who apologizes is essentially taking advantage of himself, (thus transgressing the 1st commandment of Israeliness ‘Thou Shalt Not Be A Freyer”), perhaps “No More Apologizing” would be a less attractive slogan.

(For more on freier, see my post here). After challenging his initial assumption, he then later he takes a different view:

If this is so, then the root of apologizing is not a way to take advantage of ourselves, but a way to bring ourselves salvation.

This was a very nice drasha on the words, connecting all three meanings, but let's take a deeper look at the etymology.

All three verbs are connected, and originate in an earlier meaning, pervasive in the Tanach, but not found in modern Hebrew. The root נצל, originally meant "to take away, tear away, remove". We can see that meaning in Hoshea 2:11 וְהִצַּלְתִּי צַמְרִי וּפִשְׁתִּי - "I will snatch away My wool and My linen", or in Shemot 33:6 -  וַיִּתְנַצְּלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-עֶדְיָם  - "So the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments".

With that understanding, the hifil form - hatzala הצלה - "rescue", becomes easy to understand. When you rescue someone, you take them away, remove them from danger. So a lifeguard is a matzil מציל, and a survivor is a nitzol ניצול.

What about nitzul ניצול "exploitation" or "utilization"? The verb originally meant "to strip, to spoil" - in other words, to take something from someone else. We find this verb mentioned in regards to what the children of Israel did to Egypt (Shemot 3:22, 12:36) -  וַיְנַצְּלוּ אֶת-מִצְרָיִם - "they despoiled the Egyptians". Only in modern Hebrew did the word take on the more general sense of "exploit, take advantage of", and apparently the even less specific "utilize" came later, as it does not appear in Ben Yehuda's dictionary.

And now to hitnatzlut התנצלות - "apology". This too is a later development, first found in Medieval Hebrew. Klein says the verb first meant "he excused himself" and later "he apologized". Ben Yehuda (and later Even Shoshan), gives a slightly different explanation: "he made an effort to remove his guilt."

So we can see that the meanings of the word have changed significantly over time. So if you didn't know the original meaning before, no need to apologize. My pleasure to rescue you, and feel free to utilize my site in the future...

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